Offbeat `Careful' Is Audacious, Not Cautious

DURING five years as a programmer on the New York Film Festival's selection committee, I became increasingly aware of a fine distinction between ``festival movies'' and ``movie-theater movies.''

Festival movies are challenging, stimulating, innovative works that you eagerly select if you're a festival programmer, and eagerly line up for if you're an attendee.

But all the while, you know you wouldn't invest a dime in its prospects at a neighborhood multiplex - precisely because it's challenging, stimulating, and provocative. Those qualities put it off-limits for people who just want a fun-filled Saturday night. For them, a movie-theater movie is just the ticket.

The world needs both kinds of picture. I fully understand the need for light escapist entertainment, and at times that's exactly what I crave. I also have a weakness for the offbeat and unpredictable, though, and the chance to ferret out unorthodox works is one reason why I attend festivals from time to time.

Not everyone has the opportunity to frequent the festival circuit, of course, but every now and then the unexpected happens: a ``festival movie'' makes it to theaters, courtesy of some enterprising distribution company that believes in the film and wants to share it with the world.

That's happening this season with ``Careful,'' directed by Guy Maddin, a wildly imaginative Canadian filmmaker. It was one of the most audacious movies we introduced to American audiences at the New York filmfest last year, and now - to the amazement of just about everyone - the adventurous Zeitgeist Films is giving it a theatrical release.

DESPITE its conspicuously conservative title, ``Careful'' is anything but cautious. To begin with, it follows Maddin's usual practice of making his movies in styles that the rest of the world has long abandoned. Like his previous pictures, ``Archangel'' and ``Tales From the Gimli Hospital,'' it imitates the mannerisms and appearance of a German Expressionist movie from the early ``talkie'' period.

Also like Maddin's other features, ``Careful'' is crafted to look like it was made ages ago and hasn't been well-preserved over the years. If you didn't know it was a brand-new production, you'd think it had moldered away for decades in a damp archival vault. Parts of the picture seem to have dissolved or disintegrated, and alarming bursts of static come and go on the soundtrack.

Beyond its bizarre style, ``Careful'' has an equally bizarre story. The setting is a 19th-century Alpine village completely surrounded by mountains. The slightest noise, a narrator informs us, may touch off an avalanche that will destroy everyone and everything in town. In this peculiar setting - created by Maddin to look strangely real and hilariously artificial at the same time - a peculiar web of love, infatuation, and obsession takes shape, involving the friends and family of an aspiring young butler.

To say ``Careful'' is tacky, eccentric, and in dubious taste would be to oversimplify things. For one thing, it wants to be tacky, eccentric, and in dubious taste, so to accuse it of those things is to pay it a compliment. Then too, its tongue is firmly in its cheek, and it demands to be looked at in the same cockeyed spirit. Its old-fashioned effects and creaky sound have little to do with Hollywood's slick fabrications. But it's refreshing to see a movie that finds poetry in the raw materials of cinema itself.

* ``Careful'' does not have an MPAA rating. It contains sexual material and violence, all of it shown in a highly unrealistic way.

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