Careful

In the documentary Waiting For Twilight, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin talks about growing up in Winnepeg, where he enjoyed listening to American radio broadcasts drift in through "layers of static." That about sums up Maddin's career to date: He tells stories with as many layers of static as he can introduce. Two of Maddin's most successful experiments in untuned cinema are now available on video and DVD. The 1988 film Tales From The Gimli Hospital stars Kyle McCulloch and Michael Gottli as two friends who meet under quarantine as a smallpox epidemic sweeps their Icelandic-Canadian community. When not occupied by his pastime of cutting tree bark into fish shapes, McCulloch tells a story which implies he may have perversely sullied the memory of Gottli's dead true love, and the two soon abandon their friendship in favor of fevered delirium and cruel revenge. Gimli's black-and-white cinematography is lit almost exclusively by a single stark light, which gives a dreamlike quality to such surreal images as people washing their faces with straw and squeezing fish for hair oil, before Maddin breaks the hypnotic spell via overt artifice. The filmmaker self-consciously borrows from dozens of sources, including radio dramas, Our Gang shorts, hygiene films, school plays, stag pictures, Universal horror, ethnographic documentaries, and the indie weirdness of John Waters and David Lynch. The DVD edition includes two short pieces (Maddin's debut film The Dead Father and a sexually charged three-minute dream sequence cut from Gimli), as well as a fairly insightful commentary track, wherein Maddin describes the films collectively as "a tone poem... a tribute to optical crackle." But while he skillfully recreates the otherworldly effect of a crudely rendered folk tale, he approaches the ideas and emotions of the story with detachment, and he encourages his audience to do the same. The 1991 film Careful travels the same route, but with different gear. Shot in color, with a twinkly tone reminiscent of an MGM musical, a Disney animated feature, and a TV Christmas special all smashed together, Careful tells of a remote mountain village where fear of avalanches forces the locals to perform every activity quietly, with great reserve. When one figurative rock tumbles—as an upstanding boy commits suicide upon having a lurid dream about his mother—the rest begin to fall in a clamor of murder, sex, and shocking revelations. Although longer and more complex than Gimli, thanks to a fine script by Maddin and George Toles, Careful is equally claustrophobic. The director's continued use of minimal lighting, deliberately phony-looking studio sets, and sterile overdubs perpetuates a feeling of blatant manufacture which undercuts any disturbing themes. The DVD includes a commentary track by Maddin and Toles, as well as an hour-long documentary that puts Maddin's methods in context. The documentary is ostensibly about the ill-fated production of Maddin's rarely screened 1997 film Twilight Of The Ice Nymphs, but its exploration of his upbringing and obsessions is more useful in explaining why he makes films that are visually distinctive and full of personality, yet arch to the point of distraction: Growing up in a cold, solemn place, he and his friends sat inside all night and made fun of old movies. Trying to understand them might have been a more rewarding endeavor.

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