Last week marked the the fifth installment of The Talkies series (and the second to be featured at the Heights Theater in Minneapolis) with Guy Maddin and The Saddest Music in the World. Offering a live director commentary to a film is a brilliant idea, and one that has been well utilized with eclectic selections: Herschell Gordon Lewis and 2000 Maniacs, John Waters and Polyester (if you can imagine), George Romero and Night of the Living Dead, John Cameron Mitchell and Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Thursday's Guy Maddin and The Saddest Music in the World. If you are a film geek, The Talkies presents the kind of production that is hard not to be excited about.
I missed John Cameron Mitchell and Hedwig in February, but there was no way I was going to miss Maddin and The Saddest Music. I've been a fan of Maddin's ever since I saw Twilight of the Ice Nymphs staring Shelley Duvall and Frank Gorshin. It's not exactly the most accessible film, but I still spent the two days I worked in a video store putting the DVD in the unsuspecting hands of customers. Since then I have worked my way back through his work and followed everything he has made since. It was almost too good to be true when the Walker hosted a dialogue and retrospective of Maddin's films in 2004, premiering The Saddest Music in the World. I was completely taken with this subversive stab at a straightforward narrative. I subsequently saw the film two more times theatrically and own the DVD which I have watched at least a few times. Have I admitted too much?
I've listened to my fair share of DVD commentaries, and more often than not will watch a DVD and turn right around and start the commentary if its available. This is the exact same tact of The Talkies: they provide a straightforward screening of the film, immediately followed by a screening with the director live. Maddin is no stranger to audio commentaries. The majority of his films on DVD contain fascinating commentaries that often include collaborator George Toles. The Saddest Music DVD, however, is one that doesn't contain a commentary but does have two 20 minutes featurettes that are perhaps even more revealing.
I bought tickets to both screenings in advance, and after a long day at work I considered skipping the first screening. I'm glad I didn't. The first surprise was the bonus of Maddin's The Heart of the World, a frenetic short film that nearly moves me to tears with its odd mix of humor, perversity and beauty. Like most things these-a-days, The Heart of the World is not that hard to find, but seeing it in the theater is really like nothing else. The second surprise was how much I found in The Saddest Music to revisit or discover. The film is rich in other-worldly detail and whip-cracking dialogue that I hadn't seen or heard for at least a couple years. It was definitely a good primer for the next screening.
Fortunately, the theater filled up a bit more for the second screening. I quickly got a Blizzard from the DQ next door and shuffled back in, noting Maddin in the lobby just hanging around talking to people. Maddin's personality is one you could probably intuit after seeing a few of his films: humble and polite, but wickedly funny with dry sarcasm and no filter. His delivery is so dry that you are never really sure whether to believe what he is saying or not.
Talkies coordinator Tim Massett introduced Maddin with little fanfare, and Maddin proceeded to explain what he was about to do (shoot from the hip was the feeling I got) as he tried to get comfortable on what looked like the most unstable chair someone could find. He admitted that he had recently sat down to re-watch The Saddest Music in preparation and indeed had some notes in case the whole improvising thing went south.
Instead of doing a commentary for The Heart of the World, Maddin had agreed to read the intertitles. Although there aren't many, they fly by at a break-neck speed and I noticed that Maddin was holding the microphone with both hands in concentration. But once he got to the end and the reverberation of "KINO KINO KINO" he was almost having as good of a time as the audience.
Maddin was sitting off to the right of the screen, slightly lit. Settling into to the film took a couple minutes with some pregnant pauses that made me a little nervous. But once Maddin got rolling telling stories and anecdotes about the movie, the flow went pretty well. One thing that I noticed right away was that it was counter intuitive to watch the film. Perhaps it was because I had just watch the film, but I spent almost the entire time watching Maddin as he spoke. And, much like a DVD commentary, there is little or no chance you would be able to hear the dialogue over the live commentary.
Maddin was incredibly free-wheeling, unspooling stories about how he met Isabella Rossellini and how the actor who played Gravillo the Great, Ross McMillan, had slept with his wife. When Maddin was at the Walker five years ago, interviewer and critic Elvis Mitchell sort of stole the show as Maddin receded, almost seeming shy. On his own, he was much more open and funny. Most of what he touched on about the film I had heard before, but I certainly didn't mind hearing again: Maria de Medeiros' issues with the temperature, the incredible inside set, and Rossellini's character being a form of Lon Chaney. It was his off-the-cuff remarks that really made the commentary interesting. When I was watching the film at the early screening I was making a mental note about how Gravello the Great looked like Hamburglar, with that big hat and huge eyebrows mimicking a mask, and ironically Maddin said the same thing: that there must have been some miscommunication with the costume designer and she somehow heard Hamburglar in reference to McMillam's character. I also enjoyed his story that about how he and Rossellini found their hands both in the same dogs mouth by chance, and his proclamation that the unspeakable 'c' word in his films is continuity.
The Talkies boasts the fact that the commentary is completely un-moderated. In theory, that is exactly the way it should be. But more than once throughout the evening I thought that there needed to be an open door for audience participation. Without acknowledging the fact that audience and director and film are in the same room, The Talkies verges on being very similar to the home viewing experience. That being said, I don't know how audience participation would work without some sort of moderation. During the first screening, there were moments in the film where I thought to myself, "Oh, I would like to ask him about that." or "I hope he talks about this." Perhaps there is a way to take questions from the audience during that first screening, organize them and present them to the director for the commentary.
Overall, Maddin vs. The Saddest Music in the World was more than worth my 20 bucks, and I will eagerly sign up for the next edition in the series. In a world where we blindly stumble into the multiplex, The Talkies is a new way to discover (or rediscover) a film and its director.