Careful Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Careful

Some film-makers are so original that it’s very hard to convey what their work is like to those who have yet to sample it – just imagine describing films by such diverse talents as David Lynch, Luis Buñuel, Russ Meyer, Jan Svankmajer or Tex Avery to those totally in the dark.

And so it is with Guy Maddin, one of the most distinctive directors to emerge in recent years (I can recognise a Maddin film in about two seconds flat) but someone whose work bears no resemblance to anything else being made today. Probably the closest equivalent would be a post-Swordfishtrombones Tom Waits album – it may have been made recently, but there are no giveaway signs: it could have turned up at any point in the last seven decades.

Maddin is obsessed with the cinema of the late 1920s and early 1930s, that period when silent cinema gave way to sound, and there was a great deal of artistic and technical uncertainty as to the way forward, with the visual sophistication of the greatest silents giving way to appallingly primitive, clunky sound features.

While a fondness for the cinema of the past and a desire to emulate it isn’t especially unusual – Woody Allen shares it, for starters – Maddin not only loves old films, he also loves bad prints of old films, and he goes out of his way to create the impression that his films have been mouldering in obscure archives for several decades (when the lab damaged the negative of his second feature Archangel, leaving nasty blotches, he couldn’t have been happier). He also delights in resurrecting abandoned and forgotten techniques – the Expressionism of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, for instance, or breaking up the action with cryptic intertitles – but his films are much more than just pastiche: they may look as though they were made in the 1920s, but they’re clearly reflected through a 1990s perspective: the innocence of the originals has given way to knowing irony.

Careful is a gleefully warped tribute to the German “mountain film”, an immensely popular genre (Hitler was a huge fan) that thrived in the late 1920s and early 1930s, bordering the coming of sound. Typically, strapping young lads and lasses (the latter often played by future director Leni Riefenstahl – a fan of Careful, incidentally) would go up a mountain for an adventure or two, and disaster would usually strike at some point – but, needless to say, adversity would be triumphed over and the might of the Aryan race would be revealed in all its glory, or something like that.

Careful takes its basic inspiration from the mountain film, but in terms of treatment it’s very different. Set entirely in the fictional Alpine village of Tolzbad, the film portrays a community living precariously on the edge, both literally in terms of their physical location, and metaphorically in terms of their various psychological ailments. The threat of avalanche is ever-present, and as a result the villagers are inordinately cautious, avoiding sudden movements and speaking only in whispers, lest they trigger a fatal flurry.

This is an atmosphere that naturally encourages servility, and it’s no surprise that the famous Tolzbad Butler Gymnasium is one of the village’s highlights, where various young men learn how to groom both themselves and their masters under the tutelage of the terrifying Frau Teacher, a woman who makes Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love look like a Bond girl. Needless to say, this is the perfect breeding-ground for all sorts of repressed passions: homosexual, incestuous, necrophiliac, you name it. Disaster strikes when Johan falls helplessly in love with his mother Zenaida, an obsession that ends in grotesque self-mutilation and suicide, and his younger brother Grigorss vows to avenge him.

It should be mentioned at this point that unlike a real German mountain film, Careful is totally artificial, entirely created in a Winnipeg studio (Winnipeg being about as flat as Canada gets), and with absolutely no attempt made to hide the joins: everything looks so fake it’s a wonder the scenery doesn’t fall apart at the end of every take.

The set, prop and costume design – much of it by Maddin himself – is truly glorious (as one review put it: “to call this film ‘kitsch’ would be like calling the Grand Canyon a fault line: true but inadequate”), and helped enormously by being shot in a style that alternates between tinted monochrome and something that was supposed to resemble old two-strip Technicolor. A film it strongly reminded me of is Michael Powell’s similarly delirious Black Narcissus, albeit made on a much lower budget (though Careful certainly isn’t lacking in the imagination department).

This is an extraordinarily difficult film to give a fair rating to, because there’s nothing else quite like it outside the Guy Maddin universe, and it’s comfortably my favourite of the films within it. I initially thought of giving it a perfect 10, just for the hell of it, but restrained myself on the grounds that the film’s second half, though never less than wonderfully strange, was noticeably more muted by comparison with the passionately overwrought melodramatics of the first.

But it really is a love-it-or-hate-it experience with virtually no middle ground, and I know plenty of people who just found it baffling and boring (“Well, at least the first three letters of his surname make sense!” said one disgruntled friend after seeing it on my recommendation) – so I suggest you take the film’s advice, and tread carefully.

But if you’re at all interested in sampling a Maddin film, this would be my overwhelming first choice: of all his films, it manages a perfect balance between being surprisingly accessible and so weird you often can’t quite believe what you’re seeing. I loved it unreservedly – indeed, I saw it in the cinema four times between 1992 and 1994, which is no mean feat considering that it didn’t exactly get a multiplex release – and I’m delighted that it’s been preserved in rather more accessible form.

A major selling point of the DVD format is its pristine, blemish-free nature, and as a consequence we’re conditioned to assume that anything with excessive grain, visible print damage (both scratches and chemical blotches), variable colour or scratchy, hiss-filled soundtracks must be defective in some way. Most of the time, that’s perfectly true – but how do you accurately assess the technical merits of a film where these “defects”, though unquestionably abundant, are entirely deliberate?

The whole point of Careful is that it’s not only supposed to look as though it dates from the late 1920s, the print is supposed to look as though it’s that old as well – so the only fair way of assessing the DVD is to comment on the actual digital transfer, not on the state of the original print (which, for the record, looks absolutely fine).

For the most part, the transfer is very good indeed – though I have a couple of quibbles: the picture is very soft, and a couple of scenes are prone to severe artefacting, most notably the green-tinted monochrome sequences towards the end. The biggest problem is with the scene where Johan prepares the love potion, where the colours have been oversaturated to the point where they’re so strongly posterised that I wondered what had gone wrong – but thankfully that’s an exception rather than the rule. On the whole, though, it reproduces the original 35mm picture reasonably well. The picture is, of course, framed in 4:3 (it could hardly be anything else), and is therefore non-anamorphic.

After all that, you’re hardly going to expect a Dolby Digital 6.1 EX soundtrack, and you certainly don’t get one. But what’s peculiar about Maddin’s soundtracks is that while background music and ambient sound comes across as though it was sourced from a particularly ropey 78 shellac record, dialogue in the foreground is usually crystal-clear, creating a decidedly dislocated effect – but nonetheless it’s exactly what he intended. This is not a soundtrack for surround sound buffs (to put it mildly), but I had no complaints: it reproduced exactly what I remembered. There are sixteen chapter stops, each identified by a suitably bizarre still.

There are just two extras, but they’re both superb. The commentary is by Maddin and screenwriter George Toles, and is an untrammelled joy – I’m delighted to confirm that they’re both clearly as loopy as their film, and I lost count of the number of gems they threw out, whether it’s the fact that the mountains were all named after obscure Canadian ice hockey players, or fantasising about the writings of John Ruskin taking over from rock music and drugs in the lives of modern teenagers, or describing a tradition of illegal duels in Winnipeg that allegedly lasted until the Sixties – plus of course the usual raft of production anecdotes and confessions of things that went wrong (at one point highlighting a cigarette burn on an expensive scrim that was designed to give the background behind the actors a hazy, dreamlike feel).

What comes through most strongly is their passion both for what they’re doing and for the films and film-makers that inspired them: references to just about every major film-maker from the silent and early sound era are thrown out, from Erich von Stroheim and Leni Riefenstahl to René Clair and Buster Keaton (the train sequence is an explicit tribute to Our Hospitality, though Maddin ruefully acknowledges that he couldn’t possibly have rivalled it). It’s an absolute model of what a good commentary track should be: both informative and hilarious by turns, and by the end I was left marvelling at how on earth someone like Maddin was even able to raise the money to make one feature, let alone four.

There’s just one other extra, but if I had the choice between an in-depth hour-long documentary or the usual mix of five-minute PR drivel, production notes and a trailer, I know which I’d go for. Noam Gonick’s excellent, admirably thorough Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight was made for Canadian TV in 1997, at the time when Maddin was shooting his fourth feature Twilight of the Ice Nymphs (such an artistic as well as a commercial disaster that he even apologised profusely for it at a live appearance in London a couple of years later), but it ranges over his entire life and career, and is crammed with clips not only of his films but also ultra-rare footage of various experimental Winnipeg TV shows that he contributed to in the 1980s plus descriptions of unmade (and possibly unmakable) Maddin projects such as The Dikemaster’s Daughter.

There are also interviews with various friends and colleagues, including Shelley Duvall and Frank Gorshin (best known for playing the Riddler in the 1960s Batman TV series) – and, just to bring this review full circle, the narration is by Tom Waits, and I can’t think of anyone more appropriate. Happily, Kino have bucked the trend for slapping these pieces onto DVDs with no navigation and have provided twelve chapter stops.

All in all, this DVD is the perfect introduction to the world of Guy Maddin – Careful is a lot more accessible than his other features (I certainly wouldn’t recommend starting with Tales from the Gimli Hospital, the other current Maddin DVD), and the documentary and commentary are a more than welcome bonus. To say that Maddin is an acquired taste would be putting it very mildly indeed – but if you’re on anything like the same wavelength this is a uniquely wonderful film, both beautiful and barking, solemn and surreal, utterly unlike anything else you’ve ever seen.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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