On Friday and Saturday nights several hundred people packed into the Walter Reade Theater at Lincoln Center, as they do most weekend nights, but this time an unusual selection of items and instruments sat beneath the screen: a cello, a violin, a guitar, an aquarium, a few buckets, some hay, some drums, some sheets, and many more objects musical and not. They were there to help provide not only the score but the entire soundtrack for Tales of the Gimli Hospital: Reframed, a screening-performance of cult Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's first feature film, which he introduced as part of the Performa 11 performance art biennial at Friday's 7pm screening.
"Canadians have got to be the lousiest self-mythologizers in the world," Maddin began. "Our insistence on real-life size guarantees that all our national events will be forgotten as soon as they happen." He explained this tendency as a reaction against America's outsized national myths, whose heroes have become so much larger than life. "Most of Canada's historical figures are 5'7" or 5'8"."
But, Maddin offered, his own upbringing in an Icelandic community north of Winnipeg, gave him a better capacity for self-mythologizing—something at which Icelanders are very good. Tales of the Gimli Hospital, then, was his attempt to take a Canadian tragedy "and give it the Hollywood treatment."
Of course, if you're familiar with Maddin's retro-Gothic, Dada-esque, 1920s silent film aesthetic, you know he's never given any event real or fictional anything resembling what's conventionally thought of as the "Hollywood treatment." This was, to some extent, Maddin demonstrating his Icelandic knack for self-mythologizing. Appropriately, most of the nine performers (seven on stage, two at the back of the theater) were Icelandic.
For those unfamiliar with the 72-minute film, it's set at the titular hospital where an old nurse tells two kids whose mother is sick a story, based in historical fact, which makes up more or less the entire feature. It concerns the fisherman Einar (Kyle McCulloch) who's taken ill one day while working at his lakeside smokehouse and ends up being quarantined. Much of the narrative confounds boundaries between waking life and his horrendous fever dreams, while most of his fellow quarantine-dwellers suffer horribly then die, and he becomes quite close with Gunnar (Michael Gottli), the man in the bed beside his.
The barn-cum-quarantine where the sick men are kept sits in a functioning farm, so the performers were almost constantly rustling hay and banging a cowbell to evoke the noisy and claustrophobic space while cold winds howled outside. Kristín Anna Valtýsdóttir spoke all the film's dialogue, even approximating the grainy quality of Maddin's original recording. The aquarium at the center of the stage was especially useful during lakeside scenes, though at one point the performer nearest to it pulled two fish-shaped vessels out, letting the water inside them trickle out. Later she submerged a just-struck gong, producing a strange muffled ring. At one point the barn where the sick men are quarantined catches on fire, the crackling of which was created by a performer furiously popping bubble wrap.
Using performance to privilege sound added immensely to the film, in which Einar's very subjective visions repeatedly turn out to be unreliable. The presence of the live soundscape and music helped to put the film's more trustworthy sounds on a closer to even footing with Maddin's strange and gripping imagery, while also making Einar's hallucinations all the more vivid. The live musical accompaniment seemed especially appropriate since the early silent films whose style Gimli Hospital approximates were so often accompanied by a live pianist in the movie house. The performed soundtrack, in other words, worked very effectively in service of Maddin's mythologizing mission.