For more than 30 years, filmmaker Guy Maddin has mined the conscious and unconscious histories of cinema. His aesthetic and conceptual vocabularies range from that of silent to German Expressionist film to Old Hollywood and pioneering queer cinema, rendering an exceptional body of work that revels in the alchemy of film and the ecstatic drama of life.
His first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988), became a cult hit on midnight circuits, and established the dreamlike tone and striking use of shadow and color that would inform his later features, including Careful (1992), The Saddest Music in the World (2003), My Winnipeg (2007), The Forbidden Room (2015), and, most recently, The Green Fog (2017), as well as several shorts.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital tells the story of friends Gunnar (Michael Gottli) and Einar (Kyle McCulloch), who become rivals when they discover a mutual connection with a woman, Gunnar’s deceased wife, Snjofridur (Angela Heck). The central story — told in flashback by a grandmother in present-day Gimli, Manitoba — takes place around the turn of the 20th century in the Canadian Icelandic village, amid a smallpox epidemic. But it unfolds within a hallucinatory world that wanders from one reverie (or nightmare) to another. A 4-K restoration of the film captures the stunning visual quality that Maddin had intended, with its rich, deep black and white, and in one sequence, luminous violet.
The twilight state between dreaming and waking that permeates Gimli Hospital echoes that of life and death in Maddin’s films; as he notes in our conversation, the restoration draws long-gone friends and family out of the shadows. “As if time did not exist at all,” as novelist W.G. Sebald writes in Austerlitz, “the living and dead can move back and forth as they like.” But, as Maddin says below, it’s a happy haunting.
The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Natalie Haddad: I love your films but I really was also excited to talk to you because my Lebanese grandparents immigrated to Manitoba, to a little town, and for Christmas my grandmother made a dessert that I found out later was Icelandic. I went to Winnipeg a few years ago and started asking where I could get it, and some people said, “Gimli would be your best bet.” And it’s in the film, the dessert!
Guy Maddin: Ah, vínarterta!
GM: I think it was a recipe that was circulating among Icelandic mothers, or housewives in 19th-century Iceland. When the volcano erupted [Askja in 1875], sending refugees to other parts of the world, this vínarterta recipe came with them and no one questioned its original origins in Vienna. So it’s made its way from Vienna to Iceland to rural northern Manitoba to this small town with your family. But the story of vínarterta is a very touching one, and I think it has its place in a marbling of nuance throughout the future of identity politics. I hope there’ll always be room for vínarterta recipes to be shared among everybody.
NH: I didn’t mean to start with that long digression.
GM: I’m all about digressions. I’ve longed to make a movie that is just digressions. Before it gets anywhere, the digressions start rumbling in, and pretty soon everything’s buried beneath an avalanche of them. It seems like a fun formal conceit for something. I know the writer Raymond Roussel does something like that. … I love it when he’s at his most digressive, most concentrically nesting stories within stories within stories, none of them more than one or two sentences long, in his Documents to Serve as an Outline. So I love digressions — in other words, no apologies necessary.
NH: You have that quality in Tales from the Gimli Hospital. It’s a story within a story, but within that you’ve got the puppet show and dream sequence. And you’ve got the character of Gunnar telling a story to the nurses — so it’s like story within story within story within story.
GM: I had set out just to make a short film, but because I was so new to filmmaking, the short ended up being quite long. I think it was 40 minutes long when I showed it to a couple of friends, and they said, You know, you’re so close to making your first feature film. Why don’t you just add a few more stories? So that’s what I did.
NH: It’s bookended by the present-tense story. But you’re not just going from that reality into this dreamworld of the story. It keeps shifting.
GM: Well, I love the things that happen to me every summer out at Gimli, which is an Icelandic fishing village on Lake Winnipeg. But it’s also a summer resort for Winnipeggers. And so a lot of intense summery things happened, especially when you’re younger. I was only 30 when I started making this, and so a lot of the intensest feelings were recent memories, the kind of fevered, insane, irrational, surrealist, mad love stuff that Luis Buñuel really favored.
I thought, I want to mythologize this town because it’s really wild, and a million things happen, and it has its own identity the way that cities and towns [in the United States] have their own identity simply because they’ve been immersed in film emulsion — the great mythologizing medium of the 20th century.
And so I was happy just to make a delirious little surrealist thing, and really thrilled to be able to take my insider knowledge of Icelandic Canadian culture. I was 30 but I felt like a 17-year-old, just a brat about it, in other words. I had to make sure that the vínarterta and the fish were served on the same plate.
NH: Yeah, that combination was something that struck me.
GM: I never once witnessed anyone piling their dessert onto their main course plate in my childhood. I grew up in a very Icelandic cultural situation. My mom and my aunt ran an Icelandic Canadian beauty salon in which it was very common to hear only Icelandic being spoken beneath the roar of the hair dryers. It was being shouted in that sing-songy, almost falsetto Icelandic voice. And everyone [was] talking about their genealogy and ancient Gimli history, as if it had just happened last week, even though it had happened 90 years earlier.
NH: How was it coming back to it, after everything that you’ve done? Does it feel different now or are you picking up on things that you didn’t really think about at the time?
GM: Well, this 4-K restoration finally gets the contrasts and the lightness and the darkness the way I wanted it. It’s as light and as dark as the original movie but there’s more detail in the shadows now. There are distant relatives, Icelandic relatives, that I recruited to be in the movie that I never saw again because they passed away or whatever. But they reemerged from the shadows in this color-grading pass that I was able to give them and they live again, sitting in the dark, inside the Gimli hospital or outside beneath a tree or whatever. Long-gone aunts and uncles and cousins have reappeared, so the film is actually a little bit haunted now, but in a happy way. After 34 years it’s an unbelievable personal document for me, a time capsule. It’s like a 30-year-old version of me climbed out of a time capsule to confront the 66-year-old version now.
NH: People can get immersed in your films; they make me think of that moment when you’re waking up from a dream but you want to stay in the dream.
GM: The people I was reading back in those days were Dostoyevsky and Nabokov and this Polish writer, Bruno Schulz, and Kafka, you know, the big titans. And what I liked about them was the utter seamlessness between the dream and the waking states. This [film] just seemed to be a love letter to that half-waking/half-dreaming state, and to Gimli and my Icelandic relatives — a love/hate letter in that case.
NH: You also integrate humor and you’ve worked with comedic actors. A lot of people who make art and independent films, unless they’re making comedies, don’t work humor into their films. To me, the humor adds a layer of complexity.
GM: It just comes from Luis Buñuel. No one’s a more serious political, social activist with his films, but he also can’t go more than a minute without having something ridiculous happen that undercuts his own characters, even undercuts himself — less so than his characters, but he realizes that ridiculousness and activism seem to go hand in hand, or they work together as a really strong alloy. He was my first cinema love and I can’t get him out of my DNA now. Also, who am I anyway to make any sort of serious statement? I just feel I have to flat-tire myself within seconds of starting to smell my own bombast.
NH: The first movie of yours I saw was The Saddest Music in the World, and I didn’t know much about your films. I think what got me to see it was that [comedic actor] Mark McKinney was in it.
GM: Oh really? That’s hilarious. That’s funny. He’s so good.
NH: Well, I was a teenager in the ’90s so I kind of grew up with him. … I don’t even know if there’s a question in this or just a comment, but in your short film Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton (a behind-the-scenes documentary on director Paul Gross’s 2015 war film Hyena Road), you commented about getting to truths through art. You said, “Can’t a filmmaker borrow from the poet’s playbook and tactically deploy montage to conspicuously manipulate the real world to arrive at a psychological truth in a kind of end-around?” I feel like you’ve been doing that.
GM: I’ve been trying. Once you start representing [war and death] in movies it just seems to be running in the opposite direction from the truth almost instantly. It’s becoming so stylized and almost exhilarating — and people have made this argument; they’ll even go further and say there’s no such thing as an antiwar movie, that all antiwar movies thrill too much. I’m sure Buñuel would agree. So I just thought there must have been some way around it.
Our main concerns in making [Bring Me the Head of Tim Horton] were how can you make an antiwar movie, and how do you even represent the true sadness and horrors of death? Even when death happens in real life, you already have so many coping mechanisms that kick in to deflect the whole impact. Or maybe in some cases you have to grieve on the installment plan over many years, and in some cases you repress completely and never grieve. And in other cases you’re completely wiped out and have to recover as an act of just picking yourself up and being almost as dead as the loved one you lost. So if you can’t even represent real loss in your own life outside of a cinema, how is a movie supposed to do it?
Poets and writers sometimes do get it: they do genuinely terrify you, they do genuinely sadden you, crush you, wipe you out — film does other things really well but that hasn’t traditionally been its strength.
I know there are plenty of exceptions. … I’m a dog lover so I just have to think of Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D, which is about a man about my age and his dog basically alone in the world, walking off into oblivion, and I’m devastated. There are ways of doing it.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital Redux is screening at the IFC Center (323 6th Ave., Greenwich Village, Manhattan) from October 14-20. October 14 and 15 screenings are followed by an audience Q&A with Guy Maddin, moderated by filmmaker/actress Isabel Sandoval.
The film will screen at American Cinematheque (1822 North Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, Los Angeles, California) on October 16, 18, and 20.
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