‘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…
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 mÃ¢ché (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.
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