Antiquarian mishmash lathers the April screen. In Kill Bill Vol. 2, scenes recollected from thirty-year-old kung fu epics splash across images from spaghetti westerns and two-lane-blacktop shockers, as if projected one on top of the other in the haunted grind house of Quentin Tarantino’s skull. Meanwhile, The Saddest Music in the World offers an unstable and tantalizing approximation of an older and more arty cinema: a moment that might almost be from Metropolis, which dissolves into something rather like L’Inhumaine, which melts into a passing semblance of Love Me Tonight, all of them realized in the cheap, foggy and fleeting style that makes Guy Maddin’s mind resemble the Museum of Dry Ice.
How little it tells us, to say these films are composed of fragments of bygone pictures! How glad I am that the world has finally gotten beyond postmodernism, whose wearisome explainers used to claim such recyclings for their own! (As if Proust hadn’t written his Pastiches et mélanges; as if there were no “Oxen of the Sun” chapter in Ulysses.) If we were to think about the contrast in spirit between Tarantino and Maddin, rather than the blunt fact of their both being hommagenizers, we might notice that the first wants to replicate the films and television shows of his youth, while the second moons over movies his parents might have watched when young. Tarantino glories aggressively in himself; since he’s all right, then so are the pulp fictions that formed him. Maddin wonders uneasily at how he came to be; his heart being troubled, he seeks the trouble that must reside in those enigmatically beautiful old pictures. As these directors’ starting points differ, so do their rhythms. Think of how Tarantino saunters through a movie with a hipster’s gait, now and then telling you how long you’ll wait until the next big event. (Will two minutes pass before a drug takes effect? Then a character has two minutes of screen time to spin out a tale.) Maddin impatiently skitters from shot to shot, which he records with as many as eight cameras at once; he never has enough time to catch up with the past. Or consider the implications of the directors’ manner of dress. Tarantino sometimes sports a Kangol cap. Maddin has been known to affect spats.
The contrast holds even on levels far more superficial than costume–plot, for example–although here description falters, there being far too much incident to summarize in The Saddest Music in the World and far too little in Kill Bill Vol. 2. Of the latter, I need say only that the Bride (Uma Thurman) has three former partners left to murder, having previously dispatched two (plus a private army) in Vol. 1. This time she must exact revenge against trailer-dwelling cowboy Budd (Michael Madsen), one-eyed underhanded Elle (Daryl Hannah) and ultimately Bill himself–her lover, her boss, the father of her child (David Carradine, playing a noir version of his role on television’s Kung Fu). Arithmetic would suggest a rate of 1.5 violent deaths per hour–a pace that Tarantino varies in an interesting way, to give himself leisure for extended sequences such as the Bride’s return from the dead (for the second time in the picture) and her apprenticeship to the evil kung fu master Pai Mei (Gordon Liu).
What’s the point of it all? Let me delay the answer long enough to note that The Saddest Music in the World has its own quota of violent deaths. Set on a snowy, nocturnal soundstage that represents 1933 Winnipeg, the world capital of sadness, Maddin’s film concerns a radio contest sponsored by beer baroness Lady Port-Huntly (Isabella Rossellini), who means to capture the US market as soon as Prohibition is repealed. To promote her solace-giving brew, she offers a prize of $25,000 to the nation that boasts the saddest music. Teams race to Winnipeg to compete before an audience of suds-swilling, earflapped locals, with Siam pitted against Mexico in the first round, Canada against Cameroons. (The musicians play simultaneously, advancing menacingly on one another as a play-by-play team comments over loudspeakers.) Although the radio listeners understand these duels to be global in scope, they have a personal meaning for Lady Port-Huntly, since the Canadian representative, Fyodor (David Fox), is the retired physician and former suitor who drunkenly amputated her legs. The US contestant, a crypto-Canadian, is Fyodor’s son, Chester Kent (Mark McKinney, who behaves like Gable in It Happened One Night and looks like Tom Hanks crossed with a porcini mushroom). A penniless Broadway producer, and the man Lady Port-Huntly really loved, Chester has an American’s imperviousness to sadness, which he thinks is no more than a showbiz put-on, and which he therefore can deliver with more sass and pizazz than the other competitors combined. In this attitude, he is diametrically opposed by the Serbian representative, the veiled cellist Gavrilo, whose unbearably mournful performances are atonements for the deaths of 9 million people in the Great War. Nevertheless, Gavrilo is actually another crypto-Canadian: Chester’s hypersensitive brother Roderick.