Though I consider myself a pseudo-Cinephile, and spent several years seeking out the most obscure films I could find, I had never heard of Tales from the Gimli Hospital, or Guy Maddin for that matter, until this event popped up on EMPAC's calendar (hence "pseudo"). Mainly intrigued that the film's narration, score and sound effects were going to be created live, I decided I had to check it out.
Before the film started, Guy Maddin gave an impromptu speech in front of the crowd. He admitted that he wasn't prepared for the speech, so he just went off the cuff with the dialogue. Two interesting tidbits came out of the quick introduction: his motive for originally creating the film back in 1988 and why he decided to re-work the film after all these years. Maddin is fascinated with folklore, and how certain countries and cultures use mythology to craft alternative histories. Being an Icelandic-Canadian, he felt that his heritage had no legends, so Tales from the Gimli Hospital was his way to create a mythos for his background, specifically Gimli, the town he grew up in. Secondly, the driving force behind the presentation I was about to see was that Maddin claims he has zero understanding of music (I think he was being a bit modest). He referred to the power of music as a "phenomenon of the occult", or something along those lines. Being that the film is largely devoid of dialogue, the score and sound effects essentially tell the story, along with the visuals. The original score consisted of "stolen" music and sound bites, as Maddin put it, so he wanted to experiment with how sound could alter the same images he created 23 years ago.
The film starts in the "present day" Gimli hospital, where a woman is dying with her two children by her side. To console them, their grandmother tells the children a tale about Gimli Hospital, from a time well before theirs. The story is about a man, Einar the Lonely, and his stay at Gimli while he endures an epidemic, befriending his neighbor, Gunnar, in the process. While the two initially find comfort in their new found friendship, the mood changes as they compete for the attention of the nurses by telling stories, with secrets being revealed as the narrative unravels.
Visually, Maddin's style recreates early melodramas and German silent films from the 1920s (think Fritz Lang's Metropolis). The film was extremely grim and had a gothic dread about it, though maybe this was just a result of it being in black and white, coupled with poorly lit set pieces. The convoluted, nightmarish narrative was similar to that of pre-Blue Velvet David Lynch. Ready for another name drop? Thematically, with a story doused in disease and sexual undertones, Gimli shares with the body horror films of David Cronenberg (what is it about these Canadians, eh?).
Now, on to 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.
After the show, Maddin, the musicians, sound artists, and others stuck around for a Q&A. I was on top my amateur film reviewer game and decided to record the conversation so I could write some really insightful comments. Well, somehow my voice recorder was set to a higher pitch, so everything I recorded sounds like Alvin and the Chipmunks. Yup, amateur. I do have some recollection of Maddin discussing how he grew used to people walking out of his films, with an estimated rate of 65%-ish for Gimli. I can't say I'm completely surprised. The conversation was incredibly informative, with discussions revolving around Foley, the use of black face in film, and how sound design can cover up for mediocre images.
Overall, the film itself is not for everyone. But if you're willing to put aside your hang-ups, the experience of a cinematic soundscape being created in front of your face is an unforgettable one. So if you really can't get past Gimli, I highly recommend trying to find a way to watch a film scored live that is more fitting to your tastes.
If you would like to check out Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed, it will be premiering at Performa 11 Biennial in NYC this November. Maddin mentioned that after the premier, a tour could be possible, depending on several factors.
Thanks again to our friends at EMAPC for consistently bringing alternative art to the area. Don't forget to check out their calendar here.