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Considering George Balanchine

Classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz reviews the material of choreographer George Balanchine available on DVD and CD. This year marks the 100th anniversary of Balanchine's birth.

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Other segments from the episode on April 26, 2004

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 26, 2004: Interview with Guy Maddin; Commentary on George Balanchine.

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DATE April 26, 2004 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Guy Maddin discusses his film career, including his
new film "The Saddest Music in the World"
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, Guy Maddin, has been called the best filmmaker you've never heard
of. In The Boston Globe, Wesley Morris said, quote, "He's a scholar, poet and
prankster and ferociously devoted classicist who likes to resurrect dead
cinemas and deader directors and make them vital all over again," unquote.

Maddin's movies include "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" and "Dracula: Pages
from a Virgin's Diary." It's a film adaptation of a ballet version of the
Dracula story. Visually, Maddin's work is inspired by silent films and German
expressionism. His new movie, "The Saddest Movie in the World," also pays
homage to Depression-era musicals. It's a surrealistic comedy set during the
Depression in Winnipeg, one of the coldest places in North America, which also
happens to be the place where Guy Maddin grew up and still makes his home.

"The Saddest Music in the World" stars Isabella Rossellini as the owner of a
beer brewery, who, as part of a promotional scheme, launches an international
contest to find the saddest music in the world.

(Soundbite of "The Saddest Music in the World")

Ms. ISABELLA ROSSELLINI (As Lady Port-Huntley): We at Muskeg beer, are proud
that Winnipeg has been chosen four years in a row by the London Times as the
world capital of sorrow in the Great Depression. In recognition of this
honor, we will be hosting a worldwide contest to determine which nation's
music truly deserves to be called the saddest in the world. Aspiring
virtuosos of tearful melody are welcome to travel here and lay claim to the
jewel-studded crown of frozen tears and $25,000 in prize money. That's right.

GROSS: Guy Maddin, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Your movie, "The Saddest Music
in the World," is adapted from a screenplay that was written by Kazuo
Ishiguro, who wrote "Remains of the Day."

Mr. GUY MADDIN (Filmmaker): Correct.

GROSS: But his screenplay was set in the '80s, and yours is set in the 1930s,
during the Depression. I think you probably reworked a lot of the original
concept. Talk about your idea for what the contest would be like to find the
saddest music in the world.

Mr. MADDIN: Well, the original premise of such a contest was Ish's, and he
saw it as a political satire mostly about the way it's kind of sad that
countries that are already suffering from the worst deprivations imaginable
still have to pretend to be even worse off than they really are just to get
some sort of international sympathy and charity, and that everyone is forced
into this undignified limbo contest of exaggerating their misery just to get
some charity.

And for me the contest was a great backdrop for the way families and people
and love manipulate each other in much the same way that countries do. And it
was a great chance for me to have an orgy of self-pity, not just among nations
but among family members. You know the way families really mess with each
others' minds. And so I just found sort of a microcosm within Ish's political
satire. And my obsessions are always with family melodrama anyway, so it was
just a matter of putting that peanut butter on Ish's chocolate and coming up
with something that pleased us both.

GROSS: Before we talk about the actual stories that set all the characters
grieving, let's talk about the music a little bit. There actually is a
contest in the movie for the saddest music in the world, and representatives
from countries around the world show up to perform their music and vie for the
cash reward. How did you go about finding performers from around the world to
use in this contest? 'Cause you have real performers from different
countries.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. Most of them live in my hometown of Winnipeg.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Oh, I imagined you going around the world...

Mr. MADDIN: That's right, on a big talent search.

GROSS: ...putting classifieds in newspapers around the world.

Mr. MADDIN: That's right, going to Moscow and...

GROSS: Exactly.

Mr. MADDIN: ...and Stockholm.

GROSS: Scotland.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. We just put an ad in the paper and actually dealt through
the Winnipeg Folk Arts Council and just arranged for a massive audition. We
just told various, you know, El Salvadorian musicians, Portuguese fado
musicians, Ukrainian bandurists to show up in costume with their instruments
in full plumage and to play the two saddest songs they had in their
repertoire. And we just invited them all to come up to this very tiny,
crowded ballroom we rented in a hotel. They all had to ride up in an
elevator, a very tiny elevator, so a big mariachi band would crowd out of the
elevator while the Heather Belles, the all-female highland bagpipe troupe
marched in. And it was great just to see the clash of colors, plaids,
sombreros. It was really exciting, and I realized I kind of had half my
musical problems solved right there at the audition. It was just a matter of
picking my favorites from this and just getting a nice balance of colors and
costumes and musics from these people.

GROSS: How did you explain yourself to them?

Mr. MADDIN: I kind of didn't, and that was kind of fun, just looking at the
sheer puzzlement on their faces. And at one point in the auditions, I always
encouraged the last group of musicians to stay on while the next one came on,
and I would have them play at the same time and actually have them try to
cross-pollinate or actually get down lower. I was thinking in terms of limbo,
and I would tell the Klezmer clarinetist to get down below the Ukrainian
clarinetist and try to get down lower, lower in pitch and lower in physicality
and literally compete and cross swords with clarinets. And it was really kind
of fun to watch these people literally competing for the tears of the judges
and me and my producers musically. And it was all just sort of playing itself
out the way it did in the movie.

GROSS: Yeah, it's kind of like a battle of the bands except that they're all
playing incredibly sad music.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. And it really was just like I guess just watching the
self-pitying aunts at a tea party just going at it and trying to top each
other's stories of woe. I grew up in a family where people did that all the
time. We're Icelandic, and all stories about our family are about tragedy and
misery and, you know, plagues, blight, volcanic eruptions, etc.

GROSS: Let me play the song I'd probably vote for if I were a judge in this
contest for the saddest music in the world, and I'll just play an excerpt of
this. This is a Mexican song, sung from the point of view of a mother who's
singing to her dead baby. And as we hear the song, we'll also hear the
announcers who are announcing this contest as it happens. And, of course,
they're totally undercutting the tragedy with their absolutely clueless
explanations of what's going on. So why don't we hear the scene?

(Soundbite of "The Saddest Music in the World")

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Woman #1: (Singing in Spanish)

Unidentified Man #1: The singers are giving us a sad peek into child burial
customs down Mexico way.

Unidentified Woman #2: The Mexican mama is being very firm with her dead
infant. `Now go away,' she wails, `you are dead. Don't sneak in at night to
nurse from my breast. That milk is only for the living.' To Canadian ears,
that may sound harsh.

Unidentified Man #1: Well, I guess dead children, like any other kind, have
got to learn.

(Soundbite of cheers)

GROSS: A short scene from Guy Maddin's new film, "The Saddest Music in the
World."

Guy, tell me...

Mr. MADDIN: I actually have a songwriting credit on that song, by the way.

GROSS: Oh, did you co-write it?

Mr. MADDIN: I cannot read music, but I wrote the lyrics. I can't speak
Spanish, either, but I had the singer translate it and I just have to trust
the translation.

GROSS: What went through your mind as you were writing this?

Mr. MADDIN: Well, I just...

GROSS: I mean, how did you come up with this idea of the woman singing to her
dead child?

Mr. MADDIN: Well, there's nothing sadder than that. But, you know, in spite
of the recent epidemic of dead child movies that have been put out there, I
find it extremely difficult to even approach the magnitude, the enormity of
such a feeling. So it had--the only way to present it for me was to undercut
it instantly somehow and just to let off the clear message that I wasn't going
to try to reach anybody's heart at that point. It just had to be goofy.

GROSS: Guy, would you tell the story of what sets this in motion, why
everybody is so filled with grief in this movie? It's such a complicated
story, I'm hoping you can do it justice in some short summary.

Mr. MADDIN: Well, I remember when my collaborator and I were starting to
write about it, George Toles. He and I developed this thesis that Europeans
and Americans grieved musically differently; that Europeans embraced their
sadnesses more directly through their music and their music spoke directly of
their sadness, perhaps because Europe has been the arena of two great world
wars or perhaps it's a temperament that goes back many more centuries, and
that Americans have always gleefully repressed their sadnesses through their
music.

When you think of the Great Depression you think of all the great "Tin Pan
Alley" tunes like "We're in the Money" and "I Want to Be," and, you know, just
these kind of things that go against--there were only a few hit
songs--"Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?"--that kind of directly addressed the
misery that America was feeling at that time.

And so I thought it would be fun to have an American character who was just
typical of this repression and kind of, you know, from one of those Busby
Berkeley movies, some sort of Broadway impresario that just is irrepressible,
never acknowledges for a second that he's sad and feels that he can win a sad
music contest the same way he'd win a happy music contest, just by mounting
bigger and bigger production numbers and just making sadness so spectacular to
look at that it would be fun.

Meanwhile, his brother--this is sort of set up in fairy tale structural
terms--his brother is a man who's gone back to live in Europe and has embraced
his Serbian roots and all of ...(unintelligible).

GROSS: Because Serbia's such a sad country.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, it is, and I always wanted to get Gavrilo Princip
into--the man who in reductive terms started World War I by shooting the
archduke and his wife. So I just thought I could compress all this sadness
into a single bullet and into one person that represented the sadness of all
Europe and it would be fun. So he's really drinking highly concentrated
lugubriousness at all times. And that these brothers would share a woman,
because love triangles are the three-cylinder engines that propel some of the
greatest, you know, screwball comedies and melodramas of all time. And there
we sort of had it. It was this thesis of the two different approaches to sad
music and then just a simple love triangle that sets the movie up.

GROSS: My guest is filmmaker Guy Maddin. His new movie is called "The
Saddest Music in the World." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH
AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is filmmaker Guy Maddin. His new movie is called "The
Saddest Music in the World." It's a surreal melodramatic comedy set during
the Depression in frozen Winnipeg, Maddin's hometown. It stars Isabella
Rossellini as a beer mogul who launches a contest to find the saddest music in
the world.

I'm thinking back to the last interview that you did on FRESH AIR after your
ballet version of "Dracula," and somehow we were talking about grief, which of
course relates to this new movie, and you had mentioned that your brother
killed himself when he was 19, that he shot himself on the grave of his
girlfriend.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. When I was seven or just turning seven, I remember
thinking it was quite thoughtless of him to do that just a week before my
birthday. Yeah, it was, you know, obviously a horrible tragedy and it's the
worst thing that can happen to parents. I was young enough that it was turned
into a romance for me, the idea that he got to go to heaven with his
girlfriend and that they were somehow being richly married there, and that our
two families, the family of the dead girlfriend and my family sort of
considered each other in-laws as a way of making sense of this gesture of
their sadnesses. It just seemed very romantic to me, the idea of, you know,
very "Wuthering Heights," you know, the idea of just giving your whole life
for the love of somebody.

And maybe that's what made me more receptive to romantic literature later
and--I don't know. But it seems like the little garden from which I sprung
was well watered with tears. It didn't--this isn't self-pity talking, it's
something I just observed as a way of growing up. Like I said, I couldn't
have had a happier childhood. I loved it.

GROSS: How did your brother's girlfriend die?

Mr. MADDIN: In a car accident. You know, it was horrible, but--and it just
ruined him, you know. It was--he hung in there for about six months and then
couldn't take it anymore.

GROSS: There's a car accident in this movie, too.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, there is, although the words `car accident' don't mean
anything to me. They probably are horrible words to hear for the girl's
family. But I don't know, all the trappings of that incident were kind of
just--they were just as artificial as a TV show to me at that age. So I don't
cringe or tweak when I hear those words.

GROSS: It didn't scare you to death that your brother in one gesture was able
to take his life away?

Mr. MADDIN: Well, you know, I don't how to make sense of what I thought of
it. I know I was given his bedroom the very night that he did it, and he had
a way better bedroom than I did. So, you know, I was pretty happy about that.
I shared it with my other brother, who couldn't stand the sound of my night
breathing. You know, it sort of haunted him a lot. And I immediately thought
I was him and, you know, immediately started thinking what it would be like to
die or to kill myself and, you know, in those ways that every child daydreams
about just wanting to go away when things don't go right, to remove yourself.
But, you know, I never really seriously considered it. It was just kind of a
play daydream that I like to replay all the time.

GROSS: I'm thinking back to something else you said in that first interview
that we did. You said that when people who were important to you died, you
felt you didn't grieve at the time and that you even had to fake tears at
their funeral. And I was thinking, you know, this just seems so connected to
me, to this new movie, "The Saddest Music in the World," because, you know,
one of the characters just is incapable of grieving and he kind of walks
through life as if it were...

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...like a bleak comedy. And another character goes through life,
because her grief is so deep, she falls into amnesia. Her only way of
surviving...

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...is just totally to forget.

Mr. MADDIN: I guess you're very astute, Terry, because I think you have
picked up on some kind of autobiographical trait that I've put in the movie,
maybe without even thinking about it. I know when I was in my mid-teens, my
father developed a very serious heart condition and I just lived in terror of
him just dropping dead of a heart attack. And the words `heart attack'
literally launched me--whenever I happened to hear them on TV or in a
conversation would launch me into a procedure of elaborate superstitions, you
know, crossing my fingers, knocking on wood, backing out of a room left foot
first, and all sorts of elaborate, strange, exhausting procedures.

And I think when my father finally did have a heart attack and die, that--or
when he did die of some heart-related thing, that a fuse went in me and I
couldn't grieve. It was everything I had feared and worse because it really
happened. And I just felt nothing. And I felt a bit ashamed of myself for
not feeling anything, but I'm sure it's common that some people just can't
feel anything. I guess it's just simply being in shock, although it didn't
even feel like being in shock. I remember actually kind of enjoying all the
company and sympathy I was getting around funeral time. It's pretty gloomy
stuff we're talking about, but then I did grieve on the installment plan. For
years, I was revisted by my father in regular dreams, just probably a
pathological number of dreams. And so these characters, this woman who
virtually is visited with amnesia when her child dies, is kind of just a
version of that, I guess. It's just a matter of her being faced with
something that's just unbearable and amnesia's the only way to go. Amnesia
and nymphomania, as it turns out.

GROSS: That's right, she's got that, too.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, that's two Band-Aids on top of a trauma.

GROSS: Let me quote two things about sadness that are said in the movie. One
is, "What good is memory? Why make yourself sad?" And the other is, "Sadness
is just happiness turned on its ass. It's all show biz."

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, I'm just trying to make sense of what sadness is. I know I
don't like being sad very much, and the weirdest things make me sad. I don't
know.

GROSS: Like what?

Mr. MADDIN: Sometimes a movie that's mediocre for some reason. I like a
really bad movie or a really good movie. But a movie that just
somehow--there's a certain combination of notes that mediocrity combines to
form and that just about has me suicidal. For some reason, the second
"Matrix" movie had me on suicide alert. I had to make some hot line phone
calls after walking out of that theater. I don't know.

GROSS: Why? Because mediocrity wastes your time or because there's something
emotional in a mediocre film? Like what is it?

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, well, I started daydreaming a bit about my brother,
something I almost never do, and I know he was a bit of a science fiction
enthusiast and kind of a technical freak. You know, he built a stereo with
his bare hands when he was 15 years old, and built a radio station and was
arrested for broadcasting, you know, from a pirate station when he was a young
teen. And so I just started thinking of--I was sort of daydreaming that I was
watching this movie with him for some reason. This is something I've never
done before.

And then the movie was so overwhelmingly filled with effects that he would
never have been able to comprehend at his young age. But then it was so
incomprehensibly boring at the same time that I remember just sort of thinking
that maybe my brother would decide that he should have lived all along just
because these movies are so cool and so technically slick and the excitement
of science would have made it worthwhile to keep on living. And then I
realized I was losing him as the movie got worse and worse and that by the end
of the movie, he was back in his grave and I was looking for one for myself.
I don't know.

GROSS: Oh, gosh. This is what happens when your mind wanders when a movie's
really dull, I think.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. I probably just should have gone to see, you know,
"Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle" again.

GROSS: Was that better?

Mr. MADDIN: That was way better. I love that movie.

GROSS: We'll talk more with Guy Maddin about his new movie, "The Saddest
Music in the World" in the second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross, and this
is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Coming up, we continue our interview with filmmaker Guy Maddin about
his movie "The Saddest Music in the World." Also, classical music critic
Lloyd Schwartz considers the relationship of choreographer George Balanchine
to music. This year marks the hundredth anniversary of his birth.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

Back with filmmaker Guy Maddin. His movies include "Tales from the Gimli
Hospital" and "Dracula: Pages from a Virgin's Diary." His new movie, "The
Saddest Music in the World," is inspired by silent films and Depression-era
musicals. It stars Isabella Rossellini as a beer mogul in Winnipeg. As part
of a promotional campaign, she launches a contest to find the saddest music in
the world. This surrealistic comedy is driven by tragedy, death,
disfigurement and thwarted love.

I know you're interested in triangles and they are the motors that run a lot
of drama, but in your movies, the triangle is often within a family--two men
in one family fall in love with the same woman. And I'm wondering why in your
story lines there's often two men from the same family falling in love with the
same woman.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, I don't know. It is, though--because it's certainly never
been the case in my family, I'll go on record as saying. You know, I don't
have a competitive relationship with my other brother or my sister...

GROSS: Or your father.

Mr. MADDIN: ...or with my father, no. Although in one of my films I have my
father stealing away my beloved sort of thing. I read that one in Turgenev's
"Spring Torrents" or--"First Love," that's what it was. I just liked the idea
of a father just stealing a girl away from his son, just being a, you know,
Zeus-like sexually empowered force that can't be beaten. I don't know.
There's just something kind of comfy in writing these kind of emasculated
roles a little bit. There's just so much great tradition--comedic tradition
in emasculation. You know, Buster Keaton would always fall prey to these
emasculating humiliations, and then--but then his virility would triumph in
the end 'cause he's sexy and cute. But--so a triangle--you know, always
someone wins at the expense of someone else, so you get--I'm never interested
in the winner; you know, the loser's always more interesting.

GROSS: In one of your short films--well, it's not really too short; it's
about 64 minutes. It's called "Cowards Bend the Knee" and it's not really
an autobiographical film although some of it appears to be autobiographical,
but one of the character's names is Guy Maddin...

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and the father's name is Maddin Sr., and it's a silent film, but
there's a title card that says, `Like the French Foreign Legion, the museum is
a sanctuary--in this case, for cowards, for husbands afraid to face the
burdens, nay, the terrors of living with wives and families.' I even
got--that's a really interesting quote. Yeah.

Mr. MADDIN: That--that...

GROSS: Some people are afraid to face the burdens of living with wives--of
living with families, yeah.

Mr. MADDIN: I think so, too. And there are a couple of sources for that
little quote--that little epitaph. When my father died, you know, I mentioned
that he revisited me in dreams, but he was alive, but sort of conditionally
alive in these dreams. What he was--quite often he was sick and impatient,
and he was coming back just to get a suit or something he'd left hanging in a
closet. But this is my chance to convince him to stay with the family, but it
sort of seemed obvious that he had a better family that he liked living with,
that he was alive, but living either down the street or maybe in Minneapolis,
you know, the nearest city to Winnipeg, and that he was impatient to get back
to this other family, and that he hadn't died but he had in fact just rejected
us. And I've learned that there is a lot of--that that's a common feeling
that the loved ones left behind by a death feel that--there's a feeling of
desertion and rejection rather than just simple, straight-up bereavement. And
it did sort of feel in these dreams like my father was just too cowardly to
face up to our family, or just to tell us that he didn't like us, but he had
to just sort of slip away. And I often wonder if that is how he felt; I don't
know.

And I've found myself being too cowardly to really express my desires in
relationships on many occasions, and it's kind of--it was very cathartic to
append my name to the biggest coward in this movie and have him behave in all
the cowardly ways I've behaved and the ways I've observed my friends behaving
in relationships--and really hyperbolize it until it's unavoidable and that
viewers hopefully recognize themselves in some of that. I've been somewhat
less of a coward since making that picture actually.

GROSS: Oh, really?

Mr. MADDIN: Oh, yeah. The other place--these men that desert their families
are all hiding out in a wax museum, and I love the "Petrified Man" by Eudora
Welty, where a man on exhibit in a crummy side show is posing as a petrified
man; just turns out to be an escaped convict, or it's as if he's running away
from something. He's just literally petrified. So I thought it would just
extend that into a legion of husbands that are just miserable with their
situations but don't know what to do about it.

GROSS: You said you're less of a coward since having made that movie. Is it
the movie that changed you or something else?

Mr. MADDIN: No, mostly the movie. I real--you know, it's--when you just put
all your cowardice right on film in front of all the crew members and the
actors and you make them do it and then you show it to some people, and you're
the protagonist--someone with your name--I got someone with, you know, a
better body and more hair to play me, but, you know, he was every bit as
cowardly as I've been and it's kind of an expressionist film, so he's even a
little bit more cowardly--or, you know, is the cowardice that I thought he
actually expresses. So just finally getting that out, you just see how ugly
it is, but how apt and true and timeless--and it's made it easier for me to
stick up for myself a bit more.

GROSS: It's like you're done with the movie, and now it's time to move on to
something else. So like you're done with those things you expressed in the
film, and you can move on?

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, but in a way that's disappointing because I'd really come
to love my cowardice, in a way. It's really made for some hilarious jackpots
that I've gotten into, and now I'm not in as many jackpots, and so--I'm
sure--don't worry. No one really changes ever. And I'm sure this change is
very temporary and that I'll slide back into the morass of cowardice and all
the jackpots it produces.

GROSS: My guest is filmmaker Guy Maddin. His new movie is called "The
Saddest Music in the World."

We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is filmmaker Guy Maddin. His new movie is called "The
Saddest Music in the World." It's set during the Depression in Winnipeg,
which has been named the world's capital of sorrow. Maddin grew up in
Winnipeg and still lives there. He insists he had a very happy childhood
there in spite of the fact it's one of the coldest cities in the world.

Mr. MADDIN: There are a few small populations in northern Siberia that are a
little bit colder in the winter, but it's the coldest city with a population
of over 100,000 in the world. It's dark; seasonal adjustment disorder's an
epidemic in the wintertime. Its summers are pretty, but there's tent worm
infestations and mosquitoes the size of sparrows and all sorts of things. So
the really joyful seasons last about a week, and autumn is nice for the two or
three hours it hangs around before we sort of fall into winter. I love
winter, though. I love it. It's pretty, it's frosty, and nostril-tinglingly
freezing and you get to play all sorts of outdoor sports and lose the feelings
in your fingers and toes and I love it.

GROSS: There's images of hockey in several of your films, and I know your
father was the treasurer and manager of Canada's national hockey team.

Mr. MADDIN: Right.

GROSS: You described yourself in our first interview as spending most of your
childhood in front of the television with your dog.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Did you play hockey, too?

Mr. MADDIN: No, I didn't, and believe me, that was the source of unbelievable
shame. Growing up in Winnipeg, Canada; father featured frequently in the
city's newspaper, you know, talking about Canada's national hockey team, and
not being able to skate. I don't know. I just spent too much time in front
of the TV. Even my dog was stupid and a very--you know, not even
paper-trained or anything. It was a--you know, we were both very
underachieving organisms. And I finally couldn't stand the shame anymore, and
I bought a pair of skates when I was about 18, and just went out after dark
and taught myself how to skate and then just fell in love with it. Became
obsessed with it; dropped out of the university and just spent all my time
playing hockey with 12-year-olds. And--until I was good enough to join a
team, and I still have that kind of learned-late skating style. I skate too
straight up and down, and you know, people know I was a late-comer to the
game. But believe me, it just--every stride I take on the ice feels like I'm
undoing the shame of my childhood, and I'm not quite done yet. I'm still
playing; I'm 48 years old now, and I still play and I'm not kidding. Every
stride I take feels like I'm repairing damage.

GROSS: Too bad your dog didn't live long enough to undo his reputation.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. No, my dog lived a pure life--underachieving to the end:
didn't even get out of bed to die. Died on my feet while I was sleeping.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Guy Maddin. His new film is
called "The Saddest Music in the World"; he wrote and directed it.

Most of your work is in the silent film style, and even if there's dialogue in
it, as there is in "The Saddest Music in the World"...

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, and lots of it.

GROSS: And lots of it and there's music as well. Still, the look, the
lighting, the style has a lot to do with silent movies. In "The Saddest Music
in the World" some of the style also comes from movies of the '30s and
musicals of the '30s. But you know, your basic film vocabulary seems to come
from silent movies. Do you feel like you have to work with a certain type of
actor who has a face that could be convincing as a face from 1920s or '30s
movies?

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, I'm constantly looking for anachronistically intriguing
faces. It's kind of strange because when you go to a casting agent, it's--you
know, the head shots you're seeing are just packed with pulchritude, but it's
a contemporary beauty that is virtually useless to me, and I'm always forced
to find people that work as, you know, shop girls in chocolate shops and
things like that, and that just sort of look like they've come out of a time
machine somewhere. In "Saddest Music in the World" I'm really lucky with
Maria de Medeiros. She does seem to have stepped out of a time machine.

GROSS: She does. She has those really big eyes that you expect from silent
films and...

Mr. MADDIN: Right.

GROSS: ...a kind of pear-shape face that seems just right.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah. And, you know, she played Anais Nin in "Henry & June" and
was a very convincing anachronism. And...

GROSS: I think I mean heart-shaped face. Pear-shaped face sounds kind of
grotesque. I think I mean heart-shape faced.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, that's right. No. Yeah. No, you're right. Whatever it
is, it's not a form of beauty you see in Vogue magazine or on movie pages very
often.

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. MADDIN: So--and then Isabella Rossellini seems kind of timeless because
just the simple act of conversing with her is to experience time travel. It's
strange. She'll turn her head one second and turn into her mother, Ingrid.
And because she speaks a peculiar hybrid Italian-Swedish-English--I guess
English was taught to her by her mother because her accent is almost identical
to Ingrid's and so sometimes you're in the year 2004 when you're talking to
her, and sometimes it's--you know, you feel like you've just stepped off the
set of "Notorious" or something like that, and so there are all sorts of
anachronistic powers around her.

And so it was easy--she was my first, you know, highly recognizable person to
enter my universe, and I felt that she was--you know, I was scared to have
recognizable people in my universe. I arrogantly thought they were delicate
little bubbles that might burst if someone from the present stepped into them.
But of all the people to go first, she was the right one.

GROSS: I want to ask you about another theme that recurs--well, in at least
a couple of your films. That is the idea of limbs being amputated--legs or
hands--and I won't describe how it comes up in your movies so people who see
it can be surprised or...

Mr. MADDIN: Right.

GROSS: ...shocked or however they react to it. But why is that a theme for
you?

Mr. MADDIN: Well, I could back up a little bit. When--I came to reading as
late as skating even, and my way into literature--I was very intimidated by it
in high school but my way into it was to treat every story as if it was a
fairy tale and to think of it with the same kind of broad story-telling
gestures, conceits and devices that say Hans Christian Andersen or the
Brothers Grimm used, and they sometimes used very grisly, cruel plot twists.
And so when I'm designing my own stories, I'm sort of comfortable thinking of
them as fairy tales, and that's why there's frequently brothers that are
rivals because it's just really a fairy tale device for setting up tension and
`Aren't we all brothers and sisters, after all?' and all that stuff.

And also, another fact would be the fact that I'd just seen a lot of Lon
Chaney movies early in my movie-viewing career, and he starred in some of the
most remarkable films that were--I'm trying to come up with a term that aptly
describes him--but they might be allegories of disability where his tortured
soul, his tortured mind, his revenge-addled brain--whatever condition his soul
is in is manifested in some sort of outward disability or injury that must be
avenged...

GROSS: Well...

Mr. MADDIN: ...or dealt with somehow, and so the something that makes him
different is what drives the story and it's very--you know, from "Phantom of
the Opera," "Hunchback of Notre Dame," "The Unknown," where he's missing arms
or he's pretending to be missing arms--and they're really intriguing and
propelling. And they have nothing to do with literal amputees necessarily;
they're just little gentle allegories at first, and then they become savage
stories of the human heart that we can all identify with whether we're
amputees or not.

GROSS: Oh, yeah, those are great films. "The Unknown" is such a great film.
If people haven't seen it--I don't know if it's on video or DVD...

Mr. MADDIN: It is. It's on DVD; it's incredible.

GROSS: Yeah, it's really a great film. You know, I'd like you to--since
you've probably seen a lot of films from the '20s and '30s, and probably a lot
of them are fairly obscure but may be available now on video or DVD, can you
recommend a few?

Mr. MADDIN: Oh, sure. Well, some of them are just from the big silent movie
canon. The Murnau films: "The Last Laugh" and "Faust" and "Sunrise." I
really like the Frank Borzage pictures, although those aren't that available.
Those are hard to get at. But maybe I'll shame someone who has the rights
into putting it out: "Seventh Heaven,"--any amnesia story. There's a number
of film noirs that deal with amnesia that I love. I don't know. The really
good film noirs--I love "The Chase," which is kind of--the 1940s "The Chase."
It's really obscure, but it--that one should be put out on a DVD. It's by
Arthur Ripley. It stars Robert Cummings as a guy who's forgotten that he's
killed somebody. And there's another Cornell Woolrich one: "Dark Angel"
where Dan Duryea spends the entire movie searching for a killer only to find
out that he had forgotten that he was the killer--you know, that sort of
thing. I guess "Memento" sort of owed a lot to that. But these are
tremendous. I just love--the delirium produced by the amnesiac characters
just is a legal narcotic I can't get enough of.

GROSS: All right. I'll remind our listeners that there's some amnesia in
your new movie, "The Saddest Music in the World."

Now you live in Winnipeg, one of the coldest cities in the world with one of
the longest winters, and when you're there, you're pretty removed from the
rest of the world outside of, you know, through...

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, you bet.

GROSS: ...radio and television and stuff.

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. So when you make a movie and you come out and you do some
interviews and you maybe go on a tour or something, is it an incredible
difference to the rest of your life? I mean...

Mr. MADDIN: Yeah, at first it was. I'm getting a little better at it. At
first, it was incredibly disorienting and a bit overwhelming and--didn't know
what to expect. And you know, it created feelings that sure felt like
disappointment in me and I wasn't quite able to pinpoint why I was
disappointed because things were going swimmingly. I think it was just
overwhelming. But now I've traveled a lot in the last 10 years, and, you
know, I'm getting kind of flippantly careless about the whole thing, and I
keep reminding myself, though, how grateful I should be that I'm just getting
a chance to get out of here. I never even planned on being a filmmaker; it
just sort of happened.

If I was left to decide what to do with my life, I would still be lying on the
floor with my dog--a rotting dog, you know, seeing no reason to remove its
body. I'm not a pro--I've never been a very proactive person. I kind of
backed into filmmaking. A lot of the shots in my first few movies were sort
of receding shots. You know, I was pulling away from the subject matter
looking for a place to lie down. I had to be the world's laziest filmmaker
and, you know, the films are a little bit, you know, luxuriously paced and--at
first. But now I've learned to be quite aggressive, and I'm pleased with the
pacing in my pictures now. They're very exciting to me.

GROSS: Well, Guy Maddin, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. MADDIN: Oh, thanks so much, Terry.

GROSS: Guy Maddin directed and co-wrote the new movie "The Saddest Music in
the World."

Coming up, classical music critic Lloyd Schwartz on choreographer George
Balanchine and the music he used for his dances. This year marks the 100th
anniversary of Balanchine's birth.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: George Balanchine material now available on CD and DVD
TERRY GROSS, host:

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of George Balanchine, the
choreographer who many people regard as one of the greatest artists of the
20th century. Our classical music critic, Lloyd Schwartz, is one of those
people. It's an occasion for Lloyd to review some of the Balanchine material
now available on DVD and even CD.

(Soundbite of music)

LLOYD SCHWARTZ reporting:

How many choreographers have their names on an album of music? Yet a
Balanchine album on Nonesuch has just been freshly repackaged after being in
print for 18 years. No choreographer ever had a more intimate connection with
music than George Balanchine, which may explain why so many music critics like
to write about him.

I grew up in New York, and my first experience with dance as an art form was
with Balanchine and the New York City Ballet. It was as if Shakespeare were
living in Manhattan creating new masterworks season after season. I was even
lucky enough to watch him rehearse at the City Ballet Summer Home in Saratoga
Springs, New York.

When he died in 1983, he left an astonishing repertoire, as dazzling, as
profound, as varied, and easily as entertaining as any art in any medium
created in the 20th century. Balanchine saw possibilities not only in the
usual dance composers like Tchaikovsky, but in great masters like Bach and
Mozart, difficult modernists like Schonberg and Webern, even Sousa marches and
Gershwin tunes.

In 1928, he began a remarkable half century of collaborations with Igor
Stravinsky. Here's Robert Irving conducting Stravinsky's "Agon" with the
New York City Ballet Orchestra.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: Balanchine's dances are beautiful, but they are seldom merely
pretty. Without words, they tell tragic and often witty truths about human
interaction. In his overwhelming "Four Temperaments," a score he personally
commissioned from Paul Hindemith, Balanchine seems to discover the inner
workings of the universe. Whether his ballets tell a story or are merely
movements to music with no scenery and dancers in black leotards, there's
always the story of how movement embodies and reveals the emotional life of
the music.

Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: Balanchine worked with some of ballet's greatest dancers. He even
married several of them. Maybe the dancer who most inspired him was Suzanne
Farrell, though she married someone else. Among the Balanchine discs now on
DVD is "Elusive Muse," the moving documentary about their relationship. It
has a thrilling sequence filmed at the opening night of "Don Quioxte," one of
Balanchine's most ambitious and personal ballets. Farrell is a phenomenal
Dulcinea opposite Balanchine himself in the title role.

In May, Nonesuch is releasing on two DVDs 11 of the Balanchine ballets shown
on PBS' "Great Performances," including pieces with Suzanne Farrell and
Mikhail Baryshnikov. And Kultur has just put out the magnificent two-hour
American Masters documentary called "Balanchine." It covers his entire
career: Russia, Paris, Broadway, Hollywood and the creation of the New York
City Ballet. And there are memorable interviews with Mr. B. himself.

(Soundbite of "Balanchine")

Mr. GEORGE BALANCHINE: What is abstract? They mean storyless. But they have
to put the meaning in it. You see, for the people that meet, that one person
gives their hand and the girl embraces--it's already a meaning in it. A duet
is a love story almost. So how much story you want?

SCHWARTZ: I especially love the clip from a 1967 performance of "Apollo," the
first Stravinsky music Balanchine ever choreographed.

(Soundbite of music)

SCHWARTZ: Dancing the young god and the muse of dance are the young Peter
Martins, who now runs the New York City Ballet, and the young Suzanne Farrell,
who now has a company of her own. They're like young gods, not just
brilliant, but unearthly. They dance with a kind of unselfconscious,
spiritual passion which may be the most central quality of Balanchine's
genius.

GROSS: Lloyd Schwartz is classical music editor of the Boston Phoenix.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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