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Reviews of:
The Saddest Music in the World 


Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind


This girl Nina emailed me the other day, asking if I wanted to go see an art-house film, The Saddest Music in the World. I couldn’t figure out at first whether this was supposed to be a date or not. Did she like me, or just know I love movies and was looking for someone to go with? I asked several women for tell-tale signs to look for, and the advice I got back was hilarious, but unfortunately unprintable in this forum (maybe a Hyperion X).

We get to the theatre, and it was one of those places where you see people that look…uh…quite a bit different than the average. This doesn’t bother me too much, since I’m a bit different, but then I went to the restroom.

First of all, there are two guys in there with huge mohawks. One of them is a dwarf, and he leaves, and then it’s just me and this other guy. There are two all-the-way-to-the-floor urinals there without a divider between them. I’ve laughed at my friend Aslan before for being uncomfortable with this. However, they are so close together between the walls, that we have to stand at a 45 degree angle not to bump into each other.

So, we’re standing there, and while normally you look down in these situations, because of my angle I don’t really want to do that. I figure the best solution is to look at the guy’s face. He stares at me for a minute, and says (and I am not making this up), “You have beautiful tempestuous eyes.” I stare back at him for a minute, and then respond, “Well, considering where we are, I’m glad that’s what you’re looking at.”

I quickly left and I’m back in the theatre now and the movie is starting. How do I describe The Saddest Music in the World? First, I’ll give you the thumbnail: the year is 1933, in the heart of The Depression. The city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada has been named by the London Times the Saddest City in the World four years running. (Who knew Canada also had The Depression? Makes sense, though.) Anyway, there’s this bar owner (played by Isabella Rossellini) named Lady Port-Huntley. She’s worried that America will soon repeal prohibition, and beer sales will drop. So, she devises a contest for each country to send a representative, to see who has the saddest music in the world, with $25,000 as a prize (and those are “Depression-era Dollars,” as the announcer gleefully reminds us). The idea is that everyone will be all sad, and naturally buy lots of beer.

There’s more, involving a father from Canada and his two sons (also Canadian, but somehow representing the U.S.A. and Serbia, and oh, did I mention that the American son slept with the bar owner years ago when she was with the father and so he got drunk and accidentally cut off her legs?), but if I explained it, you wouldn’t believe me. Instead, let me tell you about the little things:

The musicians from the two countries in each round face each other and battle it out. They take turns with their music, ever moving closer, until they are right on top of each other, and playing simultaneously. The crowd goes nuts, Lady Port-Huntley makes her call on which country is sadder (which is completely rigged, but no matter), the winner slides down into a giant vat of beer, and the crowd goes nuts.

In fact, nobody really seems all that sad. You hardly have time to notice this, though, because of everything else going on. The film is shot in black and white (and sometimes color, to prove a point), always in a ‘30s-style comedy. The characters seem like stock-stereotypes, but on purpose. The film is grainy and seems worn, and the sound pops and crackles at times. It really does feel like an old movie house back in the day.

There are two announcers who give play-by-play during the Music Challenges. The sound like a combination of John Madden on Monday Night Football and the people who do the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. This probably isn’t going to come across, but when the Mexicans are singing, one of the announcers translates that the song is talking about children who die (that’s pretty sad), and then come out of the grave wanting to breast-feed on their mothers again, but the mothers’ breasts are only for the living. (I’m guessing it’s more poetic in Spanish.) The other announcer breaks in without missing a beat say, “Well, that just goes to show you that dead children, just like living ones, have to learn some time.”

I’m probably not translating the funny here. But, if what I just wrote didn’t make you smile, you’re probably not going to “get” this movie. I’m not sure I got it. It was hard to follow and at times went nowhere, and kind of annoying after awhile with the poor sound and picture. But boy, did I laugh. I have rarely laughed so hard at a movie. Mind, you, though, this was not the safe laughter of a formula sit-com. This was dark, dark, humour.

Maybe that’s for you. Maybe you like glass legs filled with beer and women who can’t remember they were married and someone from Thailand who’s clearly Mongolian and…ah, what am I trying to do? There is no way to explain this movie that would in any way make you want to see it.

But you might want to. I can’t quite recommend it, but I’m glad I had the experience. If you’re a movie person, and pride yourself on independent films, you might want to give it a shot, too.

Suspension of Disbelief Scale (from 0-10, with 0 being Schindler’s List and 10 being a cartoon): 6. Don’t get too caught up in how realistic it isn’t.

Genre Grade: This movie doesn’t fit in any category I can think of. As an art-house film, I give it a C+.

Pantheon Percentile (In the realm of all films ever made, what percentage is this film better than?): 42. Not one of the greatest efforts of all time, but a nice try.


How happy is the blameless vestal’s lot!
The world forgetting, but the world forgot.
Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind!
Each pray’r accepted, and each wish resign’d;
Labour and rest, that equal periods keep;
Obedient slumbers, that can wake and weep.
-From Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope

I’m sitting here in Denny’s with Skippy the Wonder Lizard and Aslan arguing over how to describe Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind to you in a way that will make you want to see the film but without giving anything away. For those of you familiar with such, all you need to know is that this is a Charlie Kaufman film. Kaufman is the scribe of such mind-benders as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. If you like either of these films, stop reading now and go watch Eternal Sunshine. If you hated them, forget about it.

If you’ve never heard of Kaufman, here’s what you need to know: Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet are Joel and Clementine; an oddball couple if there ever was one. They break up—badly—and on a whim, Clementine decides to have her memories of Joel erased. She does that at sort of a Sci-Fi HMO, where they specialize in taking a piece of your mind to give you peace of mind. A hurt and devastated Joel decides to do the same. Game On.

Eternal Sunshine twists and turns, not just in the movie, but how you react to it. The filmmakers manage to capture the surreality of dreams and always keep us engaged, even though you’re never quite sure how “real” what you’re seeing is.

Carrey is more subdued here in than in past work, which fits this perfectly. He seems to love playing characters that fit this type1, and in his quiet moments he brings a poignant sadness to each role.

Kate Winslet is delightful in a difficult part; at times challenging and impulsive, and yet lost and vulnerable. The rest of the cast—the workers who do the memory erasing, and Joe’s sister and her husband—are picture perfect in limited roles.

The movie exists on three levels. There is the literal level, which I’m unable to articulate in words. It’s an experience you just have to see for yourself, like a Salvador Dali painting. Then there is the Sci-Fi level. We’re living in a world where increasingly we try to engineer sadness out of our lives. I am not convinced this is a good thing. That’ll make you think, too.

Lastly, there is the metaphorical level. It’s pretty common after a bad ending to a relationship to try to excise all memories of the person. (There is this great scene where Joel has to gather up all the things in his apartment that remind him of Clementine and trash them. More than one of you has done that, eh?) Somehow we think that bad memories are to be feared and not dwelt on. But without the bad, does the good have any meaning?

But I digress. I really loved this film. It was inventive, original, funny, thought-provoking, and sad in a beautiful way. It doubles back on itself repeatedly, doesn’t go for the cheap Hollywood ending or try to take the easy way out, and ever stops surprising. If you’re not a coward, I recommend Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Suspension of Disbelief Scale: 5. The memory erasing procedure is science fiction (for now), but the emotions are played straight throughout and feel very real.

Genre Grade: If this were a straight Love Story, B-. If we call it an exploration of the human psyche, A-.

Pantheon Percentile: This is a fantastic film, but because of its weirdness will not appeal to every segment of movie watchers. 85.

June 23, 2004

Thanks to Nina
Thanks to Skippy the Wonder Lizard
Thanks to Aslan
Thanks to Koz for Editing

1 Nina pointed out something interesting to me. Carrey often seems to do work where he’s playing someone he’s not. In The Mask he had all these powers, which was essentially the same thing as Bruce Almighty. In Me Myself and Irene he has schizophrenia, while in The Majestic he gets amnesia. In Liar Liar he’s unable to not tell the truth, in Man on the Moon he plays Andy Kaufman, a man being something he isn’t if there ever was one, and in the best of all of these, The Truman Show, he’s in a world that doesn’t exist. Not sure why Carrey likes these roles so much. Any thoughts?

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