Directed by Guy Maddin
reviewed by Richard Malloy ( aka "Al Brown" )
DVD produced by Kino On Video Ó2000
16mm, color, 1.33:1
Extra Features: Commentary Track by Guy Maddin and George Toles (scriptwriter); Documentary, Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, directed by Noam Gonick
(NOTE: The following review reveals plot details occurring within the first 35 minutes of the narrative, but these should not detract from your enjoyment of the film.)
Guy Maddin’s dizzily delirious
1992 film, Careful, has been
called a pro-repression fable, a masterpiece of deadpan comic timing, a
period piece evoking a time and place that never existed, and a Ricola
ad gone horribly, horribly wrong.1
Utterly unique and yet evocative of myriad influences, Careful is a truly bizarre concoction created from the plundered
relics of cinematic history and the dark attics of dreams.
Enslaved by suffocating taboo
and the constant threat of avalanche, the citizens of the mountain
village of Tolzbad lead hushed, wary lives.
So zealous is their chariness that even the vocal chords of the
animals are surgically snipped to avert potential calamity.
A dog barks furiously, and yet all one can hear is the unsettling
clacking of teeth. Honking
geese are shot out of the sky with silently firing rifles.
Rambunctious children are gagged and bound to chairs to thwart
the dire consequences of their reverberating outbursts.
Fragile glassware trembles and tinkles upon shuddering cupboard
shelves, as though perpetually teetering on the brink of some terrible
Then, there is always
the avalanche, when the snow relaxes its grip on the slope and is
dragged downward under its own crushing weight.
The slightest sound or any false move by anyone can trigger these
deadly landslides and sweep us all into oblivion!
Barely repressed beneath the
snowy peaks and hushed propriety of Tolzbad lies a swamp of unnatural
urges, carnal and incestuous longings, ripening jealousies and simmering
sibling rivalries. The
slumbering, love-struck Johann dreams steamy visions of his newly
betrothed, the buxom Klara. But
at the very height of his fervent reverie, Klara’s youthful visage is
overcome by the deliriously unsettling image of Johann’s doting
mother, Zenaida – a vision that will haunt Johann in his waking hours,
a feverish preoccupation, its urgency growing by the day.
Klara fares no better, as she longs desperately for her father,
Herr Trotta, but he favors the charms of her sister, Sieglinde.
Johann’s brother, Grigorss, greets the news of his pending
nuptials with quiet consternation, grimly crushing a handful of swizzle
sticks as he silently broods. All
the while, the forgotten brother, Franz, a debilitated mute confined to
a creepy, cobwebby attic, is visited by the emanation of their deceased
father, a double-blinded, former swan-feeder with warnings from beyond.
Like Teiresias, the blind oracle in Oedipus Rex who perceives the
terrible truth unseen by all others, he frantically beseeches Franz to
prevent Johann from acting upon his shameful desires before
it is too late...
The passions grow on
high mountains and fling their red blossoms to the storm.
Perhaps the boy has mountain fever!
It begins innocently enough with dreams of mountains, a peak
round as a plump knee, or a crest like a frosted bosom white as goat’s
milk. Who can resist the temptation to climb?
Unable to shake the terrible
urges brought about in the delirium of dreams, Johann embarks upon a
treacherous course. After
placing his mother in a deep sleep with the Tolzbadian equivalent of a
Rohypnol cocktail and snipping off her bright blue bodice with a pruning
shears, He plants a tender and tremulous kiss upon her fragrant bosom…
and is immediately and violently overcome by the overwhelming guilt of
his terrible transgression. As Oedipus gouged out his own eyes, Johann scorches his
guilty lips with a white hot ember, snips off his fingers with the
pruning shears, and pitches himself headlong off a convenient precipice.
Thus ends Part 1 of Careful,
Guy Maddin’s tragicomic melodrama of irrepressible desires and earnest
Look of Careful
Inspired by German expressionist
cinema and the 'mountain films' of Arnold Fanck and Leni Riefenstahl,2
Maddin originally envisioned Careful
in black-and-white. He was
urged instead by his producer, Greg Klymkiw, to undertake his first
color film. Further
inspired by a chance viewing of Paul Whiteman’s The
King of Jazz, Maddin settled upon two-strip Technicolor3,
thereby limiting his palette to two, often clashing colors at any given
time, with the occasional burst of pale yellow adding a third.
According to Maddin, the two-strip Technicolor was always
producing odd artifacts, and indeed it very often appears to produce
three, four, or more colors at once.
The film also frequently retreats into a single-tinted
monochrome, such as the red-bathed opening montage and the cooler hues
of the final act.
Colored light glows, blooms,
smears, and refracts through a gauzy haze of gelled and filtered lenses.
Saturated blues, oranges, violets, reds, greens and ambers bathe
the images. When the film
was digitally transferred for DVD, Maddin had to resist the urge to ask
the colorist to spin the saturation knob back and forth to make the
colors ‘literally tremble rather than just glow’.
What we see, however, is a faithful representation of the
original film, an often beautiful but also unsettling marriage of hues,
helping to create and sustain the ‘visceral unease underlying the
parody, irony and humor.’ With
its stark, expressionistic silhouettes and garish color schemes, its
artificial sets and anachronistic use of intertitles and irises, Careful
seems to have somehow transported The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari to the
land of Oz.
The wonderful digital transfer
for Kino’s DVD edition was overseen and approved by Maddin.
A few flecks, several specks and one small squiggly that quickly
works its way across the upper left corner of the screen might be said
to mar what otherwise would have been a perfect source element.
But considering the extraordinary efforts to produce an ‘antiqued’
look and sound, one wonders how such nits could truly be construed as
distracting (or even unintentional).
This is a wholly unique looking film, not one that lends itself
well as a reference disc for your video equipment, but rest assured...
it’s supposed to look that
Sound of Careful
Boasting what is reputedly the
largest library of ambient crackle recordings in the world (if not the
only one), Guy Maddin has at his disposal every imaginable variant of
optical static from which he creates his signature soundscapes.
Waves of hiss, along with various pops and scratches, create a
charming acoustic patina and infuse his films with an odd
otherworldliness derived as much from a childhood spent tuning in exotic
stations in the strange nighttime world of AM radio as from watching old
Uproariously purple or oddly
deadpan, the faux-profound dialog of a Guy Maddin film is every bit as
characteristic as the thick blanket of ambience upon which it’s
embroidered. George Toles, longtime Maddin collaborator and
co-screenwriter for Careful,
claims the particular style of the dialog in Careful
was based largely on Herman Melville’s novel, Pierre.
Explaining his attraction to Pierre,
Toles notes, “In addition to the parody – at one level, it’s a
send-up of domestic fiction – there is an authentic hysteria at the
heart of the novel that the satire never effaces.”
The dialog is very obviously
looped and possesses a warm, round clarity strangely detached from its
thick bed of ambient noise. Maddin
remarks, “I think people presume I only create the most crackly,
degenerated sound possible, but I want the words to be as
clear as the mountain air. I
want them to have that old theatrical part-talkie enunciation – they
end up floating somewhere a few feet in front of the performer’s lips.”
This odd disconnect creates a curious artificiality that seems to
bracket each pronouncement with the aural equivalent of quotation marks,
like some sort of post-production irony enhancer.
At times, waves of ambient
crackle wash over the spoken words, drowning them out, and sending us
briefly back to the silent era – a device Maddin dubs ‘SelectoSound’.
“Sometimes you don't even need to hear the words coming out of
a person's mouth. When someone is clearly saying 'Goodbye darling, I
love you, take care,' I just have lips moving and nothing coming out,
because the pantomime is sufficient. [The audience] fills in the blanks.”5
Providing the final aural touch
is John McCulloch’s wonderfully goofy score.
With its wailing choruses, brassy outbursts, and thick taffy-like
progressions, it is very often a spot-on, spoofy homage to the Teutonic
tones of Wagner and Herrmann. Add
some dreamy, cascading whole-tone scales and a few perfectly
constructed, early-cinema style cues, and you have the ideal compliment
to Maddin’s kooky Germanic plunderings.
The audio is very nicely
rendered on this disc in DD-2.0 (mono), with each layer of the complex
soundscape well represented in the mix.
Feel free to turn it up as loud as you like, loud enough to
distinguish even the faintest whisper of hiss, and you’ll be happy to
discover that the dialog never becomes harshly sibilant, and the music
never disintegrates into a mushy gruel.
In addition to the very engaging commentary track featuring Maddin and Toles (excerpted throughout this review), Kino On Video has included on this disc the award-winning documentary Guy Maddin: Waiting for Twilight, by fellow Winnipeg Film Group director, Noam Gonick. Shot during the production of Maddin’s 1997 film, Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, his first of feature-length since Careful, the documentary is a chronological journey through the films of Guy Maddin and a strange and wonderful window into the world of the Winnipeg film community.6
cheerful and morose, and often simultaneously so, Maddin speaks about
his successes and failures, his childhood, his films, his phobias and
his neurological disorder (which he prefers to leave untreated).
We see him on the set of Ice Nymphs,
at home in bed with the flu, and in Bill Sciak’s barber chair
receiving what can only be described as an extraordinarily ill-suiting
We learn that Maddin & Co.
studied film by spending weekends at the home of Steven Snyder,
professor at the University of Manitoba, who would bring films from the
university library for the cinematic edification of the Winnipeg boys.
More precisely, Snyder would project the invariably poor, 16mm
prints on his office wall at the university, record them with a Betacam,
and then dub them to VHS for home viewing.
These very distressed copies, essentially hand-shot bootlegs of
bad university library prints further compromised by dubbing, would form
the basis of Maddin’s film education.
As with many of Maddin’s often
dubious stories, one is occasionally left to wonder which are true and
which are truly apocryphal. One
can’t help but perceive a certain amount of self-mythologizing when
listening to him speak, an inclination he likely derived from Greg
Klymkiw, his famously puffery-prone producer/promoter.
In what may be a rare moment of true candor, Klymkiw, seated at a
ridiculously unkempt desk and looking not unlike a bearded,
Yukon-version of Roger Ebert, speaks wistfully about growing up in
Winnipeg, “I just sort of remember endless, endless days of
slacking... it’s no surprise that we’d end up eventually making
films. I just think that’s what slacking leads to.”
In addition to the interviews
with Maddin and fellow members of the Winnipeg Film Group, there are
extensive clips from all his feature-length films, including Tales
from the Gimli Hospital, Archangel
and Twilight of the Ice Nymphs.
It’s the ideal introduction to Maddin, Winnipeg, and the wholly unique
films this strange alchemy of person and place has produced.
In 1995, Guy Maddin became the
youngest filmmaker to ever be awarded the Medal for Lifetime Achievement
at the Telluride Film Festival. Hardly
a household name, but well-known in the world of avant-garde film,
Maddin’s work is simultaneously rarified and accessible.
For every precious or exquisite touch, there is also broad comedy
and whimsy. For every dark
urge and black irony, there is also warmth and true sentiment.
And everything flows from the ancient attics of dreams and the
plundered relics of cinematic history.
“In the future, I hope there'll be these dusty old second-hand video stores where people might find my films and go 'Wow, are these ever rich and strange!;’ not 'Wow, are these ever hokey!' Of course, you can't demand that people perceive you in a certain way; you just have to wait. But I have a hunch that time might be kind to my movies.” –Guy Maddin
1 “a pro-repression fable” Guy Maddin; “a masterpiece of deadpan comic timing; a period piece evoking a time and place that never existed” Mike Rubin (see link below in Footnote 5); “a Ricola ad gone horribly, horribly wrong” Will Robinson Sheff (IMDb user comment).
German ‘mountain film’: see,
e.g., the films of Arnold
Fanck (some starring a young Leni Riefenstahl):
Die Weiße Hölle vom Piz Palü (1929); Der
Heilige Berg (1926); and Der
Berg des Schicksals (1924); see also Riefenstahl’s Das Blaue Licht (1932).
3Though described on the box as “shot in bright, vivid color reminiscent of early two-strip Technicolor,” Maddin speaks quite literally about using this very film stock in the commentary. The reviewer pleads ignorance and defers to Maddin’s comments, with the mild admonition that he’s probably completely untrustworthy.
4The following exchange between Johann and Klara, as Klara envisions a lifetime of a particular kind of wedded bliss, is typical. Imagine these lines delivered in the hilariously over-enunciated, hammy tones of the era of the part-talkie:
at that butterfly – how innocent it is!
Let us strive for purity in everything, even after our wedding!
JOHANN: Purity sickens me. You can be pure for both of us.
JOHANN: Klara! Suppose that the sounds of angels singing hymns to our virginal love was in reality a cry from the deepest pit of hell!
KLARA: What are you saying?! You frighten me!
JOHANN: Forgive my raving. I have not been sleeping well.
5From an interview with Mike Rubin: CLICK HERE
of the Winnipeg Film Group: CLICK