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Very Lush and Full of Ostriches

I can never read reviews of my own movies. I'm terrified to find out what the barbaric world thinks of my trembly filmic dreams and, by extension, my overly frangible soul.

As a hedge against catatonic depression, for years I gave all the print reviews to my nonagenarian Granma, who would translate them out loud into Icelandic to her big brother Hjalmar, who in turn would promptly translate them sentence by sentence, with a shrill dental whistle, right back into his own archaic approximation of English, while I listened in a cold sweat.

By the time my review went through this two-stage process, it no longer frightened me, having acquired the flavours of a bowdlerised Nordic folktale. Most of the cruelties were recouched in quaint hearthside metaphors with more charm than stomp. Even better, the not infrequent praise warbled out in the singsong falsetto peculiar to Icelandic typically depicted me as a mighty storytelling slayer of Hollywood ogres, a fair-haired god with wisdoms infinite, or some kind of mischievous lava-sprite—all good things!

A fair-haired goddess with wisdoms infinite: from the Heart of the World
photo: Zeitgeist
A fair-haired goddess with wisdoms infinite: from the Heart of the World

I never suspected generous mistranslation, but when these two handy ancestors of mine recently climbed up to Valhalla, I hauled out my clippings to reread the encomia. Without fail, I was shocked at the sorry level of writing in the original English text, film journalism as sloppily hammered together and painted as a kid's klubhouse—no grace of line, no awareness of harmony, no evidence of an eye. And this was the positive press! Really! (I've actually received very little, or no, bad press that can't be easily explained off as reviewer's insecurity.)

If this well-meaning but unfortunate scrivening is the best America's top film critics (some of them very nice people) can come up with, and if I want a fair shake in the press, then I am left no choice but to review, with great reluctance, my own movies, starting right now on the eve of a mini-retrospective of my four features, along with a short, at BAM . . .


Made while he was practically still a child, Tales From the Gimli Hospital (1988) is Guy Maddin's primitive first feature. Setting out to be, not juvenile, but willfully childish, Maddin shot the movie in the vernacular spoken by film in the year of its own glorious second childhood—namely 1929. He mixes b&w with toned sequences, mime with talking, locked-down expositional tableaux with bumpily fluid musical numbers. His moral sensibility is strictly precode. His mono soundtrack drones and hums out a comfy wool blanket of ambience—the viewer can sense his own mother tucking him in beneath a sweetly decaying quilt. The director eschews sharp focus in favour of oneiric portraiture and dismisses the literal-mindedness of continuity as inimical to dreaming. He seems always careful to throw the picture together carelessly, with the delirious glee of a finger-painting preschooler.

Gimli's story takes the director back to his own ethnic prehistory in a 19th-century Icelandic settlement in rural Canada, where an epidemic (cleverly unnamed to invite comparison with AIDS) has paved the pioneers with unsightly fissures and landed them all in a makeshift hospice shared with invaluable heat-generating farm animals. Here, in the titular hospital, dark but bouncy tales of death and jealousy exchanged between two men eventually pit the endomorphic raconteur Gunnar against the necrophiliac Einar in a buttock-shredding climax that is probably the most autobiographical moment of Maddin's career.

Though finding a Canadian Ned Sparks or Guy Kibbee for this project proved impossible (virulent strains of Berkeleyism infect almost every frame of the picture), the filmmaker did find a stalwart actor in Kyle McCulloch, whose ability to pitch his mannered performances perfectly to each anachronistic script won him the starring roles in this and the next two features.

The fluency with which Maddin speaks a dead movie-language suggests he suffers from a most plangent nostalgia, that he has spent most of his life looking backward through misty eyes, and with absolutely no idea where he is going. Traveling through a film in this fashion, he bumps into and rearranges much narrative furniture, often standing still to weep while he and his viewers get their bearings.

In Archangel (1990), all of Maddin's backward-gazing characters grope about in the murk of their memories in a sad attempt to regain loves and comforts lost. Archangel is a full-blown amnesia melodrama set deep in the confused winter immediately following the Great War—the last war designed exclusively for the pleasure of children. (The uniforms worn in battle made all the combatants look like scaled-up toy soldiers, and Maddin himself described the movie as a "Goya painting etched upon a child's windowpane in frost.") Another part-talkie, this is Maddin's most delirious feature; there isa narrative, but it lies buried somewhere beneath a fluffy snowfall of forgetfulness. All the characters, being amnesiacs, have forgotten the war is over, and between naps continue to fight. They fight painful facts, they fight the love gods, they fight through thick mists of Vaseline. (The Archangel camera crew went through a whole keg of this unguent.) Soldier and viewer alike fight confusion, unsuccessfully. This is said to be the director's favorite among his movies.

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