Friday, October 14, 2022

Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital [Redux]

Who better than Guy Maddin to show us the early days of Canada’s healthcare system? Fittingly, they were quite absurdist and sometimes macabre. Gimli was constructed by Icelandic immigrants (much like Maddin’s own ancestors) on the shore of Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba. Around the turn of the 20th Century, Gimli was fully staffed with nurses, yet Einar’s suffering really started when he was admitted. Once again, Maddin shows us the weirdness of Canada that never was but somehow has always been in the freshly restored Tales from the Gimli Hospital [Redux], which opens today in New York.

Like most vintage Maddin,
Gimli is a nested tale, being told in the ostensive present day. In the modern, full-scale Gimli, Amma tries to console her grandchildren waiting by their mother’s deathbed, by telling them the wildly inappropriate story of “Einar the Lonely” and his “friend” Gunnar. Both contract smallpox, but the nurses in the clapboard Gimli Hospital (built above a stable, for the warmth of the animals) only have eyes for Gunnar. They are charmed by his gifts as a raconteur and his skill cutting fish from tree bark.

Frankly, it is like Einar does not even exist, which makes him even more feverish. However, it turns out they had good sense to ignore him, when Gunnar discovers his friend’s secret shame. It is so transgressive, it ignites a life-and-death wedgy-sumo battle between them.

was the film that made Maddin a cult sensation. It is short but it is packed with Maddinesque dreams and fantasias, as well as visual references ranging from “Our Gang” to German expressionism. There is also a restored scene that was cut from the 1988 theatrical version. Gimli is a trip, but it is still an early work and not the full-blown kaleidoscopes of his more recent masterworks, like The Forbidden Room, Seances, and My Winnipeg.

On the other hand,
Gimli has the unsettling sexual undercurrent that made his earlier work feel so eerie and unsettling (probably most fully expressed in Careful). It is also deeply Canadian, exposing the dark corners of its national psyche. Throughout it all, Maddin already displays an auteurist mastery of his signature hazy, dreamlike black-and-white visuals and his obsessive attention to details. Nobody else can match the rich craftsmanship of his best films. You don’t watch them to be captivated by the performances (they are usually deliberately stylized and distant), but to be immersed in Maddin’s strangely surreal yet, almost real, worlds.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital
is a representative bite-sized (64 minute) introduction to Maddin’s aesthetic. Recommended for loyal fans and new viewers in the mood for something very different, Tales from the Gimli Hospital opens today (10/14) at the IFC Center.