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03.25.09

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Phaedra

Careful

One disc; $29.99; Zeitgeist

By Richard von Busack


To celebrate its 20th anniversary, Zeitgeist has released a nigh-Criterion remastering of Guy Maddin's ambitious if slightly satirical 1992 melodrama Careful. Though the epigraph comes from Kipling, the film summing up could be that line by Robert Crumb's Whiteman: "I must maintain this rigid position or all is lost!" The simmering mania in this first color film by Maddin (My Winnipeg) bids to make Freud himself subversive again.

The film is based on the German mountain melodramas of the early sound era. This arch Oedipal tale of doom is played out in a village of hapless souls in the Alps. In an avalanche-prone valley, every whisper echoes and even the bleat of a nanny goat can bring down the mountain. Two strapping sons, good brother Franz and yearning brother Grigorss, live in Tolzbad with their widowed (but still MILFy) mother. Both are cadets at the local butler's school, and both love Klara, the intense daughter of a poor but haughty intellectual. This daughter, however, yearns only for the attention of her abstracted father.

In this valley of repression, love is indicated by a flared nostril, a raised eyebrow, the quickening pulse of a throat or the lowing of an alpenhorn. Maddened by incestuous thoughts—the mountain-trapped echoes of the passions of his dead father—Franz goes nuts. In the second half, the true story of Frank and Grigorss' birth is revealed, as is the reason why the family has another mad brother stashed in the attic.

An intrepid group of Shakespearean and other actors limn out this flamboyant scenario by George Toles. It is a bit of a compromise from what the decadent Toles (brother of cartoonist Tom Toles, it turns out) originally had in mind. Toles had proposed a pro-incest drama. Maddin quailed at this, leaning toward a slightly more sane tragedy in which unnatural desires are purged by tons of cleansing snow. Maddin's own Manitoba-bred probity acts as the restraint on the craziness. One could say that it's the Canadian in Maddin that adds the strong paternalism of 16 mm educational films, prefacing this tale with a cautionary warning to the children in the audience: "Don't get wet! Don't put too much pepper on it. Careful! Careful!" Careful is never quite camp—it's not dismissive, like camp can be. Really, Maddin's career provides a haven in exile for the fervent spirit of Expressionism, a last place where it can roam like the buffalo among gypsum snow and Matterhorns of papier-mâché. Maddin works his matchless alchemy, retrieving the tinted hues and nacreous radiance of UFA film. The characters wear black Germanic uniforms covered with brass buttons and each one glows like plutonium, or else gleams with etiolated light during one or another double-exposed snowstorm.

As he was "ordered" to make the film in color, Maddin began his experiments in various techniques: saturated tinting in duo-toned "Melancolor" as he later called it; or in incidents of "supersaturated effulgence" toned down by pre-flashing the film: a process he calls "Repressovision ... colors quivering to get out."

Included on this disc is a short film of tribute to the symbolist master artist Odile Redon, using Poe's "Berenice" as partial source. (Poe's "Ligeia" seems to be another touch point throughout Maddin's work, for that matter.) The documentary Waiting for the Twilight shows Maddin at work on his film Twilight of the Ice Nymphs; leading Frank Gorshin and narrator Tom Waits through yet another antique dream of troubling things.

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