The Cinema of Guy Maddin
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No one makes films like fabulist Guy Maddin. From his home in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, Maddin is isolated from the facile preoccupations and coarse trends which plague the majority of Hollywood films nowadays. It could be argued, though, that he is also estranged from what passes for independent cinema. Truly a stranger in a strange land. But what a strange land indeed!

His films are black comedic excursions into the netherworlds of silent film, but he also has an uncanny feel for replicating images and sounds from painting, classical music, and literature. They could easily become a pretentious mess in less-skilled hands, yet Maddin’s melodramatic films are anything but. They’re playful, complex, hilarious, and exquisite; a perfect melange of high art and camp. Cinematic images that can only be described as post-modern phantasms.

Perhaps the only other filmmaker today who is so comfortable reworking such melodramatic terrain is Lars von Trier. But where Von Trier has distanced himself from the more overt artifice of his earlier films, Maddin still clings to the textured image like a person awaking from a florid spell. Image and story are intertwined in Maddin’s films like Laocoon wrestling with the serpents; they are inseparable.

Like fellow Canadian filmmaker David Cronenberg, Maddin did not attend film school. He studied economics at the University of Winnipeg and then earned his living as a house painter. But it was during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s that Maddin cultivated his love of silent cinema -- especially for the 1920s -- and made his first film short "The Dead Father" (1986), a macabre joke dealing with the strained relationship between a young man and his . . . well, not-so-dead father.

After the release of his first feature film Tales From the Gimli Hospital, Maddin’s name spread through the underground. But strangely enough his reputation and talent failed to take him out of the shadows and into the mainstream, unlike former underground talents David Lynch and John Waters.

Outside of the short film The Heart of the World (2000), a pastiche inspired by the silent Russian science-fiction film Aelita, Queen of Mars, it has been quiet in the Northland. Maddin’s last full-length feature was 1997’s Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, his first film to utilize "name players," such as Alice Krige and Shelly Duvall, and a substantial budget. The film was virtually ignored when released and has failed to find any proper video distribution in the United States.

Let us hope that the commercial constraints of modern-day filmmaking do not shackle Maddin’s strange and unfettered dreams for good.

 Tales From the Gimli HospitalTOP OF PAGE   

from Tales From the Gimli Hospital
[click photos for larger versions]

Guy Maddin’s Tales From the Gimli Hospital was an immediate underground favorite when first released in 1988. A strange and beautifully puzzling film that teeters on the verge of camp excess, what keeps it from succumbing to its incessant plunges into hilarity (and this could be said of all of Maddin’s features) is its haunting, disturbing imagery. At times, the film evokes the sublime poetic power of Cocteau, Bunuel, and Lynch (circa Lynch's own midnight movie masterpiece, Eraserhead).

Gimli is a fable. Set in the small fishing town of Gimli, Manitoba, in some indeterminate time in the early part of the 20th Century, Gimli unfolds like a dreamtime horror story. Einar (Kyle McCulloch) and Gunnar (Michael Gottli), two men afflicted with the deadly smallpox virus, are housed in the small Gimli Hospital, their bodies covered with the scars of disease, their minds slipping into paranoia, fear, and ultimately jealously -- the latter of which becomes the fulcrum for much of the film’s grim escapades.

Einar -- who is jealous of Gunnar’s storytelling prowess with the nurses, as well as Gunnar’s skill at carving fish out of tree bark -- begins to hate what he cannot have. When Einar attempts to weave a tale of his own to the nurses, they ignore him, focusing their attentions instead upon the dying patients. But the kettle of misunderstanding and hate really starts to overflow when Einar and Gunnar share their darkest secrets -- which encompass everything from the frailty of everlasting love to necrophilia and graverobbing. Ultimately, both men share in the damage equally. With their minds veering off into hallucination, they eventually battle it out in the cold, dark woods of "a Gimli we no longer know."

Much of Tales From the Gimli Hospital is silent, except for the intentional scratches and pops of the film’s wonderfully archaic soundtrack, and excluding a couple of startling tinted hallucination scenes near the end, filmed in deep black and white.

Kyle McCulloch, who would go on to star in Maddin’s Archangel and Careful, is suitably arch, earnest, and angst-filled as the hapless Einar. And Michael Gottli exudes the perfect pitch of open-heartedness and menace as Einar’s nemesis.

Kino’s DVD is terrific. Maddin’s commentary track is informative and lively, filled as it is with low-budget filmmaking anecdotes and a rather funny revelation regarding the ages of most of the actresses in the film (they were only 13 years old). The DVD also includes two Maddin short films, "The Dead Father" (1986) and "Hospital Fragment" (1988). The later is an hilarious and erotic four-minute-long masterpiece that features fish being slapped together, naked limbs, and flowing gowns. Filmed for Tales From the Gimli Hospital but later omitted, "Hospital Fragment" contains some of Maddin's most mischievous and inspired filmmaking.

 CarefulTOP OF PAGE   

from Careful
[click photos for larger versions]

Released in 1992, Careful was Maddin’s third feature after Archangel, his 1990 absurdist historical film set in Russia during World War I. Though Careful remains in the shadow of his previous offerings, it is a much more ambitious.

The film is set in the sleepy "Canadian Alpine" village of Tolzbad, where its citizens live in constant fear of setting off an avalanche if they talk too loudly or behave in a reckless fashion. The opening montage narrated by the grim though wise Herr Trota (played by Victor Cowie), perfectly sets up the film’s precariously balanced narrative dominoes. As we watch characters performing everyday acts such as removing a teapot from the stove, chopping down a tree, sneezing, falling off a cliff, Herr Trota intones a litany of warnings:

"Don’t spill it."

"Children, heed the warnings of your parents."

"Peril awaits the uncautious wayfarer."

"Think twice."

But for some, the words of caution are not enough to stave off desire. Young, handsomely blonde Johann (Brent Neale), who along with his brother Grigorss (Kyle Mcculloch) attend Butler School, wakes one morning plagued with impure thoughts for his mother, Zenaida (Gosia Dobrowolska). Wracked with guilt and self-loathing, Johann decides to cure himself of such sinful yearnings –- by attempting to act them out. But when his ploy doesn’t go as planned, Johann dives off a mountainous peak, subsequently starting an emotional avalanche that will eventually smother all who are closest to him.

Grigorss, who is really the focal point of the film, eventually receives a job as the butler to the mysterious Count Knotgers (Australian director Paul Cox). But what should be a momentous occasion for Grigorss soon turns pitch black for him, as his own personal avalanche looms over his tragicomedic fate.

Careful is an operatic satire of characters so tightly wound by their repressed desires that even the thought of stepping outside of their clockwork world will set off said avalanche.

Filmed utilizing a two-strip color process, the film is a heightened, saturated dreamscape of warped Freudian sexual perversion, repression, Oedipal lust, patricide, and more repression. It is also a paean to (or parody of) the German mountain films of the 1920s (where infamous director Leni Riefenstahl began her career), Richard Wagner (most notably with the theme of incest, though Careful exudes Wagnerian hysteria throughout), as well as the requisite nods to German Expressionism, and the silent films of Josef von Sternberg and Abel Gance. But beware of labeling Careful as a mere experiment in pastiche filmmaking. It’s much too wily a dream to be pigeonholed so easily.

Kino’s DVD of the film is exceptional, not merely because the print looks so beautiful, but because included on the disc is an intriguing documentary entitled, Guy Maddin: Waiting For Twilight (1997), which was originally aired on Canadian television. Narrated by Tom Waits, the documentary is a breezy, yet informative overview of one of cinema’s true iconoclasts. Filmed while Maddin himself was lensing his troubled production Twilight of the Ice Nymphs, the director is obviously feeling the strains of working with a bigger budget and with a cast and crew he cannot always control. The days of Gimli seem far far away, and at one point Maddin matter-of-factly states that he will probably never make another feature after Twilight. The documentary also includes many interviews with friends and family, as well as some rather amusing footage of a cable access show that Maddin and his cohorts used to produce.

Tales From the Gimli Hospital and Careful are now available on DVD from Kino On Video. Tales From the Gimli Hospital includes audio commentary by Guy Maddin and the short films "The Dead Father" and "Hospital Fragment." Careful includes audio commentary by Guy Maddin and writer George Toles and a 60-minute documentary about Guy Maddin and his work called Waiting for Twilight. Suggested retail price: $29.95. For additonal information, check out the Kino Web site. Both Tales From the Gimli Hospital and Careful are also available on VHS from Kino On Vido for $24.95 each.