Combustible Celluloid
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With: Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Paul Cox, Brent Neale, Victor Cowie, Michael O'Sullivan, Katya Gardner, Vince Rimmer, Jackie Burroughs, Ross McMillan, Leith Clark, Glen Hubich, Brendan Carruthers, George Toles
Written by: Guy Maddin, George Toles
Directed by: Guy Maddin
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 100
Date: 10/07/1992

Careful (1992)

3 Stars (out of 4)

Mountain Heir

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

One of the most post-modern of all directors, Guy Maddin always emphasizes the movie-ness of his movies. They appear in a kind of emulsion haze, sometimes tinted, or perhaps engulfed in dry ice smoke. Sometimes scratches on the film or in the soundtrack will accompany the images. He uses optical effects and hand-built sets, and doesn't care much about showing the seams. He seems particularly interested in films from the German Expressionist era, and not only re-creates their specific visual scheme with stark shadows and angular sets, but also the silent era itself, with its offbeat rhythms and textures, and especially intertitles in place of dialogue. It's easy to see why he has gained a passionate cult following over the years, especially if fans clued into his work right from the start.

Careful (1992) was Maddin's third feature film, and in it he came up with an ingenious idea: rather than making a silent film, he would tell a story about a community perched on the edge of a dangerous mountain, in which the slightest sound would trigger a deadly avalanche. Flocks of birds screeching overhead are cause for alarm, and the town's animals have had their vocal chords severed. People speak in whispers, or not at all. But, in this special place, when two lovers speak, their words carry for miles. In another sequence, two characters travel to a secret cave hideaway, and the thinness of the air causes them to yawn in-between lines of dialogue -- even though they're discussing very intense things like rape and incest. Other times we get characters cracking giant eggs and dripping candle wax on the heavily made-up faces of corpses.

Stretched out between all these oddball images and ideas, however, Maddin has clearly fallen in love with his characters, and he presents their story as an unfiltered melodrama with glorious emotional highs the likes of which have not been seen since the days of D.W. Griffith or F.W. Murnau. Two grown brothers, Johann (Brent Neale) and Grigorss (Kyle McCulloch) are attending butler school and are excited about the future. Johann is all set to marry Klara (Sarah Neville), but has an erotic dream about his mother Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska) and throws himself off the mountain.

Meanwhile, Grigorss goes to work for Count Knotkers (Paul Cox) and discovers the Count, and not his late father, was the true love of his mother's life. Reunited, Zenaida and the Count plan to marry, but the heartbroken Klara has convinced Grigorss that his honor is at stake, so he challenges the Count to a duel. Klara's opinion comes from her own bizarre relationship with her father; he apparently took her virginity and now she acts like a jealous rival, wedged between her father and her pretty sister Sigleinde (Katya Gardner). The ghost of Johann and Grigorss's father also appears, blind from two unrelated accidents that took both his eyes. Oh, and Zenaida has a third son who lives in the attic for reasons best left unexplained.

Maddin unfolds this story with great bursts of sweeping passion, which sometimes does not click with the filmmaker's coy, winking re-creation of old films; it's not clear whether we're supposed to laugh or care. That's a roadblock that, for me, keeps Careful from being a great film, but it's certainly an astounding film for its purely spectacular terms.

DVD Details: And perhaps the already initiated will appreciate Zeitgeist's superb new DVD presentation, which has been "remastered and repressed" according to Maddin's wishes. (In other words, the film's texture now more closely resembles the theatrical release.) The disc comes with a commentary track by Maddin, a short film (The Eye Like a Strange Balloon), and an hour-long documentary about Maddin, narrated by Tom Waits, and filmed on the set of Twilight of the Ice Nymphs. Film critic J. Hoberman provides the liner notes, in which he correctly calls Maddin a "masterful disconcerter."

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