Friday Editor’s Pick: Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed (2011)

by on November 12, 2011Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri Nov 18 and Sat Nov 19 at 7:00 & 9:00 at Film Society of Lincoln Center [Program & Tix]


From the Film Society of Lincoln Center Program notes:

A unique live cinematic and musical event, Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed pairs acclaimed filmmaker Guy Maddin’s classic first feature film with a live performance—directed by Maddin himself—of a new score created by composer Matthew Patton, a superstar group of Icelandic musicians, acclaimed Seattle-based musical collective Aono Jikken Ensemble, and live electronics engineer Paul Corley. A cult sensation when it was released theatrically in 1988, the original Tales from the Gimli Hospital tells the dreamlike, elliptical story of the jealousy and madness instilled in two men sharing a hospital room in a remote Canadian village. The film first propelled Maddin to international prominence, becoming a success on the midnight movie circuit, and is now being completely transformed by this brand new performance.


With dramatic new narration written by Maddin and performed in a mixture of singing and speaking by the bewitching Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir (formerly of múm, and also known as Kria Brekkan), a hauntingly gorgeous string and vocals score performed by acclaimed Icelandic musicians Gyda Valtýsdóttir (cello), Borgar Magnason (double bass), and Maria Huld Markan Sigfúsdóttir (violin), and ingenious live “Foley” sound effects plus additional musical atmosphere created by the Aono Jikken Ensemble (Willliam Satake Blauvelt, Dean Moore, and Naho Shioya), the new score takes the original Gimli in an entirely new direction, with layers upon layers of music drawn from different sources reflecting the story-within-a-story structure of the film, and an ethereal tone that draws out the darkest and most haunting elements of the film, bringing Maddin’s original artwork to life in a sublime and unexpected new way.



Jonathan Marlow talks to Maddin about the project for Fandor:

Why Gimli?

Maddin: It was a chance to re-contextualize it. It’s called Gimli Hospital Reframed and it’s being presented with live music and live narration as part of the Performa Arts Festival in New York in November. The new score changes it completely. The actual sync-sound voices have been replaced with Udo Kier narrating and Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, one of the [former] singers of the Icelandic group Múm. There’s more meta-narration going on. It still needs some work so we’re all retiring to a residency of sorts to work on it.


In a sense, it is related to Brand Upon the Brain!

Maddin: It’s a real continuation of that. I didn’t want to just repeat the same thing, though. In Ottawa, I even added additional projections. And I also took a so-called deleted scene that I shot in 1999, about eleven years after filming…

Hospital Fragment. (Viewhere.)

Maddin: …and I found a place for it in the movie that’s just perfect. I put it inside the Punch and Judy puppet show as a kind of hallucination or anesthetic dream. Since the anesthetic is the puppet show it makes sense that a narrative anesthetic would produce more narrative. So I just embedded it in there. It’s just sort of presciently shows some of the love relationships and the homoeroticism in a little nightmarish glimpse that becomes true later in the film. It was something that I shot flippantly but I guess I’ve just got so much Gimli in my blood that it ended up making sense being in the movie after all. I remember felling mischievous calling it a deleted scene since there was no possible place for it in the movie. But all I had to do was think for about thirty seconds and there is. There’s an obvious place! It’s nice. I feel better. With the additional voices, I think that I can say a bit more about the narrative process. The narrative within the narrative within the narrative in which we all live our lives.


A few critics anticipating the event…


Doug Levy for Flavorpill:

Acclaimed filmmaker Guy Maddin takes his penchant for emulating the silent-film era to a new level, recreating the score for one of his first successes, the haunting Tales from the Gimli Hospital. Maddin is on hand to lead a cast of performers including former múm siren Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir and a host of other Icelandic musical luminaries, who reinvent the film live through all-new music, narration, and live sound effects. Even if you’ve seen Gimli before, you’ve never seen it like this.


J. Hoberman
for the Voice:

Maddin has “reframed” his first feature—a mock Nordic gothic about a smallpox epidemic in fin de siecle Winnipeg—with a new score, to be performed live. In its first incarnation, this product of an imaginary film studio, it achieved midnight cult status with its weird intimations of Eraserhead and SCTV.


The blog A Brief Intermission saw an early performance:

what made this presentation special: the live score, narration, and sound effects. The crew was composed almost entirely of performers from Icelandic and/or Canadian backgrounds. To cover the sonic landscape of the film, there was a string quartet, with two of the musicians doubling as vocalists, the narrator, and a trio of sound artists, who also provided some music via percussion and chimes. Watching sound effects being created in person was truly fascinating. Various noises were created with tin foil, bubble wrap, towels, hand cranked fans, tubs of water, sandals, whistles, children’s toys, etc, etc. I’ve always found the Icelandic accent to be intriguing, but in this setting, the female narrator’s voice was eerie, somewhat discomforting, matching the tone of the visuals. Musically, the Icelandic vocalizations were creepy and spectral. It’s funny how when the same style of singing is used in the music of Sigur Ros, the voices sound so uplifting. But to the backdrop of Gimli, they were haunting. Though, that is exactly what Maddin was shooting for in this re-imagining: the effect of visuals on music and vice versa. Overall, having the aural elements of cinema created live made the whole experience more gripping and authentic.


And a few reviews of the original film…


Noel Murray for The Onion AV Club:

One of Maddin’s most successful experiments in untuned cinema. The 1988 film Tales From The Gimli Hospital stars Kyle McCulloch and Michael Gottli as two friends who meet under quarantine as a smallpox epidemic sweeps their Icelandic-Canadian community. When not occupied by his pastime of cutting tree bark into fish shapes, McCulloch tells a story which implies he may have perversely sullied the memory of Gottli’s dead true love, and the two soon abandon their friendship in favor of fevered delirium and cruel revenge. Gimli’s black-and-white cinematography is lit almost exclusively by a single stark light, which gives a dreamlike quality to such surreal images as people washing their faces with straw and squeezing fish for hair oil, before Maddin breaks the hypnotic spell via overt artifice. The filmmaker self-consciously borrows from dozens of sources, including radio dramas, Our Gang shorts, hygiene films, school plays, stag pictures, Universal horror, ethnographic documentaries, and the indie weirdness of John Waters and David Lynch. Maddin describes the films collectively as “a tone poem… a tribute to optical crackle.” But while he skillfully recreates the otherworldly effect of a crudely rendered folk tale, he approaches the ideas and emotions of the story with detachment, and he encourages his audience to do the same.



Jonathan Rosebaum for the Chicago Reader:

Given the murky black-and-white photography, the fascination with repulsive medical details, the loony deadpan humor, the impoverished characters and settings, and the dreamlike drift of bizarre and affectless incidents, it’s difficult not to compare Tales From the Gimli Hospital with David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Tales From the Gimli Hospital isn’t an easy film to categorize, but invoking the name and weirdness of David Lynch gives you at least a rough idea of what to expect.


In many respects, Guy Maddin’s oddball independent Canadian production is distinctly different from Eraserhead. The sensibility at work here is neither painterly nor musical — the frames aren’t rigorously composed, and the eclectic editing rhythms are relatively stodgy and clunky — but steeped, rather, in the traditions of oral narrative and cinema of the late 20s and early 30s. The flavor of regional antiquity gives the movie much of its eerie charm and feeling of remoteness — a sense that everything is taking place long ago and far away, in a dark corner of an eccentric filmmaker’s mind.


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. It’s not generally a kind of filmmaking that wears well over time (Eraserhead again being an exception), but one of its distinctive and more enduring pleasures, in contrast to the usual staccato force-feeding of Hollywood features, is its dreamy slowness, which Maddin manages to make pretty alluring.


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