Monday, December 19, 2011

Inventing a Tradition

An ambitious premise, and its beautiful but flawed execution

Mythology, according to Guy Maddin, is not a strong suit of his native Canada. Inspired by the patriotic mythology of the U.S. and by the long cultural memory of his Icelandic forebears -- whose language remains by his account essentially the same, even readable, after 1,000 years -- Maddin set out to create a uniquely Canadian lore; the result, "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" (1988), depicts the experience of the earliest Icelandic settlers at Lake Winnipeg in Manitoba, circa 1876-8. "Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed", an augmented version of the film presented in mid-November at Performa 11, reflected Maddin's further intent to add two decades’ worth of the cultural building, or "layering" as he put it, that a myth usually acquires over a century or more.

Is the Canadian mythos really so absent? Doesn't some of Canada's folk-tinged rock music, e.g. The Band, Neil Young, Arcade Fire, perhaps fill a small part of that hole? More importantly, does "Gimli" live up to its ambition? Having been to Canada just once, I can only guess. Also, a legend is properly absorbed by long and continuous exposure, e.g. the aura of the Founding Fathers in American dialogue; if "Gimli" wants to be a statement of Canadian identity, a single overwhelming 65-minute performance isn't quite enough to read it as such. (It’s a partial testament of success along that line that I want to see it again.) "Gimli" did at least achieve the right tone for its aims, mixing spontaneous gaiety and deep tragedy with fascinating details of time and place. Within a small-scale narrative, these formed an origin story in miniature for the New Icelandic community.

The film tells the story of the smallpox epidemic of 1876-1877 and is named after the real hospital that cared for some of its victims. It focuses on a fictional patient, "Einar the Lonely", whose story is told to small children next to their mother’s sickbed; Einar and his fellow patients pass the time recalling and recounting their pasts, forming a recursive structure of memories within a memory. (In one of the funniest recollections, a patient describes his marriage: the minister, afraid of the plague, refused to cross the river, so the bride and groom shouted their vows to the opposite bank. In his opening remarks, Mr. Maddin claimed to have taken inspiration from stories his older Icelandic-Canadian relatives told, and it seems likely this was one of them.) The hospital setting is densely realized, from the leaking thatch ceiling to the sweaty bedsheets, and the flashbacks show in detail the fishing and gutting that would have been the settlement's first concern. There are also several long sequences depicting fever dreams, which are as amusing, entrancing and occasionally confusing as they should be. Throughout, Mr. Maddin uses the language of silent-era films, with actors whose faces (and makeup) tell stories themselves, and playing with light and dark, with at least two action scenes depicted entirely via shadow.

This presentation also featured a new soundtrack, performed in the front of the theater as the movie played onscreen behind the musicians. Aono Jikken Ensemble, a small group featuring strings, percussion, and a singer, provided sound effects, dialogue, and an achingly beautiful score that they composed. The performance had a few unfortunate problems. Syncing foley effects and vocals is a delicate process, and it's no mark against the performers that they didn't always nail it on stage, but every missed cue jarred noticeably against the carefully crafted atmosphere of sound and image. Besides that issue, a live performance tends to draw attention from the rest of the film, and the bright lighting on the performers didn't help matters. I missed some of "Gimli", for instance, distracted by the work of singer Kristin Anna Valtysdottir, whose expressive voice and expert use of effects pedals sold a challenging performance of narration, dialogue, and occasional background chatter. But what really stuck with me was the sustained, longing yet cold tones of the strings, which gave voice to the long-remembered suffering that the film seeks to enshrine as myth.

"Gimli" aspires to be a statement of cultural identity, a kind of "Fargo" for New Iceland. Whether it does credibly is not really for me to say. It makes a strong impression, at least, and is worth seeing for that reason. I hope the "reframed" version and its score become available soon, but for now I'm looking forward to renting the 1988 original.

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