In a cramped rehearsal space at the Film Society of Lincoln Center on Wednesday afternoon, Canadian filmmaker Guy Maddin's 1988 directorial debut "Tales from the Gimli Hospital" suddenly came alive like it never had before. Titled "Tales form the Gilmi Hospital: Reframed," the new production revisits the original work with a wonderfully physical live score that demands first-hand experience.
At Lincoln Center, a recut version of the surreal, black-and-white homage to silent cinema played on small monitors for a group of Icelandic musicians and Seattle-based sound effects experts as they infused the imagery with a complex blend of moods. The musicians played various string instruments, humming and moaning into several mics at once; their West Coast colleagues unleashed a mad science of complimentary sounds. These included pouring water, knocking on wood, rustling hay, blowing into a kazoo and squeaking baby toys with purpose.
Meanwhile, the cryptic "Gimli" plot, shot in an expressionistic style that recalls various silent traditions, unfolded on the screens: Set in a tiny Manitoba community around 1900, the story involves a pair of hospital inmates named Einar (Kyle McCulloch) and Gunnar (Michael Gottli) whose unreliable flashbacks take the movie down eerie anecdotal pathways involving desire, rage, necrophilia and abstract imagery adhering to its own dreamlike logic. In the room, the live soundtrack brought a new dimension to Maddin's vision, building to a frenzy around each tantalizing moment.
When the credits rolled, the post-mortem began. Steve McLaughlin, a sound mixer from the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, had pulled together about 48 different tracks of audio for the 70-minute running time; now the questions began. "Did you hear the hot pan?" asked one of the three performing members of Aono Jikken, the Seattle group responsible for the effects. "It was a little wimpy." Another member of the group cursed. "I spent hours looking for the right pot."
Behind McLaughlin, Maddin looked pensive as he watched his recent endeavor unfold. Premiering at Lincoln Center this weekend as part of the Performa11 Festival, "Tales from the Gimli Hospital: Reframed" marks the second live performance of Maddin's career, following the equally experimental "Brand Upon the Brain!" in 2006, but the first to revisit an earlier work.
According to the director, the stress quotient has been lowered significantly this time around. On "Brand," he says, "I was really pointlessly reinventing the wheel. I should've just hired a stage manager, but instead I evolved into the job myself." He developed a jaw-clenching problem from stress that culminated with a shattered molar when Lou Reed fell asleep while narrating a performance. "I just had to stop going to shows for a while," Maddin says. "It was the sort of thing you take for granted when you just make movies."
When Maddin was originally approached by "Gimli" distributor Nordic Film Group to get his blessing for the commission of a new score, he originally took a step back. "I said, 'As long as I don't have to do anything, go nuts,'" he recalls. "Then I just couldn't stay away."
Working from a soundtrack composed by Matthew Patton, Maddin corresponded with a group of Icelandic musicians, including formermembers of the band Sigur Rós as well as vocalist Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir and her twin sister Gyóa, tapping into the mythological component of the movie as he originally imagined it. "I don't even know what this movie's about," Maddin confesses, "but it seems to be about folk tales and the Icelandic tradition of sagas and tales that've been passed around for thousands of years by word of mouth." For that reason, "to see what happens to this tale after 23 years of composting–because fairy tales are always in a continual state of furnishing–is kind of cool."
Maddin went back into the editing room, mainly to add some footage he shot of Gottli after the actor survived a car accident that left him with amnesia. But the filmmaker avoided any urge to rebuild the whole movie. "There are some things I would've done differently if I'd been the veteran of 10 feature films that I am now," he says, "but I didn't allow myself those changes."
He's mainly excited about the potential of the score. "I always liked the idea that the tales have a very elliptical logic, one that's closer to music than literal history," he says. "I also needed a narrator that had a musicality to her that let her cross the line from music into singing." That narrator, Kristín Anna Valtysdóttir, appears in some new footage swimming underwater in the nude. "I wanted to represent her in the film as well," he says.
Before the initial rehearsal of "Tales from Gilmi Hospital: Reframed" at a workshop in Troy, New York last August, Maddin worked with his various collaborators primarily by e-mail. "Everything was being sampled by Quicktime files, Vimeo links, things like that," he says. "I was refereeing from afar. It was nice not to have to get on a plane to do anything." He adds, "I'm more of a primitivist, but I'm happy to use state-of-the-art technology."
While Maddin's latest feature, "Keyhole," has been playing the festival circuit, he's already gearing up for another project with an advanced new media component. Titled "Seances," the web-based series will find him communing with "dead" silent films that have been lost due to archival neglect. Maddin plans to post 100 videos over the course of 100 days, beginning with a seance at Paris' Centre Pompidou in February. "I've been a faux pioneer for a long time," he says. "I've felt more like a showman than a filmmaker. With my next project, I want to be a real pioneer." He catches himself. "Now, pioneers tend to have a high mortality rate," he says, "so I'm not too smug about it."
"Tales from the Gimli Hospital" will take place at the Walter Reade Theater on Friday, November 18 and Saturday, November 19 at 7pm and 9pm.