By Thomas M. Puhr.

This 64-minute fever dream exudes a confidence and singularity of vision rarely seen in debuts.”

Angels float in an ink black sky. The camera descends from these heavens, past wispy clouds, and settles at street level, where a spotlight shines on the entrance sign to Gimli Hospital. In an isolated room of the building, Amma (Margaret Anne Macleod) consoles her grandchildren, whose sick mother convalesces in a nearby bed. First-time viewers may be forgiven for assuming they’re watching a film from the ’20s or ’30s. The orchestral music, seemingly Vaseline-smeared camera lenses, and gesticulating performers indicate as much. But then a dead giveaway conspicuously presents itself: A Big Gulp, resting next to the ailing mother.

So begins Guy Maddin’s Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988). Remastered by the director and arriving courtesy of Zeitgeist Films, the Canadian auteur’s first feature – and second credited work, after a single short, on which FilmInt contributing editor George Toles served as a story consultant – is now widely available. Fans of the Winnipeg native will salivate at the opportunity this rerelease presents, but a central question lingers: Does the film stand on its own merit, or is it just a curio for completists? As a casual – at best – Maddin appreciator, I can say that Gimli comfortably falls in the former category. This 64-minute fever dream exudes a confidence and singularity of vision rarely seen in debuts.

Much of the film’s crisp runtime is packaged as a story within a story. To help get the kids’ minds off things, Amma tells them the bizarre, morbid tale of Einar the Lonely (Kyle McCulloch, who would later write for South Park and SpongeBob SquarePants). In a baffling introduction to the character, Maddin shows him slicking his hair back with fish guts to impress the women strolling past his beachside shack. After an unfortunate incident with a knife, Einar contracts a mysterious disease which has riddled the community and marks its victims with stitch-like scars. He drags himself to the titular hospital for treatment.

Things only get stranger from there. The hospital – which, at the time of Einar’s treatment, is little more than a barn – is overseen by a crew of nurses who all seem to be competing in a Louise Brooks lookalike contest: plenty of dark lipstick and eyeshadow. Einar’s cot neighbor is Gunnar (Michael Gottli), a mysterious man who coughs violently and passes the time by carving crude fish figures from tree bark. The two men start swapping stories (the art of storytelling – both its possibilities and limitations – becomes a central theme), only to find that their fates have been long intertwined.

This macabre tale-within-a-tale eventually crystallizes into a coherent whole; Maddin is not just arbitrarily throwing disconnected images and story elements at the screen, but his interests clearly lie outside the realm of narrative continuity or plausibility. Tales from the Gimli Hospital works best not when the writer-director-editor-cinematographer leans into anachronism (see the Big Gulp gag) but when he unironically incorporates techniques rarely seen outside the Golden Age: wide-eyed reaction shots; an elongated, creeping human shadow right out of M (1931); even a purple-tinted musical number. His love for cinema practically oozes from the screen.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital – [FILMGRAB]
Einar contracts a mysterious disease which has riddled the community…. He drags himself to the titular hospital for treatment. Things only get stranger from there.

Also evident is Maddin’s career-spanning love for – and fascination with – Canadian lore. “O Mount Askja! Your Eruptions have put us in Boats and sent us to scar new Lands,” an opening title card announces, in reference to the Icelandic volcano from which many a Canadian ancestor can be traced. “But from across the celibate Ocean you cast your nets and haul us back to your smouldering bosom.” This textual introduction initially struck me as superfluous: a quirky embellishment, even. But it ties in with the central narrative in more ways than one. The casted nets anticipate the recurrence of rivers, water, and fish, while the foreboding image of a volcano summoning its descendants suggests the vast, unknown forces guiding Einar and Gunnar’s shared fate.

What also makes Tales from the Gimli Hospital much more than a stylistic exercise is the emotional response Maddin is able to elicit from his viewers. Ultimately, his affectations somehow buttress the narrative’s emotional undercurrent, and I found myself genuinely affected by the frame story’s conclusion. When the bedridden woman dies, Amma announces that the children’s mother has gone to heaven. “What’s heaven like, Amma?” the daughter asks. “Heaven?” she responds. “Well now, if you’ll be good, I think I feel a story coming on.” Storytelling offers solace; in a world of unknowns, it may very well be the closest thing we have to paradise. 

Director Guy Maddin will be in attendance for Q and As at IFC Center in New York City following the 8:10pm shows on Friday, October 14 (moderated by filmmaker/actress Isabel Sandoval) and Saturday, October 15 of Tales of the Gimli Hospital (Redux), preceded by Guy Maddin’s short film The Heart of the World (6 min.), courtesy of TIFF Film Reference Library. For tickets, visit here.

Thomas Puhr lives in Chicago, where he teaches English and language arts. A regular contributor to Bright Lights Film Journal, he has published “‘Mysterious Appearances’ in Jonathan Glazer’s Identity Trilogy: Sexy BeastBirth and Under the Skin” in issue 15.2 of Film International. His book Fate in Film: A Deterministic Approach to Cinema is available from Wallflower Press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *