Guy Maddin’s first feature film, Tales From The Gimli Hospital (1988), had nearly as much impact for him as Eraserhead (1977) had for David Lynch. Of course, Madden is often compared to Lynch, which is as ridiculous as comparing Paul Klee to Max Ernst, ultimately failing to give due credit to either artist. Make no mistake, Maddin and Lynch are indeed two of the most potent artists in the medium of film from the last fifty years. Late in life Arnold Schoenberg,the boogeyman of the first half of twentieth century music, was asked by an interviewer, “Are you aware that young composers are now utilizing your twelve-tone method?” The reply was pure Schoenberg: “But are they making music with it?” Lynch and Maddin succeed where others fail because they make music.
Maddin and Lynch belong to a small (unlike painting and music, film has never had a large school of revolutionaries) school of innovative avant-garde (or Surrealist, if one prefers sub-labels) filmmakers who are astutely aware of their aesthetic tradition. No matter how elastic, their films maintain a sense of control, never veering into a slipshod experimentation for the sake of experimentation mode. After Schoenberg died, Pierre Boulez took up that mantle. Now, with Boulez gone, we really have seen the last of the avant-garde titans that remembered to continue “making music with it.” One can only hope that we will not soon be saying the same of Lynch, Maddin,, John Water, or Brain De Palma (yes, De Palma), but it is likely that we will. Innovation has beenlargely silenced in favor of the mainstream’s imitation diet. De Palma and Waters have unofficially retired. Jodorowsky, never a prolific artist, is finishing his first film in three years. Lynch has resurfaced after nearly a ten-year hibernation (although he did produce largely unseen shorts during that period). Alas, this is only to rehash “Twin Peaks” for television. After Inland Empire, this seems a step backward.
Maddin has been (and remains) the only active filmmaker of the listed lot. It is tempting to say that we cannot, or should not limit ourselves to a single work in Maddin’s oeuvre. Rather, we are rightly invited, or tempted, to absorb his entire body of work. Perhaps the best place to start is in the beginning, with Tales from the Gimli Hospital (1988).