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.
I could go on. (Maddin does, abetted by co-screenwriter George Toles, production designer Matthew Davies and especially composer Christopher Dedrick, whose score consists mostly of variations, demented and brilliant, on Jerome Kern’s “The Song Is You.”) The point is that The Saddest Music in the World is not only jammed with more shots, styles, musical excerpts and astonishing actions than Kill Bill Vol. 2 but is more richly suggestive, too.
When Vol. 1 came out last year, I remarked, tentatively, that Tarantino had introduced a theme that ought to be taken seriously: a woman’s conflicting desire to wreak vengeance and save a child from violence. Whether this theme would play out seriously remained to be seen. Now that we have the second half of the picture, I’d say the answer is, “Not quite.” To Tarantino’s credit, he complicates the setup in a way that’s just and moving. (It seems the most important child was corrupted before the Bride could rescue her. And who knows? Once the Bride is on the scene, maybe she’ll do damage of her own.) In handling this idea, though, Tarantino is a forgetful screenwriter. He gets so caught up in his mazelike digressions that he’s as surprised as you to turn a corner and find the film’s emotional core standing there. What’s he supposed to do with the main subject, now that it’s on screen? He’s not sure. He cracks a few jokes; he wraps up the plot.
So he leaves you this time with little more than momentary pleasures: locations in China and the California desert, Uma Thurman’s miraculously versatile performance, some nifty tricks of framing. Not bad–but not equal to the best excesses of Vol. 1, which seem to have consumed most of Tarantino’s inventive energy.
Guy Maddin’s inventiveness does not flag. Whether he’s fetishizing Isabella Rossellini’s mouth, staging a funeral on ice skates, sliding a troupe of African drummers into a vat of beer or calling up the ghost of a dead child, he’s unfailingly outlandish, hilarious, odd, wistful and genuinely, unappeasably disturbed. Maddin looks at a family musicale and envisions scenes of grotesque loss. He looks at national stereotypes and sees a broken family. And when he looks at old movies, he sees today’s world, which is (you’ll forgive the plot giveaway) set on fire at the end by an optimistic, can-do Yank.
Kazuo Ishiguro wrote the screenplay from which all this evolved. I’ll bet he’s as astonished as anyone.
Short Takes: Since Vol. 2 is the Chinese half of Kill Bill, which may leave you longing for the Japanese action of Vol. 1, I draw your attention to The Twilight Samurai, which is now being released in the United States after winning a dozen Japanese Academy Awards. Set toward the end of the shogun era (that is, just before The Last Samurai takes place), The Twilight Samurai is the tale of a meek and impoverished provincial clerk–unmanfully devoted to his young daughters, hopelessly in love with a well-born divorcée–who just happens to be an expert swordsman. Hiroyuki Sanada is both credible and lovable in the title role, which is quite a feat; the wildly popular Rie Miyazawa plays the love interest. Yoji Yamada, who was responsible for forty-eight Tora-San films, provided the smoothly professional direction.
Also opening theatrically on April 30 in New York, San Francisco and San Rafael, California, is the exceptionally beautiful Bangladeshi feature The Clay Bird. Directed by Tareque Masud from a script he wrote with producer Catherine Masud, it’s a wonderful example of fluvial cinema, with the point-of-view character Anu (young Nurul Islam Bablu) dividing his time between a riverfront Islamic school in town and a riverfront home back in the country. The period is the late 1960s, just before the violent break between Bangladesh and Pakistan, and political arguments are swirling around Anu, with his father (the village’s dour homeopath) and the school principal both arguing for Pakistan as the bastion of Islam, which must remain strict, militant and united. Anu isn’t so sure. He’s more concerned with the well-being of his schoolmate Rokon (an outcast among outcasts) and his little sister Asma (who needs medical care but gets only her father’s powders). Strongly reminiscent of the films of Satyajit Ray–what higher praise can I offer?–The Clay Bird sometimes falters a bit in its delineation of character but flows magnificently whenever it observes the landscape, the architecture or a magical series of musical performances. Highly recommended.
Screening Schedule: April 27 marks both South African Freedom Day and the public opening of an ambitious anniversary festival. “Ten Years of Freedom: Films From the New South Africa” is being presented in New York City by The Documentary Campaign, with the support of Archbishop Desmond Tutu. On the bill are nineteen features and documentaries, fourteen shorts, three works commissioned for the television program Project 10: Real Stories From a Free South Africa and selections from five other outstanding television series. Among the special guests participating at screenings is Pete Seeger, who is scheduled to appear at the opening-night presentation of A Lion’s Tail (directed by François Verster), the true story of how the song “Mbube,” by the Zulu shepherd Solomon Linda, turned into the American pop hit “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” with no benefit to the original composer.
Other notable festival events include a special screening at 6 pm, April 29, titled Ten Years of Freedom in Solidarity Against HIV/AIDS, organized as a benefit for the Treatment Action Campaign; and a free, daylong symposium on April 30 at New York University’s International Center for Advanced Studies (53 Washington Square South, 10 am-5 pm). “Ten Years of Freedom: Films From the New South Africa” runs through May 2, with most screenings taking place at the Clearview Cinema, Broadway at 62nd Street. Full information is available at www.tenyearsoffreedom.org. Tickets are available from the Clearview Cinema box office, www.moviefone.com and (212) 777-FILM.