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Careful

Kino Video

          For the better part of a century, ever since the heyday of haut modernism, there's been this idea that the truly cutting-edge, radical artist does not deign to tell a story. Consider, for example, the canon of so-called "experimental" filmmakers, people like Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, Stan Brakhage. Widely various aesthetic agendas, but one point of agreement: narrative cinema was what they defined themselves against. It's become quite a cliché, really--this equation of plotlessness with brave originality. That's the road down which Canadian avant-gardist Guy Maddin seems to be headed. His acclaimed first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), uses striking visual strategies to develop a curious blend of deadpan comedy and deadpan pathos. Structurally, however, it's a farrago of set pieces and jarring discontinuities--it hints at a story, but leaves itself open to so many interpretations that the viewer feels perpetually at sea.

          So the big news is that with Careful (1994; only now released on video), Maddin has achieved something extraordinary: a film that applies the wild visual inventiveness of the experimental cinema to a perfectly linear plot. This, folks, may be the weirdest movie you'll ever see. It makes Eraserhead look like How Green Was My Valley. But you always know what's going on, as one bizarre moment manages to segue plausibly into the next. A thousand words might not suffice to prepare you for the experience of seeing Careful; I'll simply note that it's a tale of Oedipal rage and heartbreak, set in a German Expressionist Alpine village where everyone speaks in hushed tones, for fear of avalanches. If you can find it, rent it. (Steve Schroer)

Theremin: An Electronic Odyssey

Orion Home Video

          As a documentary, Theremin screams amateur hour: It's choppy, indulgent, outrageously manipulative, and addicted to talking heads. So I'm crediting the bulk of this film's wistful charm not to director Steven M. Martin, but to his subject: the intractable, heretical mystery of creativity. Theremin flips over the faded carpet of 20th century history to trace two long-concealed threads: the interwoven lives of a man and a machine. Leon Theremin, born Lev Sergeivich Termen in Russia, is first shown in a film clip from 1928, with his hands hovering over a small box and two metal rods. The rods are singing--melancholic, tremulous, piercing. Or his hands are singing. Or what sings is the relationship between darting hand and electrified rod.

          Theremin doesn't dally in specifics. Instead, friends and associates describe the emigre inventor's zeal, his demonstration of the Theremin at Carnegie Hall, his coterie of students and collaborators, his kidnapping by Russian agents, and absolute disappearance. Then the narrative splits: in America, the quavering Theremin becomes a synonym for "eerie" in Hollywood movies and pop songs. In Russia, as a quavering, 94-year-old Termen himself recounts, the man survived prison only to spend a quarter of a century building electronic bugs and "different bad things" for the KGB. Martin wants to make his film a love story, setting up a melodramatic, modern-day meeting between Termen and the brilliant protégé he once courted in New York (the black Harlem dancer Termen actually married in the '20s has died, and hardly rates a mention). But Theremin works best as a tale of two countries--how each in its way assimilates genius, one turning gold into marketable brass, the other bending art to war. And still Termen's gift shines across the decades, in the ever-bright enthusiasm of his admirers and the extraordinary song of his instrument, his voice. (Terri Sutton)

Dead Ringers

The Voyager Co./The Criterion Collection laserdisc

          "This is gonna be maybe a lot more traumatic for me than for you," director David Cronenberg says, introducing this "archival" laserdisc of Dead Ringers, his psychosexual melodrama from 1988 (supplemented with his hard-to-find feature from 1970, Crimes of the Future). Actually, there's plenty of trauma to go around, what with the disc's digital photos of the filmmaker's so-called "Instruments for Operating on Mutant Women"--that is, his personally designed scalpel sculptures as they were presented in a 1993 museum exhibit. How's that for evidence of the auteur theory? Cronenberg himself even admits on the disc's second audio track that there's an autobiographical aspect to Dead Ringers's portrait of co-dependent identical twin gynecologists (both played by Jeremy Irons), even though this cinematic "king of venereal horror" says he's not nearly as strange. That's debatable.

          In any case, Dead Ringers becomes even more provocative through its subtle use of gynecology as a metaphor for mainstream film direction in the thriller genre--both being male-dominated professions involving, to put it nicely, clinical investigations of women and their bodies. Cronenberg's film is a critique of both occupations. Not for nothing is the movie's love interest a professional actress (Genevieve Bujold) who, after learning that the twins have been taking turns on her in both the stirrups and the sack, says, "I thought I'd seen some creepy things in the movie business, but this is the most disgusting thing that ever happened to me." Evidently, she'd never seen a David Cronenberg film. (Rob Nelson)

City Hall

Columbia-Tristar Home Video

          The bedfellows of politics and power make for a consistently rich movie topic, and while it's given good breath in City Hall, not much is really done with the premise. John Cusack plays a rustic, naive Louisiana native who, as deputy mayor, preaches the populism of Huey Long--only to be disabused of his idealism as he unravels the good intentions shrouding the political expediency of his boss, a liberal New York mayor (Al Pacino). Pacino's a natural as the aging politician who can stir the crowd with his performance, but like a role worn too often, it has become empty rhetoric.

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