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Guy Maddin is that singular Canadian filmmaker who is fond of mythologizing his own personal history and geographical landscape, while combining melodrama, a touch of surrealism, varying shades of dark humor, and the occasional ice hockey player with filmmaking techniques which might initially feel primitive but harken back to a bygone era.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, released in 1988, was his first feature film and the one that put him on the map, after being famously rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival (despite their prior screening of his first short film, The Dead Father.) Gimli was rejected in part because the panel at TIFF was unsure if his unorthodox filmmaking techniques were amateurish or intentional. In the end, perhaps they were both, but what they also were was the birth of a unique voice in cinema.
Much can be said about the methods and origins of making Gimli. Indeed there is so much to say about it, it practically overshadows the film itself.
As a filmmaker Maddin wanted to mythologize Gimli, a small touristy town in Manitoba on the shores of Lake Winnipeg, where he spent his summers growing up. This town was settled in the late 1800s by Icelanders who were fleeing an active volcano, only to befall many more tragedies upon arrival, including but not limited to: a smallpox epidemic. This turn of events seems like the kind of story Maddin himself might have made up if it did not exist already, and it is the setting in which Gimli Hospital takes place.
Originally titled Gimli Saga, (based on a real-life collection of its oral history the town published in the 1970s) it took Maddin 18 months to complete filming, shooting piecemeal as he went along. This is one element that parallels the making of David Lynch’s Eraserhead, a film to which this one is often compared: they’re both heavily stylized black and white first-time features made by eccentric filmmakers with memorably atmospheric soundtracks.
Maddin kept writing while editing the footage, shooting new scenes as he went along, and inserting dreams he’d just had. He was initially under the impression he was making another short film until a runtime of 40 minutes had his friends convincing him he should push the film into feature length.
Maddin was heavily influenced by the birth of sound in cinema history — that awkward transition from silents to talkies when the camera suddenly moved less yet dialogue was sparse. He felt these elements suited his first feature perfectly. “I like the option of being able to go silent when words aren’t necessary,” Maddin has said. The sound a record needle makes going around and around after the record has ended is a constant ambient sound in the background of his soundtrack, giving us the feeling that we are watching a lost film that was recently recovered and a little worse for wear.
Maddin has said Gimli was based on his real-life rivalry with another man over a woman in which the rivalry became more important to him in the end than the woman herself. Mutual friends have confirmed that this rivalry was likely between he and fellow member of the Winnipeg Film Group, Canadian indie filmmaker John Paizs, who began making films shortly before Maddin did. Maddin in turn poached his lead, Kyle McCulloch, who went onto star in three of his films, from one of Paizs’s sets.
Guy blended their real-life rivalry with the love triangle in Dostoevsky’s “Eternal Husband.” This weaving of literature with personal experience and the mythologizing of the latter in the style of early cinema seems to have become one of his trademarks.
Maddin has spoken at length about how dramatizing one’s life in one’s art can help to mythologize it, sending one’s feelings into the realm of abstract myth, perhaps in turn making them less potent, or at least transforming them into something else. It’s a method he now teaches his students at the University of Toronto.
About Gimli, Winnipeg, and the locations of his childhood, Maddin says, “I feel like my work is never done, there’s always something more to mythologize about a place.”
Shot primarily in his aunt’s former beauty parlor as well as his own backyard, Maddin’s filming methods for Gimli were extremely unorthodox. Lead actor McCulloch also served as his primary crew person, moving the lights, making props, pitching story ideas, and doing makeup for the other actors. Maddin even bought a dead seagull from a boy on the beach for $5 so he could feature it in one shot. His shooting days sometimes ran as short as 10 minutes.
His style, which is reminiscent of both silent and German expressionist film, grew organically out of a frustration in his inability to achieve a standard three-point lighting setup, claiming it just gave the actor three nose shadows until he wound up turning off all of the lights but one. Bathing things in harsh shadow, in combination with strategically placed sound effects, became a great cover for a lack of extensive production design. (At one point it even became a cover for the lack of a lake where a lake should have been.) These overcompensations for a lack of technique or a lack of funds wound up looking like very intentional stylistic choices. Some of it looks reminiscent of Fritz Lang’s “M,” but there’s another montage that’s actually a homage to Lang’s 1940s film noir, Scarlet Street.
Maddin, a fan of classic Hollywood, has spoken about how the actresses of that era always seemed ageless to him — that the difference between a 30-year-old Rita Hayworth and a 19-year-old Greta Garbo was impossible for him to discern. So by a skewed Maddin-esque logic, he therefore decided to populate the female roles in Gimli primarily with 13-year-old girls, noting that in makeup they suddenly looked 25.
Then there are stylistic choices in the film that really bring the emotions simmering beneath across. Milk raining down on the face of a man who has recently discovered he’s a cuckold. A man eating a hat out of sexual frustration. Maddin’s lead is a stand-in here for Maddin himself. (In later films this is less cloaked and he sometimes just names his protagonists “Guy Maddin.”) Here called “Einar the Lonely,” his general thoughts seem to revolve around pining for the opposite sex and being taunted by their indifference.
Then there’s the presence of a minstrel in this movie, though it’s unclear how much of this was kept in the new Redux 4K restoration, which has only been in limited theatrical release in certain cities, and I have not yet seen at the time of this writing. (In the Redux, one scene has been added that was shot 11 years after the original version was completed, yet the Redux has a shorter runtime than the original.) Allegedly the idea for the minstrel came about because they were short an actor one day and McCulloch joked about playing him in blackface, which Maddin initially declined. After some argument Maddin eventually agreed to shoot it, and then he kept it in because he wanted to show film history and the past in all of its darkness, not just as a glossy idealized version of itself.
“I don’t have a simple and pure nostalgia for the past,” Maddin has said on this subject. “I felt you had to throw in something a little bit hurtful and painful and uncomfortable, just to remind you that you can’t simply go back in a time machine and expect everything to be wonderful. In most ways, socially, we were worse off.”
Maddin talks about an interest in weaving fairy tales and folktales into his stories, and you can see this influence in his work as well, with characters dying or going blind from heartache, with hallucinatory fantasy sequences involving “fish princesses,” and a story within a story within a story taken straight from Hans Christian Andersen.
All of the above elements added up to a high walkout rate during the film’s initial release. Says Maddin, “I don’t remember anyone laughing.”
About this new release, Maddin has also commented, in his typically deadpan style, “I don’t know what to hope for when you’re showing an old movie. Maybe someone would laugh? It would be nice if someone thought something was funny in it.”
Whether or not you find it humorous, for all of Maddin’s self deprecation and unusual filmmaking methods, this film is a singular achievement for a first feature, and deserving of a theatrical rerelease, if nothing else, so that you may judge for yourself.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital Redux screens Wednesday, Nov 16th.
5:30pm, 7:30pm, 9:15pm