366 Weird Movies may earn commissions from purchases made through product links.
“It all happened in a Gimli we no longer know.”–Tales from the Gimli Hospital
DIRECTED BY: Guy Maddin
FEATURING: Kyle McCulloch, Michael Gottli, Angela Heck, Margaret Anne MacLeod
PLOT: In a modern (?) hospital room, a Canadian-Icelandic grandmother tells her grandchildren the story of Einar the Lonely to distract them as their mother lies dying. Simple fisherman Einar falls in love with a beautiful girl, but she rejects him when it is revealed that he has contracted smallpox. He goes to recuperate in Gimli’s barn-cum-hospital, where he befriends a fellow patient, Gunnar, who shares stories which are mixed up with fever dream hallucinations.
- Gimli is a small village in Manitoba, settled by Icelandic fishermen who arrived in Canada fleeing the eruption of Mount Askja in 1875.
- Maddin lifted some names and incidents from a book of local history (and poetry) entitled “The Gimli Saga” (also his original choice of title).
- Tales from the Gimli Hospital was rejected by the Toronto International Film Festival, but championed by legendary cult film aficionado Ben Barenholtz, who secured a midnight run for the film at Greenwich Village’s Quad Theater.
- The film garnered a Best Screenplay nomination for Maddin from Canada’s Genie Awards.
- The 2022 “Redux” cut (reviewed here) substitutes a dream sequence shot eleven years later for an original scene that featured Kyle McCullough in blackface.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Although there are many strange sights to see in Gimli, almost all of them have something to do with fish: fish-chopping, fish-carving, a magenta-toned dream women turning into a fish princess. The most iconic moment is when Einar grabs a fish (which has been nailed to the wall of his shack), holds it over his head, and twists it to release its oily guts, using the goo to slick back his hair.
TWO WEIRD THINGS: Fish guts pomade; bloody butt grappling
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Guy Maddin’s debut feature sets the tone for his career—recreating the aesthetics of silent and early talkie movies, spiked with Freudian surrealism and absurdist humor—though his subsequent movies benefited from melodramatic plotting that is absent from the episodic Gimli. Although highly accomplished, it’s one of Maddin’s most surreal movies, and therefore not the easiest entry point to his world. It may be better to visit Gimli after becoming familiar with Maddin’s more mature work.
Redux re-release trailer for Tales from the Gimli Hospital
COMMENTS: Guy Maddin may be the archetypal cinematic postmodernist. “Postmodernism” is a term that’s simultaneously highly technical and squishy. But the word itself suggests a transitional phase of history: we don’t yet know what we are, but we recognize we are no longer modern, although we still use the terminology of modernism because we lack an language of our own. Postmodernism defines itself by what it is not. To understand postmodernism, you must first define “modernism,” which does not mean simply “contemporaneous” but refers to the period of history from the Enlightenment to (approximately) the present day (some philosophers see the modern period as ending in the 1980s or 1990s).Modernism is primarily characterized by the belief in reason and progress: the modern period saw the ascent of science which alleviated disease, dramatically increased agricultural production, and brought a host of personal luxuries and comforts—along with political and philosophical structures that, at the very least, had elaborate rational justifications, if not always rational results. Postmodernism critiques modernism’s assumption that the rational approach fully explains the world and provides more solutions than it does new problems. Maddin locates his aesthetics in firmly in the modern era—Gimli, like most of Maddin’s work, takes place in the early 1900s, the peak of modernity—but treats the milieu with ironic detachment. He genuinely appreciates the beauty of the era’s cinematic art, but mocks the underlying philosophical assumptions, producing a multilayered tapestry of film where backwards-looking, romantic aesthetics exist in a tension with contemporary cynicism.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital devotes itself to describing a “Gimli that no longer exists,” restricting itself to the techniques (black and white cinematography with occasional hand-tinting, primitive sound, iris lenses) and styles (stilted period dialogue, melodramatic theatrical acting, fascination with the power of shadows) that would have been used if the movie had been made at the dawn of the 1930s. But the movie concerns itself with events in this humble singing village only on a surface level. Maddin does not pretend to be making a period film on its own terms, or content himself in aping vintage films. He actively inserts himself and his attitudes into the tale with a meta-textual critique. Maddin amuses himself by exposing the era’s aura of sexual repression (the idea of sexual repression is, itself, an invention of the high modernist Sigmund Freud). The opening montage of Gimli starts off with the kind of sexy pre-Code shots that a filmmaker could have gotten away with in the 30s—women sensually pulling on stockings, shot from the waist down—and proceeds to flirtatious homoerotic imagery: shirtless men shaving each other, women in full 1930s bathing regalia practicing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on the beach, and men wrestling each other in the grand old Icelandic butt-grappling style. (In one of my favorite humorous erotic metaphors, Maddin suggests sex through the image of a man repeatedly slapping two large fish together with a satisfying “smack.”). Later, the film flirts with sadomasochism, necrophilia, and pedophilia, though always encoded in such a way to give the narrative plausible deniability. The joke here is that Maddin encodes sexuality as blatantly as he can, turning it perverse while still preserving the surface appearance of innocence. The little bit of actual nudity in Gunnar’s first surgical hallucination sequence, which was shot a decade later, feels dreadfully out of place in this context.
Modernity values rationality above all things, so sexuality is something to be hidden, lest it overshadow the mind’s nobler pursuits. Of course, Maddin critiques modernity’s worship of rationality by making his story almost totally irrational. He adopts the strategies of surrealism and absurdism, two movements that predict the death of modernism, and which coincidentally arise about the same time as the films he’s parodying. Although the movie is set in a recognizable milieu, this is a universe where a man will eat a nurse’s hat out of sexual frustration, and a puppet show will substitute for surgical anesthetic. Maddin buries stories within stories, using the framing device of the grandmother telling a tale to her grandchildren to tell the story of Einar and Gunnar, who, inside the main story, each generate their own flashbacks and fever dreams. Near the climax, Maddin cross-cuts between two characters hallucinations in what may, or may not, be a hallucination itself. Clarity of narrative is not a priority: the intent is rather to lose the viewer inside a dreamlike labyrinth of symbols, to plunge them into the ice cold waters of Gimli’s subconscious. Maddin mocks modernity’s preoccupation with clear and precise storytelling, storytelling which reflects a view of the world as a tidy and orderly place full of obvious lessons and morals. Gimli is, instead, a place of primordial urges and motivations and mysterious, insular mythologies. Meaning is not provided, but must be manufactured by the viewer.
Guy Maddin’s universes are full of strange humor. If anything, what he satirizes most about modernity is its sense of self-importance. The abundance of fish in Gimli is hilarious, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear—aside from the absurd overabundance of icthythian images. Gimli is a fishing village, fish are the lifeblood of the people, so every metaphor must somehow involve fish. 1930s modernity wants to bury sex, while at the same time theorizing that sexual repression is the basis of human psychology, so Maddin’s movies become Freudian melodramas, to the point of parody. At the same time, Maddin is legitimately in love with the period’s aesthetics: the idea that he can vertically pan a camera past cottonball clouds to reveal an angel with spread wings, glowing in klieg lights. Maddin recreates the lost twentieth century, the Gimli we no longer know, while simultaneously erecting something shockingly new on its ruins. That ironic, layered approach is the essence of the postmodern tragedy: the inability to move beyond the trappings of modernity, but the knowledge that it can never provide the utopia it promised.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…invoking the name and weirdness of David Lynch gives you at least a rough idea of what to expect… if this one lacks both the rigor and the obsessive feeling of personal necessity that suffuses Eraserhead, it does have more moment-to-moment invention and genuine weirdness — as well as a higher solid-laugh quotient — than most other examples of the form.”–Jonathan Rosenbaum, The Chicago Reader (contemporaneous)
“Given the film’s mix of surreal black-and-white imagery, subversive sexuality, and offbeat comedy, as well as its success on the midnight movie circuit, the comparisons to David Lynch’s Eraserhead were inevitable. And yet, anyone who’s seen even a single one of Maddin’s later work can instantly tell that this film couldn’t have sprung from the subconscious of any other filmmaker.”–Derek Smith, Slant (Blu-ray)
Tales from the Gimli Hospital [Redux] :: Zeitgeist Films – Zeitgeist’s Gimli page features numerous stills, the trailer, and an electronic press kit
IMDB LINK: Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988)
OTHER LINKS OF INTEREST:
Tales from the Gimli Hospital Redux: Inside the Mind of Guy Maddin – Penny Folger provides extensive background on the film for the Frida Cinema’s blog
Guy Maddin Isn’t Naïve About How People See Movies — He’s Mostly Watched His Own on a Small Screen – Pre-Redux screening interview with Maddin from IndieWire
HOME VIDEO INFO:
In 2023, Zeitgeist Films released a Blu-ray of Tales from the Gimli Hospital Redux (buy), completely remastered and re-edited to swap out the infamous blackface scene with a new dream sequence shot a decade later. Given that murky visuals are a large part of the retro appeal of the film, the visual remastering is probably not that significant, but Maddin has obviously second-guessed himself over the years about the racially insensitive scene. Extras include a newly recorded Maddin commentary, the re-release trailer, and the remarkable short “The Heart of the World” (2000).
You can still find copies of Kino’s 2000 “Deluxe Version” DVD (buy), unrestored but with the blackface scene intact, a different Maddin commentary, and two bonuses: Maddin’s first short film “The Dead Father” (1986) and “Hospital Fragment,” which is described as occurring in “the haunted Gimli universe,” and is, as it turns out, the scene Maddin later inserted into Redux.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital can be rented or streamed from Amazon (buy or rent) or Kino Lorber’s streaming service Kino Now. Amazon does not specify whether it hosts the older version or the Redux cut (we suspect it’s the original cut); Kino’s version is definitely the Redux.