Snowballing Secrets: Guy Maddin’s Careful

Careful

Format: DVD Region 1

Release date: 17 October 2000

Distributor: Kino

Director: Guy Maddin

Writers: Guy Maddin, George Toles

Cast: Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Paul Cox, Brent Neale

Canada 1992

100 mins

‘Careful, Arthur’, intones the narrator at the beginning of the prologue to Guy Maddin’s third film. His warning to a child seen lifting the lid off a steaming pan of water is one of many that follow. Each is accompanied by a scene illustrating the hazards of living in Tolzbad, a mountain community threatened by the imminent risk of avalanche. Any unprovoked noise could unleash catastrophe on the town. Such is the fear that its inhabitants talk in hushed tones, all the town’s animals have had their vocal chords severed and children are made to play in silence. The narrator ends the prologue, however, by pointing out the existence of certain ‘nodes’ in the mountains, spaces where sounds are cancelled out and where the folk of Tolzbad can pursue their more noisome activities without the danger of catastrophic snowfall. Nodes notwithstanding however, the town lives in constant fear of flocks of geese flying overhead on their yearly migration…

The Electric Sheep Film Club will screen The Saddest Music in the World at the Prince Charles Cinema on Wednesday 10 March. More details on our events page.

From the start, the steaming pan of water alerts us to physical processes, in particular what happens to water when it’s agitated. Steam has its complement in the avalanche, which is what happens to frozen water when it’s disturbed. And humans too are subject to such processes. Little Arthur’s ‘lifting the lid’ on the pan is what Maddin proceeds to do with the townsfolk of Tolzbad, showing us a weird world of raging but repressed desires, and the rest of the film gleefully and preposterously plays out one Freudian tableau after another. Johann, a young man betrothed to his beloved Klara, has disturbing dreams about sleeping with his mother. After drugging her and kissing her breasts, he kills himself. The mother, the widow of a blind swan feeder, reveals she has always loved Tolzbad’s local aristocrat, the wonderfully named Count Knotgers, whom Johann’s brother Grigorss fights in a duel when he discovers her perfidious desire. In a nod to the eccentric Swiss author Robert Walser (who died, by the way, walking out one day into a snowstorm), Grigorss has also for a while been training to become the Count’s butler. Since Johann’s death Grigorss has moved in on Klara, only to find out she has already been deflowered by her own father. There’s also a mute brother hidden away in the attic. This is all presented as melodramatically as can be, though with a fairy tale or folk gentleness it’s hard not to like, due in great part to the fantastically intricate and kitschy sets and to what looks like the use of hand-coloured film processing throughout. It’s all distinctly otherworldly.

Indeed, there’s a contrast between the apparently cosy world of the town nestled in the valley and the high mountains beyond, where the extreme action of the film occurs. Here Johann commits suicide by throwing himself off a precipice, Grigorss and the Count duel (silently with knives, of course) to the death and Grigorss deliberately fires a pistol in the air to precipitate the dreaded avalanche in the end. At these moments of high drama, Maddin reverts to shooting in blue monochrome, an effect taken from Arnold Fanck’s silent film The Holy Mountain. Careful, as it’s often pointed out, is indebted to the Bergfilme, or silent German mountain films of the 1920s, and in particular to Fanck’s 1926 feature in which a young Leni Riefensthal plays a dancer pursued with tragic consequences by two mountain men, a downhill skier and a climber. At the end of the film, the two men spend a fateful night on a bare mountain, which Fanck shoots in blue to dramatise the freezing conditions and the intensity of their exploits.

Effects aside, it’s instructive to consider how Maddin transforms many of Fanck’s themes. In The Holy Mountain, the mountains are the sublime domain of men. Whenever Fanck shows mountains they are looming pillars of solid rock. Snow clings to their sides and it’s the solidity of rock and snow that enables men to ski down them, man and nature in perfect harmony. By contrast, Riefensthal is a woman of the lowland shore. She lives by the sea, and her dancing mimics the movement of the waves. As such, she is clearly very attractive to men of the uplands, but of course also a threat. When the inevitable avalanche happens towards the end of the film, the swirling snow is meant to mimic the unpredictability and deadly allure of Riefensthal’s dancing.

Maddin’s view of the mountains is far less black and white. For one, it’s not an exclusively masculine domain – Klara has a mountain hideaway – and there’s none of Fanck’s overriding phallic symbolism and certainly no recourse to the sublime. Maddin’s mountains are obviously made of papier mâché (he himself lives on the Canadian prairies), and although he employs the melodrama of silent film it’s undercut by an absurdist wit; for example when Grigorss and the Count fight their duel, each must first unbutton the other’s coat to get at their knives. Nor is there with Maddin such an overt division between male and female spheres of action. His sexual politics are much more fluid, and with hindsight he can read gender ambiguities into the expressive gesturing of silent film.

Of course, Maddin’s fondness for the anachronistic vocabulary of silent cinema (including the use of intertitles) also flies in the face of Hollywood’s doctrine of technological progress. Paradoxically, his own films might be placed in one of the silent mountain nodes to which the narrator alludes in the prologue as an example of ‘calm’ amidst the overwhelming ‘noise’ of mainstream cinema. He constantly plays with effects that conventional filmmakers would consider ‘mistakes’ such as blurred and flared shots, and by turning up the static when the dialogue lapses. It’s also interesting that Maddin returns to the Bergfilm genre in which the ideology of progress is writ large, especially in terms of the development of cinematography. Fanck, for instance, was famed for his insistence on filming on location in adverse conditions and thus setting a cinematic precedent for outside shooting (Maddin, by contrast, is famous for his meticulously constructed indoor sets). And one can’t forget the course that Riefensthal’s career would take in the name of progress over the next decade.

In the end, Careful is something delicate and strange and it made me think back to the snowy paperweight in Citizen Kane. It’s as if Maddin managed to find his way inside the glass orb stopping time to shoot an entire film in the seconds before it broke open, the name ‘Tolzbad’ ringing in our ears as weirdly as that other name that has become part of the mythology of mystery in cinema. Maddin shows no real interest in mythmaking – he’s Canadian, from Winnipeg for goodness’ sake – but Careful is presently as radical a redefinition of the possibilities of cinema as I can think of.

Jeff Hilson

This article was first published in the winter 08 issue of Electric Sheep Magazine.

Buy Careful [DVD] [1993] [Region 1] [US Import] [NTSC] from Amazon

SELF, TRUTH AND CLASS ACCORDING TO JOSEPH LOSEY

Mr Klein

Format: Cinema

Joseph Losey retrospective

Dates: 4 June-30 July 2009

Venues: BFI Southbank (London)

Films include: Accident, The Criminal, Eve, The Go-Between, Mr Klein, The Servant

A restored version of Accident is also released in key UK cities on June 5.

Joseph Losey is not a household name in the UK. American by birth, he left the USA in 1952 after being blacklisted by the Hollywood studios for his leftist sympathies and for having worked with Bertolt Brecht. He subsequently settled in Britain though his first British film, 1954’s The Sleeping Tiger, was released under the pseudonym Victor Hanbury to protect the reputations of some of the cast. His films offer often unsettling insights into the private lives of characters whilst simultaneously providing dissections of the social milieus they inhabit.

He is best remembered these days for The Servant (1963) in which young aristocrat Tony (James Fox in his first screen role) hires manservant Hugo Barrett (Dirk Bogarde) to look after him and his newly acquired Chelsea townhouse. Tony’s girlfriend Susan (Wendy Craig) takes an immediate dislike to him and the situation is made worse when Barrett moves in his ‘sister’ Vera (Sarah Miles) as a maid, who soon proves irresistible to the master of the house. Although it is obvious to the viewer, Tony is unaware that Vera is in fact Barrett’s mistress, and when he returns home one night with Susan to discover them frolicking in the master bedroom he is outraged as much by the implications of incest as by his servant’s act of betrayal. When the real state of affairs is made clear to him, he throws them both out. Finding himself months later in the same pub as Tony, Barrett apologises and manages to work his way back into the house where he lives for a while apparently as Tony’s friend and equal, before bringing about the aristocrat’s downfall.

It is inviting to view The Servant as a fairly straightforward case of substitution with Barrett supplanting Tony as master. Their respective names suggest things should be the other way around and Losey’s preoccupation with showing the homoeroticism of their relationship implies a closeness that threatens to overturn the master/servant hierarchy. ‘Apart from the cooking I’ll need everything, general looking after, you know’, says Tony in their initial interview, to which Barrett replies, knowing more than Tony ever could at that stage, ‘Yes I do, sir’. However, the introduction of a third party in the shape of Vera adds a twist to this situation.

Throughout his career, Losey constantly examines the complex dynamics of erotic desire. In The Sleeping Tiger, psychiatrist Clive Esmond (Alexander Knox) invites young criminal Frank Clements (Bogarde again) to stay in his house instead of sending him to prison. It’s effectively a social experiment in rehabilitation, which goes drastically wrong when Frank becomes involved with Esmond’s wife, substituting himself for her husband, whose obsession with his work has made him neglect her. In Accident (1967), the situation is even more involved. University professor Stephen (Bogarde once more) falls for young foreign student Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), but he has already persuaded another of his students, the aristocratic William (Michael York), to ask her out. Stephen is already married, and his wife is expecting their third child. This doesn’t stop him from rekindling an old affair with the daughter of the university provost while another colleague, Charley (the wonderful Stanley Baker), begins an intense affair with Anna. It’s a messy situation with multiple substitutions revealing Losey’s interest in probing the hypocrisies that break out in closed environments: the house in The Servant, the cloistered setting of the university in Accident and the marital home in both Accident and The Sleeping Tiger.

[…]

Jeff Hilson

Read the rest of the article in the summer 09 issue of Electric Sheep. Substitute is the theme of the new issue, with articles on the fraught relationship between Takeshi Kitano and ‘Beat’ Takeshi, the various cinematic incarnations of Patricia Highsmith’s Ripley, the dangers of false impersonation in neo-noir Just Another Love Story, the paradoxes of black and white twins in offbeat lost classic Suture, not to mention cross-dressing criminals, androids and body snatchers. Also in this issue: interview with Marc Caro, profile of whiz-kid animator David OReilly, comic strip review of Hardware, and The Phantom Band’s favourite films.

LONE COWBOYS AND LACONIC DRIFTERS: THE FILMS OF MONTE HELLMAN

Two-Lane Blacktop

Title: Two-Lane Blacktop

Format: DVD

Release date: 18 June 2007

Distributor: Universal

Cast: James Taylor, Warren Oates, Harry Dean Stanton

US 1971
103 mins

Title: The Shooting

Format: DVD

Release date: 2 July 2007

Distributor: Cinema Club

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Warren Oates

US 1966
78 mins

Title: Ride in the Whirlwind

Format: DVD

Release date: 2 July 2007

Distributor: 2 Entertain Video

Cast: Jack Nicholson, Harry Dean Stanton

US 1966
79 mins

Having seen Monte Hellman’s 1975 feature Cockfighter at the National Film Theatre in the mid-90s, every week for years thereafter a friend and I would check the TV listings to see whether Channel 4 or BBC2 were screening anything else by this singular director. His road movie Two-Lane Blacktop (1971) was top of our wish list. Unsurprisingly it soon became a rite performed more in jest than any serious anticipation of fulfilment and sadly my friend died only months before the NFT screened it in 2005. This year it has surfaced on DVD but only to highlight the sorry state of affairs with the rest of the Hellman back-catalogue. Of his ten features to date only three others are currently available on DVD in the UK. Two early Westerns, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind (both 1966), were reissued on DVD in July. Both films have been available for a while, along with Flight to Fury (1965), on a five-DVD box-set showcasing the early work of Jack Nicholson though the quality of transfers is variable and Hellman’s name is just about visible in the small print, eclipsed by his mentor Roger Corman whose involvement was minimal. Some of the remaining output, like Cockfighter (1974), China 9 Liberty 37 (1978) and Iguana (1989), are available in the US, though copies of the first of these retail on the internet at upwards of $70. It’s unlikely to see a release over here as it has been deemed to condone bloodsports. The NFT got round this back in the 90s by screening it as a private function.

It’s a curious state of affairs that whilst 2007 saw the DVD release of Alejandro Jodorowsky’s entire output, the oeuvre of another so-called ‘cult’ figure like Hellman should remain in relative disarray. Watching Jodorowsky’s output back to back was one of this year’s highlights as one could trace his very particular technical, stylistic and thematic developments. The recent release of three DVDs is the occasion to do the same with Hellman in spite of the rather limited material at my disposal.

Nicholson’s continuing superstar status was undoubtedly a key reason for the reissue of both The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind and whilst his trademark grin sure enough finds its way into the former, it’s the lesser known Warren Oates who carries the film as he also does Two-Lane Blacktop. As Hellman reveals in the DVD commentary, he received the script of Two-Lane Blacktop only to insist it be completely rewritten by novelist Rudy Wurlitzer. One of the major changes was the inclusion of the Oates character who was absent from the original write. Probably best known for his lead performance in Sam Peckinpah’s Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia, Oates was, until his death in 1987, a wonderfully versatile character actor who could play both straight and comedic roles and move fluidly between macho aggression and tender vulnerability (indeed in Cockfighter he manages this though barely speaking). If Nicholson’s grin is pure malevolence it is more than matched by Oates’ wonderfully disarming beam. In Two-Lane Blacktop he plays ‘G.T.O’, the driver of a yellow ’32 Pard Roadster’ who challenges James Taylor (‘The Driver’) and Dennis Wilson (‘The Mechanic’) in their grey 55 Chevvy to a race across the US from Los Angeles to Washington DC. As the only trained actor, Oates is the perfect foil for the laconicism of the other leads and without him the whole film might have been as grey and serious as the car they drive. Oates’ car, by contrast, is a mixture of schoolboy dream and camp excess and his character is all bluster and pompousness. Along the way they are joined by Laurie Bird (‘The Girl’) and they embark on a trip which, because it is from West to East, deconstructs the impetus towards American myth. Indeed, it’s tempting to see the Chevvy as a demythicised version of Melville’s great white whale, its dull matt grey signifying the end of days rather than the promise of glorious beginnings; it’s a road trip in which ‘nothing’ happens, with the race itself soon becoming something of a red herring.

Two-Lane Blacktop also plays out a very American tension between myth and pragmatism whereby the overarching idea of the race is broken down into the constituent pragmatics of the journey, and ultimately it’s these that become more pressing – the need to eat, sleep, fuck, and fill up with gas. It’s the incidentals, watching the characters stroll through a town, inhabit a diner or move around a filling station, that give the film its particular texture. On the commentary Hellman himself talks about how filming on location made such a difference to the feel of Two-Lane Blacktop and he uses one filling-station scene as an example. Its parerphanalia, he says, is as significant as the ‘action’ to the extent that it becomes ‘characterful’. As The Driver leans nonchalantly on a gas pump, the sign ‘regular’ written across it describes more than just the fuel going into the cars. But it’s not just words that live this double life. Objects, like the gas pump itself, are imbued with a significance they might not ordinarily possess. On one level this is what any art is all about but it’s also part of another peculiarly American tradition in which the factual and the everyday, what the nineteenth-century American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called ‘the heavy, prosaic and desert’, possess an epiphanic quality. A lot of American painting is filled with this quality as is a lot of American film. Perhaps I need to revise what I said about the anti-mythic nature of Two-Lane Blacktop: myth in it resides elsewhere.

Bearing all this in mind, it seems even more remarkable that a major studio like Universal stumped up the cash for what Hellman and producer Michael Laughlin proposed: a road movie in which all the characters have generic names, in which the cars also share the billing as ‘characters’, and in which the proposed competition fizzles out almost as soon as it starts with the competitors effectively helping each other out along the way. Indeed the move from Darwinistic struggle and the survival of the fittest to a programme of cooperation might seem a little belated in 1971. Easy Rider had already dealt with the end of the Summer of Love though with US troops still very much in Vietnam the call for mutual aid was still vital in many minds.

Hellman’s earlier films, however, offer an altogether bleaker version of humanity. The Shooting similarly uses the journey motif with Millie Perkins’ unnamed woman leading Willett Gashade (Warren Oates) and his foolish and garrulous sidekick Coley (played by Will Hutchins in an earlier incarnation of Oates’ character in Two-Lane Blacktop) through a dusty Utah landscape on a trail whose end is unknown until the final frames of the film. Joined late in the day by Nicholson’s sadistic hired gun Billy Spear, who insists on leaving Coley to fry when one of the horses is lamed, the party winds its way further and further into the desert, and before the inevitable shoot-out, Nicholson and Oates grapple with each other in the sand in a nod to the famous scene at the end of Eric von Stroheim’s Greed. In Flight to Fury, smuggled diamonds are the pretext for multiple double-crossings, self-interest infecting all the characters who survive a plane crash in the jungle of the Philippines only to kill each other off one by one as the diamonds change hands. In the end, Dewey Martin’s Joe Gaines pursues Jack Nicholson’s Jay Wickham through a labyrinth of rocks. The final shot is of Nicholson’s dead legs sticking horizontally into the frame, a gruesome parody of the hanged bodies that swing vertically from the trees in Ride in the Whirlwind which, in an economics lesson from Corman, Hellman shot back to back with The Shooting. In it a trio find themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time when they hole up in a shack with a bunch of outlaws who are smoked out by a vigilante mob and picked off one by one, the survivors strung up from the nearest branch. Only Nicholson survives and the film ends with him riding off not into the sunset but into an uncertain future, the clip-clop of his horse’s hooves a stark soundtrack to his bleak predicament.

Hellman has often been called an existentialist – indeed it’s an adjective he seems happy enough to accept on the commentary to Two-Lane Blacktop – though this blanket term perhaps obscures some of the other themes that emerge from his films. One of these is the relentless probing of masculinity. Hellman uses the genre of the Western, traditionally a proving-ground for extreme masculine behaviour, to question our assumptions about the way men behave. One of the ways he achieves this is by reconfiguring the female figure. In The Shooting, Mollie Perkins hires ex-gunfighter Gashade and Coley out of retirement to lead her to her quarry. Not only is she the film’s prime mover but her refusal to reveal her name gives her the air of mystery usually accorded heroic male figures in Westerns, most notably Clint Estwood’s ‘man-with-no-name’ in Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy. With her black hat and leather gloves, she dresses like the classic male gunfighter. When Nicholson’s Billy Spear joins the group in the same get-up he is made to look like a version of her. Indeed at one point Gashade comments to Coley, ‘See how she look like him’, but it’s as much the other way around as Coley’s rejoinder implies: ‘Real strong and a pretty ain’t he, the way he got himself up?’ Billy Spear’s masculinity is further questioned in the course of events. Before leaving Coley to the mercy of the Utah sun he asks him, ‘You wanna ride with me boy?’ then threatens ‘to blow [his] face off’. Later Perkins looks at his leather gloves commenting, ‘You never take those off do you, not even when you’re with a woman?’ Spear and Gashade’s fight in the dust culminates with Gashade picking up a rock and stoving in not Spear’s head as we might expect but his right hand. Sometimes a cigar isn’t just a cigar.

Because the car is a technologised version of the horse, the leather gloves of The Shooting are passed on to Oates’ character in Two-Lane Blacktop as part of his driving ‘get-up’ and he wears them along with an ever-changing array of woollen sweaters not unlike the jester’s traditional particoloured ‘motley’ – Hellman is nothing if not ludic. Masculine behaviour is under scrutiny here too as Hellman presents us with a cast of characters whose sexuality is fluid rather than fixed. When Oates rebuffs a gay hitcher (played by Harry Dean Stanton) who tries to seduce him at the very beginning of the race it’s because he ‘doesn’t have time for that sort of thing’ in the context of the competition, not necessarily in his life. The Driver and The Mechanic are curiously a-sexual and when The Girl arrives on the scene it does little to disrupt their partnership. Although she sleeps with The Mechanic she’s soon taking a driving lesson from The Driver but his inability to teach her how to get the car in gear can be read as a failure to get it on. He’s happier when his own hand is changing gear, one of the other things in America, as well as drawing a gun, your right hand is for.

As Chris Petit has suggested, Hellman’s films are all ‘terminal in their implications’ though many of them simply stop rather than end. Endings offer little or no resolution but are merely vectors for further uncertainty. However, both The Shooting and Two-Lane Blacktop offer particularly radical takes on endings. In The Shooting, after multiple gunshots ring out it’s unclear exactly who’s left dead or alive except for Nicholson who hobbles distantly across the screen, which then whites out as the camera aperture is opened to its fullest extent. It’s as absolute an indication possible that Hellman can take things no further, except possibly with the conclusion of Two-Lane Blacktop where the race ends not with a victory by either party but with the destruction of the very film stock Hellman is shooting, which burns up before our eyes. This is so much more profound than Barry Newman driving into a gas tanker at the end of Richard Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (also 1971), a film to which it’s often compared. Vanishing Point wears its so-called existentialism far too obviously on its sleeve whilst that of Two-Lane Blacktop resides much more covertly, lurking somewhere in the knit-and-purl of one of Warren Oates’ V-necks.

Jeff Hilson

A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews