Guy Maddin’s first feature film, Tales From The Gimli Hospital (1988), had nearly as much impact for him as Eraserhead (1977) had for David Lynch. Of course, Maddin is often compared to Lynch, which is as ridiculous as comparing Paul Klee to Max Ernst, ultimately failing to give due credit to either artist. Make no mistake, Maddin and Lynch are indeed two of the most potent artists in the medium of film from the last fifty years. Late in life Arnold Schoenberg, the boogeyman of the first half of twentieth century music, was asked by an interviewer, “Are you aware that young composers are now utilizing your twelve-tone method?” The reply was pure Schoenberg: “But are they making music with it?” Lynch and Maddin succeed where others fail because they make music.
Maddin and Lynch belong to a small (unlike painting and music, film has never had a large school of revolutionaries) school of innovative avant-garde (or Surrealist, if one prefers sub-labels) filmmakers who are astutely aware of their aesthetic tradition. No matter how elastic, their films maintain a sense of control, never veering into a slipshod experimentation for the sake of experimentation mode. After Schoenberg died, Pierre Boulez took up that mantle. Now, with Boulez gone, we really have seen the last of the avant-garde titans that remembered to continue “making music with it.” One can only hope that we will not soon be saying the same of Lynch, Maddin, Jodorowsky, John Waters, or Brian De Palma (yes, De Palma), but it is likely that we will. Innovation has been largely silenced in favor of the mainstream’s imitation diet. De Palma and Waters have unofficially retired. Jodorowsky, never a prolific artist, is finishing his first film in three years. Lynch has resurfaced after nearly a ten-year hibernation (although he did produce largely unseen shorts during that period). Alas, this is only to rehash “Twin Peaks” for television. After INLAND EMPIRE, this seems a step backward.
Maddin has been (and remains) the only active filmmaker of the listed lot. It is tempting to say that we cannot, or should not limit ourselves to a single work in Maddin’s oeuvre. Rather, we are rightly invited, or tempted, to absorb his entire body of work. Perhaps the best place to start is in the beginning, with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988).
From the outset, Maddin establishes his obsessions: silent film, radio melodrama, Mary Pickford’s Sparrows (1926), indigenous documentaries, Val Lewton, the Universal horrors, and Kenneth Anger. Maddin also finds a kinship with the earliest, scratchy films of John Waters (i.e. 1969’s Mondo Trasho and 1970’s Multiple Maniacs 1970).
Above all, Tales is lit and narrated like a visualization of an “Inner Sanctum” radio episode. It opens on the coastal village of Gimli, which is faced with a smallpox epidemic. An emergency makeshift hospital, inside of a barn, deals with the crisis. The film primarily focuses on the relationship between Einar the lonely (Kyle McCulloch) and Gunnar (Michael Gottli).
A boy and girl, dressed in their Sunday best, are ushered into the hospital to visit their ailing mother. Nurse Amma (Margaret-Anne MacLeod) tells the children to “let your mother listen to her music,” which sounds like 1940s big band playing on a 78 record with a stuck needle. The nurse distracts the children with a tale of “Einar the lonely and Snjofridur, a beautiful young girl who was dying. It all happened in a Gimli we no longer know.”
Oddly, it is awhile before we are introduced to either Einar or Snjofridur (Angela Heck). Rather we are treated to homoerotic images of shirtless men shaving each others’ nose, frolicking nymphs (who look as if they were yanked from Charlie Chaplin‘s Sunnyside), and flapper girls sleeping on the beach (Busby Berkeley and Maya Deren seem to be the references here) while men wrestle. No doubt, the children will surely be relieved that it is a Gimli no longer known.
Iris into Einar, Gunnar, and the tale: Einar lives in a hut with hanging fish. With no explanation, he grabs one of the fish, squeezes its guts onto his skull, and combs his hair. Einar and Gunnar were also infected with small pox, which leaves them looking like a low budget, black and white version of Terence Fisher‘s Frankenstein monster.
Having cut his finger, Einar is admitted into the Gimli Hospital. There is a bit of business with an Al Jolson-like blackface and a puppet show entertaining Einar. He is next entertained by the hemorrhaging of a dying man. Like January snowflakes, feathers float through the ward. Einar is introduced to the amorous Gunnar, the rotund, bespectacled patient next to him who carves fish out of bark. Next up, a nurse (who looks like an anorexic Theda Bara) engages in sex with Gunnar. It’s another show for Einar, who watches their silhouettes through a bed sheet. Sexually frustrated, Einar eats the nurse’s hat.
Back in his bed, Einar spins the tale of he and Snjofridur and how he infected her with the mysterious epidemic. Shamefully, Einar rejected Snjofridur, which caused her to die of a broken heart. Gunnar also has a tale of the same maiden, revealing how he came upon her grave, stole her burial tokens, and engaged in a bit of necrophilia with her corpse.
Foreshadowing the fate of the children’s mother, we are introduced to a pink sepia-hued, Busby Berkely-like heaven with singing, swimming, flapper mermaids.
Naturally, Einar is a tad upset with Gunnar’s confession and the two men wrestle it out to the gruesome finish. Cue bagpipes and an angelic mother ascending to a Wagnerian heaven.
Like most, if not all of Maddin’s films, Tales is a List Contender.
Next week, the sole remaining David Lynch feature film to be covered here: The Elephant Man (1980).