Aug 23, 2013

Tales from the Gimli Hospital




I would not exactly call myself a staunch Guy Maddin fan, even if I like some of his films and respect his influences because he seems to be someone who knows too much about film, most specifically silent and early talkie works, for his own good, thus many of his works, including Dracula: Pages From a Virgin's Diary (2002) and Cowards Bend the Knee (2003), seem like cleverly conceptualized postmodern fanboy jerk-off pieces assembled by a degenerate dilettante with way too much time on his hands. Sort of like a much more cultivated and less aesthetically barbaric Quentin Tarantino, except with relatively decent taste in film, Maddin is essentially like an archeologist/anthropologist auteur who exhumes long dead cinematic conventions and style and mixes them with traumatic experiences and anecdotes from his own life and Icelandic background, thereupon concocting sort of anachronistic celluloid Frankenstein monsters featuring mismatched parts thus oftentimes resulting in aesthetic tragedies. Undoubtedly, aside from possibly his kaleidoscopic incest-themed neo-mountain film Careful (1992), Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1989) is my personal favorite Maddin movie. Originally intended as a short, Tales from the Gimli Hospital would ultimately evolve into Maddin’s first feature-length film and a work that would get the attention of film exhibitor/producer Ben Barenholtz—the man responsible for creating the concept of the “Midnight Movie” and promoting/popularizing cult masterpieces like Alejandro Jodorowsky’s El topo (1970), John Waters’ Pink Flamingos (1972), and David Lynch’s Eraserhead (1977), among countless others—thus virtually guaranteeing the campy Canadian auteur a certain degree of fame and artistic merit among cinephiles in the cinema underground overnight. “Set in no particular time period” (as described by Maddin himself) but inspired by a smallpox epidemic around 1874 that ravaged the fishing community of Gimli, Manitoba, Canada (once known as “New Iceland”) and wiped out around 80% of the population, Tales from the Gimli Hospital is a sort of sardonic and aberrantly absurdist (anti)love letter to his Icelandic heritage, as well as early talkie pictures of the 1920s. Featuring tales of necrophilia, 13-year-old girls disguised as flapper-like nurses, a mocking appreciation of Icelandic language and culture/customs, and bawdy Eddie Cantor-esque blackfaces minstrels, Tales from the Gimli Hospital is a rare and aesthetically/thematically radical example of the North American Nordic neurosis as directed by a rare man of European descent who actually embraces his heritage, even if he disgraces it in the process. In fact, Tales from the Gimli Hospital upset members of Gimli’s Icelandic-Canadian community due to its less than sensitive portrayal of the historical smallpox epidemic in New Iceland and was even rejected from the Toronto Film Festival, yet in this day and age of excessive and seemingly suicidal ethno-masochism among Europeans and people of European descent, Maddin’s fiendishly farcical approach to human suffering seems more than fitting.  Utilizing a beauty salon run by his aunt that occupied the bottom floor of his childhood home as a sort of true Icelandic-Canadian peasant film studio, Maddin ultimately assembled with Tales from the Gimli Hospital what is arguably the most 'world famous' piece of Canadian Nordic cinema ever made.



 Tales from the Gimli Hospital, although entirely black-and-white (aside from a pink-tinted dream-sequence towards the conclusion of the film), begins at the present in Gimli, Manitoba hospital where two rather young children (played by Maddin’s niece and nephew) are watching their mother die as she listens to ‘esoteric noise’ aka music on her deathbed. While the dying woman apparently has time to drink a Big Gulp (which rather ridiclously sits by her side), the children’s grandmother decide that the kids should leave their momma alone so she can enjoy her music. The Icelandic grandmother decides to tell the children the story of ‘Einar the Lonely’ (an intrinsically cowardly character that Guy Maddin has admitted is a stand-in for himself) who also stayed at the same hospital long ago in “a Gimli we no longer know” after contracting smallpox. Einar (played by Kyle McCulloch, who, on top of starring in a couple of Maddin's other early films, later went on to become a writer for South Park), a lowly peasant fisher who uses fish guts as shampoo and became deathly ill after carelessly cutting his finger with a pocket knife, succumbs to small pox and is forced to stay at Gilmi Hospital, where he meets his large and in charge neighbor Gunnar (Michael Gottli), who has also become badly bedridden due to the illness. The hospital is essentially run by three beauteous and make-up-ridden young nurses (all of whom were actually played by 13-year-old girls) and features a Svengali-like doctor (played by director Guy Maddin himself, who grew a faggy Little Richard-esque mustache for the role) who gives creepy puppet shows (as a sort of sad substitute for morphine and/or anesthesia) while operating on patients, as well as a pseudo-Negro in blackface (also played by Kyle McCulloch) who has a dandy old time blasting away birds with his rifle that happen to be flying around the building. Naturally, Einar becomes a little bit jealous when Gunnar grabs the attention of the cute nymph-like nurses by telling stories from the “Gimli Sagas” (apparently a real book, which was also the original working title for Tales from the Gimli Hospital) involving morbidly merry stories about the corpses of sisters floating on makeshift coffin-rafts and whatnot. To the glee of the nurses, Gunnar also has a keen talent for carving pieces of birch bark into the shape of fishes, so Einar attempts to mimic his neighbor’s talents in vain, but no one notices him as if he is a lonely corpse who does not realize he is already dead. 



 Naturally, things take a turn for the worse when Gunnar borrows Einar’s distinctly decorated fish-carving shears and realizes that they are exactly the same pair that he buried his beauteous blonde wife Snjófridur (Angela Heck) with. Gunnar tells Einar the story of his courtship and eventual marriage to Snjófridur, who died after contracting smallpox from her chubby cuckold hubby.  Despite the large but smallpox-stricken widow's objections to an an aboriginal death ceremony, Gunnar’s native Indian friend John Ramsay (Don Hewak) gave Snjófridur a traditional Indian burial, which included laying a pair of fish-carving shears next to the corpse. Einar tells Gunnar about how he happened upon the shears, which were at the burial ground of a body of a angelic dead woman who he ultimately had sex with against the cute corpse's will. Of course, the corpse Einar committed necrophilia with was that of Snjófridur and when Gunnar realizes this he is not too happy, but is far too weak to exact his rightful revenge, but if anything is for sure, it is that the two men have now become enemies. Not long after a fire breaks out at the hospital and is put out with milk, which drips down on Gunnar and somehow blinds him. Meanwhile, the jolly blackfaced fellow drops dead and Einar considers slaughtering Gunnar with the same shears buried with Snjófridur so as to save his own skin from an assumedly brutal revenge.  Gunnar also threatens Einar in a superlatively sinister yet strangely homoerotic manner by standing over his bed and grazing his stomach with the same fishing shears. Both Einar and Gunnar, who seems to be both in somnambulistic states, exit the hospital for what will be a final showdown between the two enemies. A certain Victorian aristocratic fellow named Lord Dufferin, who was the third Governor General of Canada and who Einar hallucinates is a mythical Fish Princess, is giving a speech and the Shriners Highland Pipe Band are playing a song thus acting as the film's inconspicuous soundtrack, while Gunnar hallucinates various curious images while in a hopelessly hostile and jealous state in a surreal scene that was inspired by a scene from Fritz Lang’s film noir classic Scarlet Street (1945) of Edward G. Robinson's character devolving into a homicidal green-eyed monster of sorts. Einar finally gets the testicular fortitude to approach Gunnar when he sees the big bulky beast’s shadow, which resembles the iconic scene from F.W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) of Count Orlok's shadow climbing up the steps, approaching an innocent little blonde girl in a most malevolent manner. Rather absurdly, Einar and Gunnar engaged in the quasi-homoerotic “Gimli Wrestle” (apparently a real form of Icelandic wrestling), which involves the two men literally playing grab ass and lifting each other until one of the two collapses, and the two men ultimately paw each other’s own buttocks until they are bare and bloody as if they were victims of prison rape. In the end, Einar gets well and returns to his fisherman shacks, where he is visited by Gunnar and his new fiancé. Of course, Einar is jealous of his friends new romance because he will forever remain “Einar the Lonely.” Tales from the Gimli Hospital returns to the present, where the two children are informed their mother is dead, but luckily their Icelandic grandmother has another old historical story to tell them regarding New Iceland. 



 In an audio commentary for a DVD release of Tales from the Gimli Hospital, director Guy Maddin stated regarding contemporary Gimli and the decline of Icelandic culture and customs in the community, “The Icelandic gene pool has been watered down to next nothing. When a person with a non-Icelandic surname like me gets to be one of its/this ethnic group’s biggest spokespersons you know your ethnicity is in trouble.” Indeed, in terms of cinematic and ancestral influences, Maddin thankfully reluctantly lives in the past, thus acting as a sort of last cinematic gasp for both dying/dead cinematic conventions and the Icelandic-Canadian people. To his credit, Maddin refrained from wallowing in philistine sentimentalism with Tales from the Gimli Hospital, neither pretending to truly understand his ancestor’s struggles nor glorifying them in a silly and sapless Spielberg-esque manner. Most potent in its fixedly foreboding yet farcical atmosphere, Tales from the Gimli Hospital does certainly deserve the incessant comparisons it has gotten to Lynch’s Eraserhead, but Maddin’s film more resembles a phantasmagorical fable with tragicomedic overtones (as opposed to a mostly dead serious psychological horror piece like Lynch's film) as a work directed by a man who, losing his brother to suicide when he was still a wee lad and losing his father while still a young man, has learned to find absurdity and humility in the most stark and life-changing of human tragedies.  Notably, Tales from the Gimli Hospital was actually inspired by a rivalry Maddin had with a friend who dated the same woman as him, later remarking regarding the ordeal that he, rather ridiculously, found himself “quite often forgetting the object of jealousy” and ultimately becoming “possessive of my rival” instead, which the film poignantly portrays in an uniquely unhinged way in regard to the characters Einar the Lonely and Gunnar, two mixed-up men who fight over a dead woman. Like David Lynch with his first feature-length film Eraserhead, Tales from the Gimli Hospital is arguably Guy Maddin's purist and most visceral cinematic work to date as a hallucinatory and hypnotic Heimatfilm of the soul that ultimately acts as probably the most extreme and eccentric example of the director’s Icelandic-Canadian peoples' collective unconscious and a rare example of North American Nordic kultur in the age of so-called multiculturalism and American cultural hegemony, where blood and geographical borders are being all the more maliciously despoiled with each passing day. If I never see another Guy Maddin flick that I like again, I will always respect the filmmaker just for Tales from the Gimli Hospital, a postmodern völkisch work that somehow manages to reconcile Weimar-esque cultural degeneracy, traditional oral Icelandic lore, Riefenstahl-esque ‘aesthetic fascism,’ and Hebraic Vaudevillian minstrel shows, which is indubitably something that had never been achieved, nor will be achieved again by any filmmaker ever again.  Probably the only film ever made featuring a bizarre love triangle between two men and a female corpse, Tales from the Gimli Hospital also acts for an audacious (and probably accidental) allegory for not only the death of Icelandic-Canadian culture, but also the Occident in general.  Indeed, it is quite telling in regard to the dubious state of contemporary cinema when a modern-day director decides to adopt European cinematic conventions and aesthetics that are well past half a century old as Guy Maddin did with Tales from the Gimli Hospital, the only film that has managed to make me laugh at a late nineteenth-century smallpox epidemic.



-Ty E

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

I`ve actually been waiting a long time for you to reveiw this one and once again it was well worth the wait, a quite superb reveiw, superb.

Anonymous said...

13 year-old lustpots playing adult birds, sounds perfect to me ! ! !.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

There was a little bit of faggoty horse-shit in this reveiw but otherwise it was magnificent.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

I dont think Maddin himself is a faggot but he does still have quite a lot of pansy imagery in his films, i wonder why ?.

Anonymous said...

I often wonder about how alot of these film-makers go about the process of getting children to appear in their films without seemingly being worried about being accused of being perverts by those around them, for some reason being involved in the film industry seems to make them immune from those possible hassels.

Anonymous said...

Those girls dont look 13, they look more like stunningly beautiful adult birds, i rest my case, again ! ! !.

Anonymous said...

I dont know exactly why but the word "Gimli" always makes me think of enchanted forrests with pixies and elves running around.

jervaise brooke hamster said...

we`re OK, with only $3.5 million from just over 1500 screens in its opening day in North American cinemas that appalling piece of unwatchable British made dog-shit "The Worlds End" looks like its gone down the toilet already (relatively speaking) thankfully, if it ends its run with $18-$20 million (or much less hopefully) that should represent and constitute a box-office failure for the worthless British cunts who made the movie, HOO-RAH ! ! !. Just think for a mo-girl-t though, if it does make $20 million in North America that will still prove that 2.5 million Americans were stupid enough to see it, they should all be bloody-well ashamed of themselves for encouraging such British made horse-shit. Still at least it will also mean that 297.5 million Americans had the sense not to pay money to see it, so that at least will be a considerable consolation. LONG LIVE HOLLYWOOD, DEATH TO THE BRITISH FILM INDUSTRY.