In Scenic Routes, Mike D’Angelo looks at key movie scenes, explaining how they work and what they mean.
Canadian director Guy Maddin works in such a unique mode—each film is identifiable as his work within seconds—that writing a conventional analysis of what he does seems pointless. The prologue of his superb 1992 feature Careful, in particular, lends itself to a different approach; this five-minute sequence would function perfectly well as a stand-alone short, even though it does a magnificent job of setting up the world in which Careful’s bizarre story takes place. Rather than tackle it in my usual five or six paragraphs, then, I’ve opted to break down its first two minutes or so shot by shot. (I originally intended to do the entire prologue, but that would have become the longest essay in The A.V. Club history. The whole scene is included, though, just because it’s so much fun.) If you’ve never seen one of Maddin’s films, you’ll definitely want to watch the clip below before continuing.
• Even a colorblind viewer (me) will instantly register that the initial shot has been tinted blood-red. The tinting itself mimics the way films were typically colored in the silent era, which is the period that most heavily influences Maddin’s work; he begins with red to signify danger, as that’s the prologue’s primary function. Notice that some frames appear to have been removed as Otto replaces the lid—I’m assuming Maddin does this deliberately now and then as a means of introducing a bit more artificiality.
• Shot two employs a shadow on a wall, for no apparent reason except that it’s a bit spooky and Maddin enjoys indirection. Shot three deftly begins with more shadows, then shows the children who own them running into the frame before stopping to heed the narrator’s warning.
• Shot four provides said narrator (Victor Cowie), standing inside what looks like a circus tent. This is itself a bit unexpected, as it’s somewhat rare for the character-speaking voiceover narration at the outset of a film to appear onscreen, unless that character is the protagonist—which is not the case here. (For example, Sam Elliott’s Stranger eventually shows up in The Big Lebowski, but he’s not seen during his opening spiel.) The tent’s flaps then open up (with more missing frames) to reveal two figures in the distance, though it’s hard to make out what they’re doing, and the film doesn’t linger to find out.
• Then, three quick shots show children falling to their deaths from what appear to be mountains, though we don’t yet know that Careful is set in a mountain town. So far the narrator’s warnings have all been fairly sensible, if perhaps a bit paranoid. He’s urging the kids not to do things that might hurt them. As it turns out, this is mostly just to get their attention; his true concern is more communal and weirder.
• The shot of the infant funeral provides the first real glimpse of how people dress in this community: boys in peasant shirts, girls in dresses and wide-brimmed, floppy hats. Maddin arranges them in a tableau, and unless I’m mistaken, he’s lined the infant’s coffin in fur, thereby emphasizing how cold the region is. Bear in mind that we’re only about 30 seconds into the movie. Many films haven’t even concluded some uselessly throat-clearing view of a city skyline by this point.
• Say, where are we anyway? Maddin provides the answer visually by having the little girl in the next shot precariously placing the ‘T’ on a tower of alphabet blocks that read “TOLZBAD” (a purely fictional locale). Throughout this prologue, he finds ways of slipping in necessary exposition without any of the usual clunkiness, integrating information into his montage of potential mishaps. Even the narrator’s history of Tolzbad comes across more like a fantastic tale than like narrative scaffolding—of course, it’s both.
• “I’m sure you can live without that” is the film’s first real hint of comedy, inviting amusement at the little girl’s forlorn expression as she gazes at the doll. (The tinsel on the window suggests Christmas, making the narrator’s invocation of austerity even funnier.) Death remains omnipresent, however: When was the last time you saw a doll hanging in a store window like this? Nobody would ever display one that way, because it looks macabre. Clearly that was Maddin’s intention.
• A low-angle shot of two children, with what looks like some sort of pitcher plant in the foreground (I know precisely squat about flora), provides the impression—coupled with the narrator’s stern “Don’t get wet!”—that it’s looking up at them from the surface of some body of water, though no water is visible. A good example of Maddin working around budgetary restrictions and/or location difficulties, I suspect.
• Now back to a shot of the narrator, who’s still standing in the tent with the flaps open behind him. There were only two people visible in the distance earlier, and now there are three. Their presence still seems weirdly incidental, though. It’s as if Maddin wants to provide a sense of showmanship while also making it clear that the narrator (who will become a character in the story proper) is part of the town.
• More wry humor as the narrator invites his listeners to “drink in [Tolzbad’s] wonders” over a shot of some desolate red-tinged rocks and buttes that could serve as a no-budget science-fiction flick’s concept of Mars.
• The next three shots depict the inherent danger of navigating Tolzbad’s mountainous terrain. A close-up of two sets of legs carefully stepping down a steep slope is followed by a medium shot of a man scaling a small peak in the snow. But these are merely setup for the gag in which a fellow who’s out strolling along a relatively level path is suddenly struck by lightning, his body replaced by an unusual segmented cross. Nobody would ever cite Careful as an example of great special-effects work, but within his chosen limitations, Maddin does a terrific job with moments like this; even examining the lightning strike frame by frame (or as close to that as my DVD player gets), I can’t quite work out his precise method.
• Likewise, the simple rippling background in the following shot is the sort of expressionistic touch at which Maddin excels. That’s probably just a projection on a sheet, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t effective. Dissolving from the climbers to three more crosses works beautifully, too, and it’s a typically eccentric choice to make each cross different: one rounded, one wavy, one jagged. Each death is individual.
• Finally, look at how inventively Maddin visualizes the idea of someone falling from a great height. He’d previously shown several kids fall from a mountain, but only in a very basic way; this time he wants the viewer to experience the lingering terror of the “death plummet” itself. Hollywood movies go to extraordinary lengths to achieve this effect, either with computers (the current method) or by actually having a stunt man fall a potentially dangerous distance (the old-school method). Maddin shoots a close-up of hands gripping a rocky outcropping, then slipping off, which is all that’s required to put across the notion of a terrible accident. The death plummet itself is just a prolonged close-up of a man’s face, lit up in blackness and violently shaking to suggest that the camera is tracking him as he falls at terminal velocity. This approach doesn’t “fool” anyone—it’s easy to see how it was accomplished—but that doesn’t matter in the slightest, because the point here isn’t to be convincing. It’s to be evocative. That requires only a little money; a great filmmaker can make up the difference with imagination.
What’s truly amazing is that these first couple of minutes, while dizzily creative and providing a wealth of information and atmosphere, don’t even get to the whole point of the prologue, which is about the omnipresent danger of avalanches and the attendant necessity to keep one’s emotions suppressed at all times, for fear of accidentally causing one. (This leads to some psychological quirks, to put it mildly.) What I’ve just deconstructed is, in essence, the prologue to the prologue. It’s Maddin’s way of establishing Careful’s idiosyncratic tone and look, giving viewers a bit of time to acclimate themselves before hitting them with genuinely crucial details. And yet it’s hard to think of another movie that jam-packs so much high-speed lunacy into such a tiny space. (The only candidate that leaps to mind is Raising Arizona.) Indeed, Maddin’s films tend to be flawed insomuch as they prove exhausting; sometimes it’s just too much for too long, the arty equivalent of blockbusters that never let up with expensive spectacle. At his best, though—and I’d argue for Careful as his finest sustained achievement—he’s sui generis, mastering retro innovations that nobody else even thinks to attempt. No one will ever mistake his work for anyone else’s.