Dream palaces: Guy Maddin recalls his anarchic teen years at the Gimli Theatre, Manitoba

The Canadian director remembers the horror movies and the mayhem of the rural cinema of his childhood.

Guy Maddin

Credit: Illustration by Lucinda Rogers

I don’t remember the first time I went because it was just where we kids had always gone – wild bunches of us, nightly to the Gimli Theatre. In the off-season, Gimli was a quiet Icelandic-Canadian fishing village an hour’s drive away from Winnipeg, my home during the school year, but during the summer this lakeside community teemed with us ridiculous swim-suited and beach-hatted seasonal dwellers from the city, highball-guzzling doctors and lawyers on vacation with their shit-disturbing kids.

I don’t know what the programme logic of it was, but us sandy-bottomed brats saw movies we would never be allowed to see back in the city. They didn’t seem to worry about ‘R’ classifications at the Gimli Theeee-Ate-Ur – we all pronounced the second word of its name with three syllables, as the like of Jethro Bodine from The Beverly Hillbillies would, in a horrifying gesture of urban condescension toward the year-round village locals and, I suppose, toward the theatre itself, for it was really nothing more than a humble barnlike box, worthy of our oblivious ridicule.

We felt we were young hucksters beating the system by getting in to the adult movies it played. At age 12, I saw Three in the Attic (1968), a movie about a guy who is kidnapped by three women and kept as a sex slave in some attic. There was a lot of expectant arousal in the house that night, but I recall almost nothing in the movie delivering on its titillating promises. In fact, almost all my memories of the place are unreliable, full of gaps, and highly charged – and that’s the way it should be when one thinks of their childhood cinema. The experience should be childhood itself.

The Gimli had an atmosphere that I’ve never encountered anywhere since – an incredible Zero de Conduite anarchy! It was run by two middle-aged sisters, women who were probably quite lovely people, but to us they seemed put on this earth to be on the wrong end of a joke. If they weren’t identical twins, no one could tell them apart anyway. They were unbelievably austere, dour, seemingly carved from oak.

Now when I see the mother in Day of Wrath (1943) I think of these sisters. In my memory now they wear starched Lutheran witch-burning attire. One of them took your money at the front. Seemingly the same person ripped your ticket a few feet away and then a third one (but there were only two of them!) would stand by the strange machine that vended candy.

They didn’t seem to want to sell you anything from this sweets dispenser, which featured a nicotine-yellowed window in front of a meagre display of long-extinct chocolate bar brands. The coin slot had always been jammed, so this third sister stood with the key to the mechanism and she’d unlock it to give you a petrified toffee if you gave her the exact change. We tended to bring food from home.

Guy Maddin

Guy Maddin

It didn’t matter what was programmed, I went. This little lakeside cinema was on a second, third or even later-run circuit. I saw Butterfield 8 (1960), with Elizabeth Taylor and Laurence Harvey, about five years after it was released. Some friends of mine had brought some smoked fish. I remember taking garlic sausage.

The floors were unbelievably sticky with decades of spilled soda, and since the house was packed I was forced to lie down on this flypaper-like surface, my clothes and hair stuck to it completely. That was part of the anarchist commitment. And for no reason I remember I had brought a pack of firecrackers, which I set off in a machine-gun burst of incredibly loud detonations, producing a thick cloud of smoke from which a massive close-up of Liz Taylor emerged. Movie magic. There was no end to our superiority as young cinephiles!

All of Dean Martin’s Matt Helm movies; Ray Bolger melodramas; Stephen Boyd adventures; The Colossus of Rhodes (1961), with Rory Calhoun; The Great Impostor (1961), with Tony Curtis; and all my greatest horror movie immersions were here. I saw a lot of Japanese horror films. Matango: Attack of the Mushroom People (1963) and Frankenstein vs. Baragon (aka Frankenstein Conquers the World, 1965).

I recall my excitement over what I thought was to be a horror film – A Boy Ten Feet Tall (aka Sammy Going South, 1963), a British film starring Edward G. Robinson, it turns out – and I remember just waiting for the kid to grow to be ten feet tall. And the movie was wrapping up its disappointing story and he still hadn’t grown to be ten feet tall, and he was never going to – and I had my first experience of metaphor.

The Gimli Theatre – a great rolling mass of culture as wide as any river, bearing like so much adolescent debris the wrecks of old movie prints, great oily spills of innuendo, gags, erotica, mayhem and boredom, lots of boredom. And fear, fear, fear! When I saw Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), I remember getting more and more scared of the imminent dark walk home.

Bette Davis in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

Bette Davis in Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964)

I had gone alone that night and this clunky gas-lighting vehicle was terrifying. I had done some nervous approximations and concluded the sun would be set by the time the movie was over, leaving me to walk the mile of shadowy country lanes home in the dark, something I did not dare do by myself.

Southern Gothic

Sure, I could count on the company of a few dozen patrons for the first half-mile, but I’d be on my own the rest of the way, and that last stretch of road was bereft of streetlights and riotous with low-hanging branches and menacing bushes. I decided to flee early, while I stood a chance. As soon as the fire exit door clicked shut behind me I knew I had miscalculated. All was moonless black in the sleeping village. I was alone. I sprinted home, my lungs burning, my face lashed by leaves.

The Day of Wrath sisters passed away some time in my adulthood; I lost track of the theatre in my twenties, and didn’t go for a long time. Then I returned when I became a filmmaker. I am happy to pronounce the place – almost completely unchanged over time – as one of the marvels of movie-watching.

It’s a million madeleines under one roof. Its new owner has put in brand new digital equipment: the sound is amazing and the projection is great. (Alas, Quentin, there’s no 35mm there any more.) If I’m working on a movie, I’ll make the hour-long drive to this wondrous temple to hold a test screening. Whatever is screened there looks, sounds and feels exactly the way a movie is supposed to look, sound and feel. And what feeling. Also, you can rent the whole theatre for just $200. Excellent for birthday parties – bring your own firecrackers.

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