“Satire and laughter have been standard ways for Canadians to come to terms with where and how they live” (199), writes Linda Hutcheon in her history of the (post)modern Canadian novel. Guy Maddin’s 2003 film The Saddest Music in the World follows in this tradition by creating a surreal melodrama that also serves as a satire about American cultural imperialism and the hazily defined concept of a Canadian national identity. Maddin’s film tells the story of an international radio competition held in Winnipeg by beer baroness Lady Port-Huntley (Isabella Rossellini) during 1933, the depths of the Great Depression and Prohibition in America. With Winnipeg voted as “the world capital of sorrow” four years running, Port-Huntley invites cultural representatives from around the globe to compete musically for a $25,000 cash prize and the honor of being declared the country with “The Saddest Music in the World” —although this is just a marketing scheme to sell more beer since the saddest countries will have the most drinkers, people more willing to buy alcohol than shoes for their children.
Among the entrants are Fyodor Kent (David Fox), a World War I veteran representing Canada, and his two estranged sons, Chester (Mark McKinney) and Roderick (Ross McMillan), representing America and Serbia respectively. Fyodor and Chester had both loved Port-Huntley, though that conflict resulted in a car accident that cost Port-Huntley her legs. Returning years later as a failed Broadway producer, Chester vies for Port-Huntley’s affections again, meanwhile unaware that his other love interest is an amnesiac who had been married to his brother Roderick in Serbia. While generational family conflict is a trend within Canadian fiction said to represent the tension between the writer and his/her relationship to “a utilitarian, materialistic, pragmatic society against which they must define themselves” (Hutcheon 200), Maddin’s film uses this same dynamic to examine the ways in which Canadian national identity is shaped, often in opposition to an American identity built upon capitalism and imperialism.
1. National Mythology
The original 1985 script for the film (written by Kazuo Ishiguro) took place in England, with a London-based distiller holding the contest on the eve of Perestroika, encouraging countries behind the Iron Curtain to compete as free market capitalism expanded eastward (Losier & Porton 20). Part of the complete rewrite by Maddin and longtime collaborator George Toles was changing the setting to 1933 Winnipeg since it was “the epicenter of the dust bowl,” “the coldest and darkest big city in North America,” and a place where the end of Prohibition would allow Canada to flood the U.S. with beer and thus profit from America’s hard times. This change of setting was also a way for Maddin to mythologize his hometown of Winnipeg since he says that “Canadians are really crappy mythologizers” who tend to make their national heroes seem “smaller than life” (O’Kasick). Dick Harrison echoes this sentiment when he says that Americans tend to have a strong national mythology because the U.S. is founded upon ideals and ideologies like liberty and equality, while Canada is founded upon more concrete principles and institutions that have already been proven in practice, thus remaining a country “without a national mythology, having neither an ancient, heroic past nor a set of declared ideals” (69-70).
Harrison notes that while Americans have a romanticized view of nationhood, Canadians tend toward a more ironic detachment on that matter (69-70). This is best personified in Fyodor, described by Toles as a “strange Old World figure” who is an immigrant but also more of a “super-Canadian.” Though America is seen as a “melting pot” of cultures (which implies a definite degree of assimilation), Canada considers itself a “cultural mosaic” in which multiculturalism is prized, leading some citizens to fiercely embrace the ethnic heritage of their immigrant ancestors, but also resulting in the problem of having no solid dual Canadian identity. Fyodor is an exception—an immigrant who has become exceedingly patriotic as a WWI veteran, even wearing his old uniform into the competition and dedicating his song, “Red Maple Leaves,” to the Canadian soldiers who died in the War. Because of the ironic detachment that Canadians have toward rabid patriotism, Maddin made Fyodor “pretty doddering and foolish” because “it’s really hard to find patriotic Canadians” (Losier & Porton 21).
2. Adopted Nationalities
While we see nothing of his immigrant ways, much of Fyodor’s Canadian identity comes from an oppositional stance toward America. “As long as you’re Canadian, you can be whatever you like,” he tells Chester, even if his son may still allegedly have “the stink of America” on him—but Chester’s adopted nationality as a Broadway producer creates the prime cultural contention between father and son. It should be noted that a distasteful attitude toward Chester’s role, as a self-loathing Canadian who adopts a forceful but morally slippery “Yankee” personality, has a long tradition in Canadian satire, dating from the Sam Slick character in T.C. Haliburton’s The Clockmaker (1836-40) (Keith 8). Chester was written to represent Canadians who want to be American so much that they move to the U.S. to become successful (O’Kasick), but his posturing as “a real Yankee Doodle boy,” full of moxie and brash behavior, is what truly separates him from his brother Roderick.
All members of the Kent family use an adopted national identity to cope with their personal sadness: Chester represses his sorrow behind a façade of proactive “Americanness” (which Toles says would normally be a character’s salvation but is fatal instead); Roderick wallows in his own tears, shouldering the national sadness of Serbia under the guise of “Gavrillo the Great” (named after the Serbian assassin who sparked World War I); and Old World immigrant Fyodor becomes alcoholic after adopting a stereotypically Canadian identity which includes a love of beer.
However, Roderick is a genuinely prodigal son—even if he disappoints his father by retaining a foreign nationality adopted from a country that fought against Canada in the War—while Chester is in an explicitly U.S. vs. Canada competition with Fyodor. In this light, Roderick emerges at film’s end as both the Kent family’s sole survivor and a strange representation of Canadian culture: though his heart dwells in Serbia, he becomes somewhat reconciled to his Canadian familial heritage, fulfilling the image of a Canadian national identity divided between an Old World culture (albeit adopted in this case) and a specifically Canadian one. Finally reunited with his Serbian wife Narcissa (Maria de Medeiros), his outcome is perhaps the only somewhat optimistic one in the film, illustrating a positive meshing of cultures.
3. “Third World” Identity
Setting the film in Canada also raises the issue of Canadian national identity having a sort of “Third World” status, being neither fully American nor British. This status is said to possibly derive from “an uneasy, even neurotic, sense of Canadian inferiority or from a shrewd assessment of subconsciously imperialistic attitudes of the United States” (Keith 5). Because of the “cultural mosaic” view of Canadian identity, it makes sense that the foreign competitors are presented as stereotypes (e.g., team “Africa” represents all African nations), bringing their distinctive cultural attributes to a country that lacks a distinctive national character of its own. However, this is also where much of the satire resides: “Third World nations, which are basically in need of alms from the ‘have’ countries, are forced to be in competition with other needy nations,” says Maddin. “They have to act worse off than they actually are—it’s sort of like competitive street begging…a horrible, undignified routine they’re forced into to exaggerate their own privations when they’re already well worthy of sympathy and empathy” (Losier & Porton 19).
Capitalist characters like Chester and Lady Port-Huntley exploit this degradation of other countries for their own profit, partnering with each other to mutually benefit from an American victory in the contest, Chester from the prize money and Port-Huntley from the American dollars rolling in with the end of Prohibition in the official “saddest” nation in the world. Port-Huntley’s collaboration with Chester suggests that a ruthless American-style capitalism has rubbed off on Canada—to the extent that she is even willing to disregard the past involvement with Chester that cost her her legs, provided that the money resulting from an American victory will indeed buy her some happiness. This is especially apparent when Port-Huntley, the judge of the contest, appears in Chester’s production number for the final round of the competition dressed in a spiked tiara reminiscent of the Statue of Liberty.
4. Cultural Imperialism
Chester’s strategy to win the contest illustrates most clearly the film’s critique of American capitalism and cultural imperialism. He uses Broadway-style musical numbers that must be “vulgar” and “full of gimmicks,” to separate him from the simple presentations of his competitors. To do this, he draws upon America’s national mythology, especially romanticized American tragedies, to evoke “tears for all those blubbers in the ol’ Melting Pot”; for example, there are several numbers —e.g., “Abolition Blues”— that draw upon African American slave songs, illustrating how the sufferings of a cultural minority group are exploited for the profit of the dominant white majority.
One of the key elements in these musical numbers (which are broadcast via the global media of radio) is the appropriation of losing or forfeiting teams to add to the American spectacles in both number of participants and variety of musical styles. Chester says that poor nations will “bend right over for Uncle Sam” when money is involved; for example, the losing Yiddish team has no country of its own, so Chester says they should come join America. This assimilationist tactic only results in grotesque pastiches for American musical performances, denying the importance of individual ethnicities in favor of American victory; for example, Africans are enlisted to portray slaves and (East) Indians are brought in to play American Indians (specifically Eskimos). Chester’s declaration that “where I come from, winning is worth every risk” extends the critique of imperialism to modern day by possibly commenting on the American war being waged in Iraq at the time of the film’s release.
The fact that the competition ends without a winner—instead resulting in Lady Port-Huntley stabbing Chester and her brewery burning to the ground—implies that American exploitation of other cultures is ultimately destructive for everyone. However, it is especially destructive for Canadians who would try to fill the apparent lack of a Canadian identity by emulating American business practices instead of following a more culturally sensitive approach that would better fit Canada’s national character as a cultural mosaic.
Harrison, Dick. “The Search for an Authentic Voice in Canadian Literature.” Ambivalence: Studies in Canadian Literature. Eds. Om P. Juneja and Chandra Mohan. New Delhi: Allied Publishers Limited, 1990.
Hutcheon, Linda. The Canadian Postmodern. Don Mills: Oxford University Press, 1988.
Keith, W.J. “Third World America: Some Preliminary Considerations.” Studies on Canadian Literature. Ed. Arnold E. Davidson. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1990.
Losier, Marie, and Richard Porton. “The Pleasures of Melancholy: An Interview with Guy Maddin.” Cineaste. Summer 2004: 18-25.
O’Kasick, Jeremy. “Canadian Cult Hero Guy Maddin: ‘I Have Plenty of Sadness in Reserve.’” Indiewire. 17 Feb. 2004. 17 May 2005.
Toles, George. Interview. “The Saddest Characters in the World” DVD Featurette. The Saddest Music in the World. DVD. MGM, 2004.
David Church is a Ph.D. student at Indiana University, and the editor of Playing with Memories: Essays on Guy Maddin (University of Manitoba Press, 2009). He has also contributed to Disability Studies Quarterly, Senses of Cinema and several other publications.