The Saddest Music in the World
“I’ve been so lazy all my life. I used to literally lie on the couch, up until the age of 35, fearing that my bones were dissolving like sugar cubes, from disuse. So it feels good to finally stand on top of vanquished sloth, and actually impress some people as a hard worker.”
—Guy Maddin, in an interview with Noel Murray
“Imagination is the symbolic interpretation of the world.”
—Jean Pierre Lefebvre, in conversation with Peter Harcourt
The Saddest Music in the World, directed by Guy Maddin, and written by Maddin and George Toles based on an original screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro (author of An Artist of the Floating World, and The Remains of the Day), is more than one kind of moving picture: an experimental film; a musical comedy; a story of family troubles — an exploration of rivalry between father and son, and between brothers; an exploration of a woman’s crippling and the defiance and malice that has come out of it; a story about how a company calculatingly exploits human misery for money; a view of emblematic moments when people in the world seem to come together in both competition and community; a consideration of memory and forgetting — different ways of handling trauma; and the story of how one man’s confidence is defeated by circumstance, a lover’s rage, his own carelessness, and an old woman’s mocking prophecy. Guy Maddin, with cinematographer Luc Montpellier and production designer Matthew Davies, has made a new film that looks appealingly old — and its newness is not simply the fact that it was recently constructed but that its spirit is new: knowing (aware of motives base and pretentious, passionate and cunning; aware of different cultural forms around the world and the fundamental need of survival that unites all people); mocking (the crushing things from which people seem barely to survive render their hopes and pride poignant in one moment and ridiculous in another); and sympathetic (after all is said and done, whatever happens is simply another chapter in the story of humanity).
When The Saddest Music in the World was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival in September of 2003, Stacey Donen wrote on the festival’s web site that “the film is a visually rapturous, appallingly funny tour de force.” Upon the film’s opening in the United States at April’s end this year (2004), film reviewer A.O. Scott in The New York Times described the film as beguiling. David Sterritt in the April 30, 2004 edition of The Christian Science Monitor wrote that Maddin’s films are “deliberately artificial and persistently perverse – and therein lies their glory, assuming you can tune into his offbeat wavelength, which not everyone wants (or cares) to do.” The BBC’s reviewer days later, on May 4, 2004, called the film a “deliriously eccentric offering” on that institution’s web site. Cynthia Fuchs of PopMatters.com said of The Saddest Music in the World on May 13, 2004 that it was, “Exhilaratingly inventive, political, and insightful, it digs in deep and wide, paying homage to classic musicals, soaps, war movies, Blue Velvet, Metropolis, and Citizen Kane, among others.” Jonathan Rosenbaum (Essential Cinema) has designated the film a masterpiece, and in his Chicago Reader May 14, 2004 review wrote, “The grief expressed in the story is too keenly felt to be a target of derision; the facts may be cruel and monstrous, but the laughter provoked by them is almost always sympathetic and tender.”
The Saddest Music in the World focuses on a man in Canada (oh, Canada — Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 1933 during the Great Depression), the man is Chester Kent (Mark McKinney), who is cheerily ambitious, lusty, and greedy; he looks as if he does not naturally take anyone seriously, and at the beginning of the film, his lover, Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), who we later find out is his brother’s amnesiac wife, unknown to Chester, well, she has taken him to meet a fortune teller, a kind of witch, who gets him to put his hand on a block of ice as part of her divining. (I seem to recall her telling him to look into the ice, to look into his soul.) Chester is openly skeptical and seems to engage his lover in sexual petting while the old woman speaks. “You are a very sad man Mr. Kent,” the old woman says; and we see one of Chester’s memories — a family music performance in which the mother, a singer, suddenly collapses. (Chester comments that he did not cry at his mother’s funeral, a sign of his strength—or callowness.) “Look to your own miseries or you’re a dead man,” says the old woman — “see how much happiness your money can buy.” The woman laughs wildly, derisively. Why did his lover Narcissa bring him there? She claims as they walk oot and aboot (out and about) that she has a tapeworm that told her it was time. The two walk to a bus, and Chester, seeing the number of the bus (23), is confident he won’t have to pay; and they take the bus. The driver (David Fox) says he is Canadian and thinks Narcissa is American, as Chester claims to be; but Narcissa says, “I’m not an American, I’m a nymphomaniac.” Such self-identification seems an affirmation of the personal over the public, the individual above the national—the instinctive, one’s own nature and its appetites, is more compelling than one’s cultural or national inheritance. At Chester’s claim that he is American, as he had been living in New York and involved in theater production, the driver says that if he is, then Chester is no son of his (a patriotic stance, and also we know now why Chester didn’t expect to pay for the ride—the driver being his father, Fyodor).
In a beer hall and over the radio, a contest for The Saddest Music in the World is announced with a $25,000 prize, sponsored by the beer manufacturing company of Lady Helen Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini), a woman who had been Chester’s lover when he lived previously in Canada, where and when the two were in a car accident (she’d been performing fellatio and he was distracted), an accident in which one of her legs was crushed, and Chester’s inebriated doctor father, who was also infatuated with Port-Huntly, tried to help—and sawed off both of the woman’s legs, mistakenly cutting off first the healthy one. Apparently, the London Times had called Winnipeg the world capital of sorrow, and this has inspired Port-Huntly. She sees the connection between unhappiness and drinking and seeks to promote it for commercial profit. (One might imagine that memory of the factor drinking played in her own dismemberment would caution her against it but that is not so.) Port-Huntly thinks that the end of United States alcohol prohibition will be a great business opportunity, and plans to do the most sales in countries hit hardest by economic trouble. “If you’re sad, and like beer, I’m your lady,” she says.
The film is a great opportunity for Isabella Rossellini as an actress and presence — her part allows her to be ambitious, lusty, hurt, angry, and wistful; and her resemblance to her mother, Ingrid Bergman, summons a history of film, including Autumn Sonata, Casablanca, Bells of St. Mary’s, Gaslight, Notorious, and Stromboli. Isabella Rossellini, the daughter of Bergman and the director of Stromboli and Open City, Roberto Rossellini, has a filmography that is itself impressive: White Nights, Blue Velvet, Tough Guys Don’t Dance, Wild at Heart, Death Becomes Her, Big Night, Roger Dodger and Tulse Luper Suitcases. Rossellini’s Lady Port-Huntly is an extraordinary character, the driving force in the film, a woman who can give or deny others what they want—love, recognition, or money.
We see images of people around the world, in native dress, leaving their countries to arrive in Winnipeg, and their images walk across a map of Winnipeg.
A cellist traveling to Winnipeg remembers his wife and son as it rains — Narcissa and a lively (now dead) blond boy; the musician, dressed in black, seems to be on a train. The man usually wears a veil when he performs; and he is extremely sensitive to light and sound — he draws attention to his own sensitivity and sorrow. Known to the public as Gravillo the Great, the man is Roderick (Ross McMillan), who now identifies with Serbia, the country he considers responsible for starting “the great war,” what we now call World War I, with its nine million dead. Roderick, who has found a sorrow equal to his own in Belgrade, and through his affectations has made a place for his pain in the world, a place that might also become a trap, is Fyodor’s son and Chester’s brother.
Chester hears of the contest and talks to Lady Port-Huntly about wanting to enter and win. She draws his attention to the photographs of her on the wall — photographs that emphasize physical activity, especially the use of her legs. She wants him to tell the story of how she lost her legs; and wanting the prize money, he does. The film’s sexual wantonness and emotional complexity is vivid in the retelling of the accident, as we see the affair of Chester and Port-Huntly and Chester’s drunken father wanting to do good but causing irreparable harm—and there’s agony and farce in this. When Chester’s done recounting the accident, Port-Huntly asks Chester if he doesn’t find the story sad; and he coolly says that what happened to her is a tough break and that life is full of surprises.
When Roderick arrives at the place Chester shares with his father, we hear the noisy sound of Chester’s lovemaking with Narcissa. The father is very concerned about Roderick (Fyodor’s kisses are fervent, and he has knitted sweaters for Roderick and his family), but this doesn’t silence the father’s tongue—when Roderick asks his father if Chester admitted to stealing a music box, the father snaps, “That was ten years ago — can’t you ever forget anything?” (The answer is no. Roderick remembers; his wife Narcissa forgets — she has forgotten him and their son. We later learn that Roderick keeps his son’s heart in a jar of Roderick’s tears.) No more dignity, our family motto, says Chester, when he comes downstairs to greet his brother, after having sent Narcissa away before she could meet Roderick. All three men will enter the music competition.
Poland, China, Albania, and Finland are among the countries represented in the contest; and the first competition is between a Siamese bumbershoot flute player and a Mexican band that has a woman singer, a violinist, and guitarists. The Mexican mariachi band plays a burial song in which a mother warns away a dead child — one of the lyrics says that the milk of her breast is for the living not the dead; and the Mexicans win this round, but when they are plunged into a victory bath — a large tub of beer — they do not drink the beer. One of the radio listeners says, “If I got that lucky, I’d drink ’til I drowned.”
The film, which has been in a sometimes grainy black-and-white, is suddenly in muted color for a banker’s funeral. Chester thinks the demonstration of grief at funerals is fake, and self-serving: self-dramatizing, and a down payment on a show of feeling the mourner hopes to have returned. Not long after, Port-Huntly, who is usually sexually serviced by the married Teddy (Darcy Fehr) while a blindfolded cross-dressing music band plays, will proposition Chester, arrogantly, crudely, and Chester will dump her into a tub (of champagne?), soaking her, and knocking off her blonde wig. We see, with the wig gone, that the lady is herself a bit of artifice, the image of a grand dame; but she recovers — she likes his toughness, and that her money doesn’t entirely intimidate, and Chester stays to sexually satisfy her. Sex does not imply love for Chester; and when he is told subsequently by his father that Narcissa is Roderick’s wife, Chester is indifferent to the revelation. Chester is concerned with Chester — and he has an affinity for show business, for doing whatever will achieve his goal. (His aesthetics, including a little something for everyone, such as combining a spiritual, “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” with choreographed, costumed dancers, and bribing other contestants to join him, seems very American, not only of his own time but of ours.)
Meanwhile, after a commentary on how legs can be pliable, delicate, sturdy, vastly expressive, we learn that the doctor-driver Fyodor has made a pair of glass legs for Port-Huntly, who is allergic to wood and leather; and the legs are filled with her own brand of beer. Fyodor, representing Canada, tries to impress the lady and the contest observers with his performance of “Red Maple Leaves,” in tribute to Canadian soldiers killed in World War I, but the contestant Africans, described as pygmies (a term for forest foragers in central Africa but who, here, are actually Sudanese drummers), perform funeral music while cutting their skins with sharp stones and create more impact (a woman radio announcer describes their performance as involving “tears of blood”), and the crowd cheers and drinks to the Africans. “In a world competition, ordinary tears aren’t enough,” an announcer says.
Fyodor has ongoing multiple concerns — Port-Huntly, and his son Roderick; and he is especially concerned when Roderick collapses after seeing Narcissa perform with Chester. (Narcissa thinks that Roderick looks vaguely familiar.) There is a color sequence involving Roderick, Narcissa, and their son, possibly a fantasy of Roderick’s; and it seems to involve the son’s dying and Roderick’s trying to follow. Roderick, as Gravillo the Great, competes against Scots in kilts, and he plays the cello and faints. (Roderick is periodically immobilized — trapped — by his own emotions.) The film works as both a parody of the pettiness of people and a display of temperaments large enough for opera and Roderick exemplifies both, especially the latter. Roderick does his good deed when he presents Port-Huntly with the glass legs his father has made, interrupting her while in the midst of sexual congress with her kept man Teddy (Roderick’s extravagant in his presentation of the legs); and Port-Huntly is very happy with the legs. Following Narcissa’s singing of Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You” with Chester, a song with special meaning for Roderick, Narcissa, and their son, Roderick and Chester fight. While Roderick and Narcissa are alone and talking, the glass jar with their son’s heart falls and breaks—and a piece of glass is seen to puncture the heart.
A color interlude is the fantasy of Fyodor, who imagines reconciliation with Port-Huntly, and Port-Huntly seems a giant in his mind, but she in fact (in black-and-white) does not forgive him, she is full of wrath, and he drinks and rages. Drunk, he falls through the roof of the beer hall into the large vat of beer and drowns. The brothers fight at his funeral.
In the contest finale, it is Serbia against America, with brother Roderick as Serbia and brother Chester as America — and, of course, both are actually Canadian, suggesting something about the migration from place to place and how easily public identities are changed. Chester produces a multicultural performance, which we see in color—there are East Indians dressed as Eskimos, and the Mexicans and Africans have been incorporated in his group. Even Lady Helen Port-Huntly appears in what seems a conflict of interest for her as the contest judge — but she’s very proud of her glass legs. Roderick’s cello playing — screeching and sad — causes her glass legs to puncture and crack and they shatter and she is heartbroken and humiliated on stage. The crowd roars its approval. It’s an irony that she has made an entertainment of other people’s pain and now they cannot perceive hers. She may be a picture of a capitalist whose economic interest has gone against her human interest, though the word human is more elastic, in actuality more flexible, than we usually recognize. It is daunting to think a person’s full measure may never be taken, that we will always seem too sensitive (Roderick) or not sensitive enough (Chester), too responsible (Fyodor) or not responsible enough (Narcissa), depending on when our story begins to be told. If we had seen Fyodor as a doctor long before the Port-Huntly accident, or more of Narcissa as a loving mother before her son’s death, our sense of them might have been very different.
Lady Helen Port-Huntly is devastated by the loss of her new legs; and, when offstage, Chester tries to comfort her (he seems sincere, but is he?), she stabs him with a large shard of glass from her broken leg. Is he being wounded for what he is now, or for what he’s been in the past? Chester Kent lights a cigar, which he calls his well-earned victory cigar, smokes it, and drops it, and a fire starts—and he sits down to play the piano while the fire grows. Narcissa and Roderick duet. Chester recalls scenes from his life, while playing “The Song Is You.” The old woman prophet we saw at the beginning of the film laughs.
The Saddest Music in the World, a unique film, has come full circle. The film has not been praised by all. The New Yorker_’s Anthony Lane referred to Guy Maddin as being part of derriere-garde cinema, and said in his May 10, 2004 review that he thought _Saddest Music was a work of manic depression, exemplified by frenzied editing and a lowering of spirits. In comments appearing in _Salon.com_’s web pages on May 21, 2004, Stephanie Zacharek went from calling the film a “satirical, ghostly-giddy tone poem” in which Maddin’s visual references to other directors, from Fritz Lang to Jean Vigo, indicate that he “has found a way to mine their subconscious rather than the material they actually put on-screen” to saying that “the movie is bankrupt” and “shows not great imagination, but a lack of one, or at least an inability to self-edit: Maddin’s visual gifts could be staggering if he weren’t so busy shooting metaphysical Silly String at the screen just to see how much of it will stick.”
Apparently, Maddin’s reputation has sometimes been controversial even in Canada. His other films include Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), Archangel (1990), Careful (1992), and Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Dairy (2003). In the Spring 1998 issue of the online film journal Kinema, Gerald Pratley begins an article, “Canadian Films: What Are We to Make of Them?,” with complaints of the failure of Canadian filmmakers to proudly present Canada as Canada, claiming that filmmakers deliberately obscure their Canadian references — towns, institutions, legal practices, and social habits are ignored or misrepresented. He remarks on what he considers the disappointing work of some of the country’s better known directors, David Cronenberg, Atom Egoyan, Patricia Rozema and Maddin, whose reputations he considers inflated by the festival circuit, media, and their own cults. Pratley describes Maddin as being irrelevantly fanciful, as “lost in his own dreams.” He writes that “Denys Arcand, Gilles Carle, André Melancon, Micheline Lanctôt, André Forcier, Robert Lepage, and other talented Québec filmmakers receive occasional mentions.” Pratley adds that he thinks the inflated reputations of certain directors are rooted in the cultural insecurity of Canada. Canada has given the world writers Robertson Davies, Alice Munro, Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and musicians Felix Leclerc, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, K.D. Lang, Sarah McLachlan, and films such as Going Down the Road and Mon Oncle Antoine. I may have stumbled on a family argument involving Canadians who think that Québec-based French-language films are better — more crafted, honest, and inventive — than Anglophone or English-language Canadian films.
One’s judgment about the family quarrels of others is a precarious matter, but I think such films as Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) and Egoyan’s The Adjuster (1991) are similar to twentieth-century fiction, offering a view of a very specific and limited situation. The former, actually based on a novel (J.G. Ballard’s Crash), is about a man who becomes involved with a group erotically excited by car crashes, and the latter is about an insurance claims agent who is both professionally and personally involved with clients during times of grief and shock; and yet these situations would not exist if not for the economics, technology, and alienation of the larger, modern world. The comprehension and power of these films partly come from the viewer’s sense of what’s not there, of what’s alluded to. A film like Arcand’s Barbarian Invasions (2003), in French with English subtitles, while full of personality and believable situations, is concerned with friendship, love, sex, family, teaching, and money, with choices and their effects, with values, as well as with the specter of death, the kinds of themes a nineteenth-century text would be concerned with. Such texts give all references needed for their comprehension, everything is spoken, and the characters and their motivations and the evolution of the stories, though complicated, have little ambiguity. Where would I place The Saddest Music in the World, which seems to contain a bit of almost everything? As it seems informed by the explanatory narratives of the past, and by structures of art and entertainment previously enjoyed, and unfolds with irony and wit, while allowing different ways of entering the film, different ways of reading what occurs, the film might be considered postmodern. What defines the modern or postmodern may be a constantly moving line, as self-consciousness, cultural forms, technology, and other resources expand or multiply (the ancient Egyptians and Greeks may have been the modern people of their times, embodying as much purpose and sophistication as was possible then, and later the Japanese and Chinese of certain epochs may have been the modern people of theirs). Films allow us to take an elegant step back into times and places other than our own.
With obvious exceptions, many Canadian films are not well-known and written about, especially, strangely, in the United States. The central library in Queens, New York, did not have a single comprehensive book on “Canadian film” when I visited recently. I have read about books on Canadian film such as Manjunath Pendakur’s Canadian Dreams and American Control, Chris Gittings’ Canadian National Cinema, Douglas Fetherling’s Documents in Canadian Film, Peter Morris’s Embattled Shadows, Peter Harcourt’s Movies and Mythologies, and Loren R. Lerner’s bibliographical Canadian Film and Video — but I have not actually read the books (which, I’m told, have been ordered subsequently by the library).
One book the local library did have was Jean Pierre Lefebvre: Videaste, edited by Peter Harcourt, and published by the Toronto International Film Festival Group in 2001, a beautiful, compact book that includes aesthetic, personal, and political commentary by the film director Lefebvre, whose films include Le Revolutionnaire (1965), Les Maudits Sauvages (1971), Le Vieux Pays ou Rimbaud est mort (1977), and Le Fabuleux Voyage de l’Ange (1990). The book, which has a central essay by Peter Harcourt on Jean Pierre Lefebvre’s videos, includes essays by, and an interview with, Lefebvre. Lefebvre thinks the human animal may have been born both a hunter and a creator, citing the examples of very young children who draw people, animals, nature (sun, moon, trees), and things they see around, indicating consciousness of space and time and relationships. He describes his early film, Le Revolutionnaire, shot cheaply and out in the cold, and full of long sequence shots, with no reverse angles and no cutaways, and describes how he realized that the imperatives of weather, time, and money conditioned his aesthetic. He writes that he thinks different cultures express themselves in different forms.
Lefebvre remarks on the history of film in Canada, especially in Québec, and the effect of money on its development. Film production in Canada began as forms of anthropology and propaganda, subject to political and religious censorship. The pressures of television, commercial and social pressures, and the development of lightweight cameras and portable sound equipment, had liberating effects; and films by Gilles Groulx, Jacques Leduc, and Denys Arcand, as well as Lefebvre and others, began to be made. Lefebvre, who thinks each film should reflect a particular place and its people, is very clear about the negative impact of the United States on Canadian film, and how international and multinational economies often create product rather than art, and consumer cultures rather than audiences, a complaint others have made.
Interestingly, Guy Maddin intended for The Saddest Music in the World to be an approachable film. In an interview with The Onion’s Noel Murray, published online May 19, 2004, and in the satirical publication’s May 20-26 print edition, Maddin said, “_Saddest Music In The World_ is the first time that my producers and I sat down and said, ‘Hey, let’s remove some of the barriers that have been keeping people away, and try to make it a little more approachable. Not necessarily accessible, but approachable, you know? Just to allow people to maybe consider going to it. It’ll be interesting to see what happens.’ ”
I found it a little startling that Jonathan Rosenbaum said in his review of Saddest Music that he thought the American response to the film would determine largely its success. Many Canadians, artists, critics, and citizens, have long complained of the dominance of American film habits on Canadian theater screens and television sets, despite the Canadian government’s support of its own film sector, including tax incentives, public subsidy, and co-production deals. (Sometimes American films have been denied to Canadian exhibitors, on behalf of American-owned or controlled exhibitors.) The Canadian argument with the United States is not a family quarrel but an argument with a neighbor, the kind whose music and television one can hear at all hours.
Of course, Canada is in various ways an important part of the American film industry, not only as audience or marketers for the films of directors such as Maddin, Arcand, Cronenberg, and Egoyan. (I recently read a description of Egoyan as an Egyptian-born Canadian filmmaker of Armenian descent — quite an eyeful, and if spoken a mouthful, and certainly indicative of Canada’s own multiculturalism, something it shares with the United States and other wealthy countries.) A lot of American theatrical and television films are made in Canada’s British Columbia, Montreal, Nova Scotia, Québec, Toronto, and Vancouver. I read a good summary article on the subject by Doris Toumarkine, “Canadian Attraction: Busy Film Commissions Continue to Lure Big Productions,” from the May 2004 issue of Film Journal International on its web site. The diversity and nearness of Canadian locations, the professionalism of film crews, and favorable tax rules are among Canada’s appeal — apparently Canada can offer locales matching thirteen of the world’s fifteen bio-climatic zones. Films such as Chicago, The Shipping News, Titanic, K-19: The Widowmaker, X-Men 2, I Robot, Paycheck, An Unfinished Life, Connie and Carla, My Big Fat Greek Wedding, Good Will Hunting, How to Lose a Guy in Ten Days, and The Chronicles of Riddick, have been filmed in whole or in part in Canada.
Guy Maddin’s The Saddest Music in the World, which I saw in the East Village’s Landmark Sunshine Cinema at the end of a run that lasted about six weeks before the film moved to the center of Greenwich Village at the Quad cinema, distributed in the United States by IFC (Independent Film Channel), was filmed on soundstages in Winnipeg, with sets built in an old Winnipeg factory. Made with actors Maddin has used in other productions, Darcy Fehr and Ross McMillan, the film also featured musicians who performed in an annual Canadian festival called Folkarama (“We tended to cast people who had their own costumes, and who had the best traditional songs which were in the public domain,” Maddin told Kevin Lally, Film Journal International, May 2004). Lady Port-Huntly’s glass legs were created by a glass-blowing bassoonist of the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra, and the beer that filled them came from Fort Garry Pale Ale, a Manitoba brewery. Maddin, born in 1956 in Winnipeg to a prominent hockey coach father and a mother who managed a beauty salon, has stayed close to home, attending the University of Winnipeg, where he studied economics, before making his first film around 1986, The Dead Father, considered awkward, imaginative, and promising. It seems that Maddin has used his imagination for invention and travel.
When in The Saddest Music in the World, Chester Kent, a Canadian competing as an American, presents a performance that features many of the world’s cultures, he is providing an image that is hard to vanquish—America is us, all of us—but only a part of us, an aspect of our style, an expression of some of our feelings, especially of our aspirations. That is its appeal and danger, as much complexity and difference are left out. While no one can claim that he knows the details of how ordinary Canadians live as a result of watching The Saddest Music in the World, this funny, fast-paced story about love and selfishness, sadness and sex, music, money, and nations, is both a very Canadian film and an example of world cinema. Immediately after seeing the film, I wasn’t sure what I thought of it, but it’s a film that expands in the mind. The original Kazuo Ishiguro screenplay on which the film is based was brought to Maddin’s attention by producer Niv Fichman and by Atom Egoyan, one of the film’s executive producers (with Daniel Iron), and that screenplay was set in 1980s London with a focus on Eastern Europe after the fall of communism, which some westerners saw as the opening of new markets. Ishiguro was more concerned with the neediness of nations that were forced to market their neediness. Guy Maddin changed the film’s location but not its theme; and he said last year in a summer 2003 Artforum interview with James Quandt, “It’s a story about how Third World countries can survive only by losing all their dignity, or keep their dignity by panhandling in a very clever way. I didn’t want to make this a political satire, so we inserted a family melodrama in the foreground, in which various family members — all musicians — are also manipulating each other through self-pity, fake pathos.” Maddin, who likes forms that are fun, and his collaborators, the American-born Canadian resident George Toles and the Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, have given us a fantasy that tells a truth. We use emotions. The human heart seen as a locus of feeling is, of course, a symbol, a symbol within the sum of facts and ideas, situations and relationships, and powers and principalities that we call the world; and the world, which crushes symbols, is perpetually heartbreaking.