That rascal is up to his old tricks once more! Guy Maddin, the Winnipeg-based film director who outraged the Icelandic community with his scandalous portrayal of our foibles in the 1988 cult movie Tales from the Gimli Hospital, has allowed his slanderous debut to be screened anew.
“Here's a strange chance for a filmmaker to revisit his first work, to see if he can better see from this distance of 23 years what it was he really made,” is how Maddin characterizes it. The black and white feature, every grain of its emulsion a gobbet of spit in the eyes of Icelanders everywhere, is playing as a part of the Prairie Scene festival of flatland culture in Ottawa’s National Arts Centre on April 30 at 8:30 p.m., where it has been re-titled Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed.
The seventy-two minutes of monochromatic mockery has been outfitted with a new original musical score, which was written by composer Matthew Patton (a Maddin devotee and Icelandophile) and will be performed live by Icelandic musicians, specifically members of such dreamy, string-based aggregations as múm and Amiina.
In addition, new narration has been penned for the piece, and this will be performed by the legendary Udo Kier, a German actor of mammoth cult renown. Kier has turned up in movies as diverse as Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein, Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Michael Bay’s Armageddon. His barky Teutonic tones will add a heretofore unexposed dimension to this cursed cultural desecration. Sound effects for the heretofore nearly silent movie will be created live by Seattle’s Aono Jikken Ensemble.
On its original release, the film was roundly (and, it was hoped, fatally) criticized by community grandees, including Einar Arnason, the then-editor of this very newspaper, for its attempts to turn the sufferings and privations of Icelandic settlers, along with what Maddin called the Icelanders’ “humourless obsession with their own history,” into a bagatelle for all to point at and scoff. There were, at the time, heroic attempts at citizen justice against the disrespectful director, such as the time a valiant Gimli fisherman wrapped Maddin’s bicycle in his tangled old nets, or when soiled bits of hardfiskur were sent to the filmmaker through the mails.
Yet Maddin remained – and remains – defiant, insisting on his right to “artistic expression” even at the cost of the Icelandic community’s dignity. “The movie is a child's take on the Icelandic-Canadian myths – not surprisingly, because I had been listening to word-of-mouth accounts of old family tales since my earliest years,” Maddin explains. “So now I get a chance to pass on the film, word-of-mouth style, to my own twenty-three years older self, as if this were an ancient myth now half way through the process of becoming entrenched as an immortal saga.”
The film remains an important benchmark work in the history of Icelandic-Canadian culture, and so cannot be dismissed as a mere provocation. Nor can an opportunity to view an essentially new version of the film, shown on the big screen for the first time in many years, with so much intriguing live-action accompaniment, be ignored, no matter how much the sly pokings of the movie’s satire may sting. The director himself is not immune from its sting, he insists, even as he remains proud of his work. “Here is a chance to enhance what I'm most proud of,” Maddin says, “the themes that have emerged and made themselves more durably significant; and most important, to play up what most embarrasses me, for it would be too easy to snow over the primitive, the roughly hewn and intuitively photographed stuff that originally held itself together just long enough to make up this seventy-minute movie. Strangely, I found it was this most embarrassing, most primitive, most childish material that is the most important – this stuff is what the film is about.” And after all, Maddin concludes triumphantly, “all the musicians are Icelandic!”
Prairie Scene, it should be noted, features other performers or artists of Icelandic descent on its program. Freya Björg Olafson dances her own composition, Avatar, on April 28; Arne MacPherson acts in the play Talk from April 27 through the 30; and filmmakers Jaimz Asmundson and Mike Maryniuk may be found in the curated motion picture programs. Icelanders and the arts! A combination as natural as vínarterta and strong coffee, as all who attend Prairie Scene will soon find out.