Tales from the Gimli Hospital Review

Michael Brooke has reviewed the Region 0 DVD release of Tales from the Gimli Hospital

Much like David Lynch’s Eraserhead or Lars Von Trier’s The Element of Crime, Guy Maddin’s first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, is almost unclassifiably strange. I have plenty of reservations about it, but there’s no danger of déja vu: it’s safe to say that even its detractors aren’t going to be saying “Oh no, not another semi-silent melodrama based on Icelandic folk tales featuring weird diseases and traditional buttock wrestling!”.

They will, however, be saying plenty of other things about it, mostly along the lines that it intersperses moments of jaw-dropping originality with almost wilful incoherence. There’s a plot of sorts – the inhabitants of the town of Gimli fall victim to an unknown plague that causes their skin to crack, and when incarcerated in the local hospital they experience strange dreams and nightmares – but it makes the far more confident Eraserhead look like a model of narrative clarity by comparison.

The opening intertitle sets the florid tone: “O Mount Askja! Your Eruptions have put us in Boats and sent us to scar [sic] new Lands. But from across the celibate Ocean you cast your nets and haul us back to your smouldering bosom.” In other words, although set in Canada, the various Icelandic characters that populate the film keep harking back to their roots, both in terms of their profession (fishing and wrestling, for the most part) and their various rituals.

One such fisherman, Einar the Lonely, catches the disease and ends up in the Gimli Hospital, waited on by suspiciously young-looking nurses (Maddin confirms on the commentary that their average age was thirteen) and sandwiched between such characters as the garrulous Gunnar and what must be one of the few blackface minstrels to have appeared in any film in several decades. It’s a decidedly unorthodox hospital, where patients have to watch puppet shows through binoculars in lieu of anaesthetics, and there are hints that the nurses have rather more to offer their patients than just medical treatment – though this is tragically denied poor Einar, who eventually finds himself compelled to challenge Gunnar to a traditional Icelandic buttock-wrestling duel…

And that’s pretty much all the plot summary you’ll get, because that’s about as much as the film gives us – and no mere summary can hope to convey the film’s uniquely off-kilter atmosphere: it’s like a cross between Eraserhead and an early sound film from the late 1920s, and it’s constantly breaking into eccentric musical interludes and moments that I imagine are supposed to be dream sequences, though it’s hard to tell what’s meant to be “real”.

To be honest, I’m not sure Maddin really knows either – he later admitted that the film wasn’t especially strong in the plot structure department, and confessed that the script should have gone through a couple of extra drafts before shooting started. As a result, it’s a film that demands a fair bit of tolerance and understanding from its audience – there are quite a few moments that look like an inept school pantomime, and others that are breathtakingly inspired. I doubt very much that it adds up to anything particularly significant (though the Icelandic roots aren’t just an affectation – Maddin is himself of Icelandic ancestry), and Maddin has gone on to make significantly better films (Archangel, Careful), but Tales from the Gimli Hospital does grow on you: I enjoyed this third viewing far more than I did the first! But if this review sounds evasive, it’s meant to be: to say that not everyone will appreciate this film is putting it very mildly indeed.

Tales from the Gimli Hospital was shot on a minuscule budget (in the low five figures) on black-and-white 16mm, so my expectations for the picture weren’t high. In the event, though, this is an astonishingly good transfer – appreciably sharper than the one Kino did for Careful, it also has a commendably wide dynamic range, a surprising amount of shadow detail and rather less grain than I’d have predicted. As a result, I think it’s safe to say that any drawbacks with the image are down to budgetary limitations and flaws in the original stock – there are a few spots, scratches, tramlines and on occasion small chemical blotches, but with this film that is absolutely not a drawback: indeed, they add to the archaic look that’s crucial to the film’s overall mood. It’s framed in 4:3, but that’s what it should be – so an anamorphic transfer wouldn’t have been necessary.

The sound is the original mono, and there’s not a lot to say about it: like most Maddin soundtracks, much of its scratchy awfulness is entirely deliberate, so it seems a little unfair penalising it on those grounds (though others have been less generous: the Toronto Film Festival turned the film down because of its poor sound, despite protestations that it was supposed to be like that). All I can do is confirm that it sounds exactly like what I heard in the cinema, and since the transfer was personally supervised by Maddin himself, it’s safe to assume that it’s exactly what he wants.

The major extra is a commentary track, though unlike the one for Careful, in which he had co-writer George Toles to bounce ideas and reminiscences off, this is a solo effort by Maddin, and it’s a fair bit dryer and more serious than its companion – though in many ways it’s rather more useful, as Tales from the Gimli Hospital rather badly needs a commentary in the way that Careful doesn’t. In fact, so useful is the commentary in terms of filling in blanks and explaining what Maddin was getting at that I’m going to make a highly unusual suggestion: that newcomers to the film watch it for the first time with the commentary track on, and then watch it as it would have been shown in cinemas.

The two other extras are both short films made by Maddin at around the same time. In fact, The Dead Father (1986, 23 mins) was his very first film, made when he was still learning how to use basic film equipment. It’s often technically ropey, and obviously made for peanuts, but Maddin’s unique talent is unquestionably there in embryonic form, and this manages a fine balancing act between being a genuinely touching study of bereavement (in many ways this is his most emotionally affecting film to date) and a typically off-the-wall bit of Maddinesque fantasy about a recently deceased father who just won’t leave his family. It’s just about conceivable that another director could come up with a scene where the son decides to eat his father as a means of exorcism – but who but Maddin would have him doing it with a spoon? The print is in fairly awful condition, replete with spots, scratches and even tramlines – but given the weatherbeaten silent-movie ambience it’s arguable that this actually helps the overall feel.

Hospital Fragment (1988, 4 mins) doesn’t come with any contextualising information, but it looks like a bizarre dream sequence that was cut from the main feature. A hospital patient fantasises about his nurse as she cleans his wounds, their decidedly sadomasochistic and indeed transvestite passion being intercut with fishing imagery, both nets and two large fish being repeatedly slapped together, all managing to create an effect of indescribable obscenity while being completely innocent in terms of the actual ingredients. It’s a great introduction to Maddin’s work – totally incomprehensible for the most part, but so visually compelling that this hardly matters.

That said, for those who have yet to explore the peculiar universe of Guy Maddin, I’d recommend Kino’s other DVD, Careful, before this one: both film and commentary are a lot more accessible, and it comes with an hour-long Tom Waits-narrated documentary that provides ample background material on his life and career. By contrast, Tales from the Gimli Hospital is altogether less audience-friendly – but existing Maddin fans can rest assured that this is about as good a print as you’re ever likely to see.

And if you can’t get enough Guy Maddin on DVD, you should also note that his 1995 short The Eye Like A Strange Balloon, together with a commentary and storyboards (the latter linked to the film via multiple angles) is available on Warner’s acclaimed Short 2: Dreams – along with Chris Marker’s legendary La Jetée.

Michael Brooke

Updated: Feb 27, 1999

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