Guy Maddin’s amusingly nonsensical first feature, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, is set sometime in the pre-Confederation past in the idyllic northern Manitoba town of Gimli as a deadly pestilence rages.
The film chronicles the jealous relationship between the delirious Einar (McCulloch) and his rotund hospital-mate, Gunnar (Gottli); Gunnar entertains the nurses with his good humour while Einar lapses in and out of consciousness. As they undergo unconventional medical treatments involving seagulls, the two discover they have something in common: they both had sexual relations with Gunnar’s late wife (Heck).
Very, very loosely based on the local Icelandic Gimli Saga (stories about the Icelandic community in Gimli), Maddin’s deadpan tone poem traps viewers in a somnambulistic storytelling loop. A series of self-hating Icelandic “heritage moments” filtered through a surrealist sensibility (heavy on the fish) and the entire vocabulary of silent cinema, with references ranging from Busby Berkeley to Erich von Stroheim, this part-talkie is possessed by a pre-Code morality encompassing homoeroticism, necrophilia and a black-faced minstrel.
The film is often underlit and from only one light source. The camera focuses on unusual body parts such as kneecaps and the space between eyebrows, establishing Maddin as a primeval fetishist. And, in a truly odd “Icelandic” wrestling scene — also a nod to Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) — the camera focuses on buttocks.
Tales from the Gimli Hospital, made over 18 months with a script jotted down on Post-It notes, was eventually nominated for a Genie. Notoriously, the film was rejected by the Toronto Festival of Festivals’ Perspective Canada programming committee, some of whom mistook the highly deliberate, crackling ambient soundtrack as amateurish. Redemption proved sweet as Tales from the Gimli Hospital became a bonafide 1980s cult classic, playing packed midnight screenings in New York City for close to a year. This was thanks to the support of late-night impresario and independent filmmaker Ben Barenholtz, who promoted Maddin’s film as the second coming of Eraserhead. Indeed, this unique feature film might well be unspooling in the mind of Eraserhead’s Scandinavian Lady in the Radiator.