Thursday, January 01, 2015

Seven Favourite Cultural Encounters in 2014

Any good critic hates a straightforward best of.  I was glad to see some chafing at the task among film reviewers at The New York Times this past month. It's a good sign when cultural critics are attempting to return sobriety to the bizarre ritual of ranking art and refusing to make conventional lists. Me too. Here instead are some cultural experiences I acquired this year. A piano concert in October. A theatre production in June. Three films. The home of a famous writer. And the work of a Welsh actress. There were many movies and shows and books I will remember fondly about 2014. These are just some of the ones that are still stirring up imaginative and spiritual energy as I move into a brand new year. This is a very long post but don't let that stop you. Survey it. Surf it. Read one and not the others. Come back and visit again. That's the way a buffet works. Here's my buffet of cultural experience in 2014.

This was a great year for TIFF, the best in a long while. About four days after the start of the festival, I found myself in an industry line-up behind a man who was trying to write a review. Snooping over his shoulder, I could see that it was about Xavier Dolan's Mommy, Dolan's fifth feature film to win critical acclaim including the shared Jury Prize this year at Cannes with Jean-Luc Godard. The man turned out to be Toronto critic Thom Ernst. Striking up a conversation, he confessed to me that he was struggling with his review because "it's hard not to just gush." (In the end, he did gush -- and I am so glad he did. You can read his review in Playback, or you can watch him do a mini-review here.)

Mommy was the first film I saw at TIFF, just as two years ago Dolan's Laurence Anyways held that spot. It is shot in a suffocating 1:1 aspect ratio that brilliantly confines us with its violent male character, Steve. Like Diane, his mother, we struggle against Steve's emotional outbursts, sometimes feeling like we too are leaning up against the frame. Antoine-Olivier Pilon is remarkable in balancing the boy/man we feel affection for and the one we fear. Anne Dorval strikes perfect notes as the title character, both strident and strong and equally patient and loving. When a health professional tries in a compassionate way to convince her that caring for her son on her own will not work, we want to believe her hard reply: "skeptics, will be proven wrong". You'll have to see the movie to see how that goes.

Dolan is the most entrenchedly Québecois filmmaker I can think of. His cinematic vision is influenced by many (including New Zealander Jane Campion whom he thanked in Cannes this year), and makes clear visual hommages to his cultural colleagues (there is one in Mommy to Denys Arcand). But Dolan has a visual style unlike anyone's and perhaps greater than all of them: in your face but controlled, vibrantly colourful and yet dwelling in chosen colour palettes which vibrate like a rainbow inside the movie's radiating intensities. Only Dolan could suddenly surprise us by moving to a full widescreen image and then moving back again moments later. It is a devastating and utterly cinematic choice that guides us into the film's harrowing final scenes.

Xavier Dolan's camera adores Suzanne Clément's face in every movie he casts her in. In Mommy, he lights her as if she were the angel he was standing on the kitchen stool to place at the top of the Christmas tree. As Kyla, the speaking-challenged redemptive neighbour of Diane and Steve, her face glows in orange and white light. It tends to be framed (even in close-up) at a longer distance than the other two, as if in reverence or perhaps to underscore the character's shy reserve. When she sings along to Andrea Bocelli we come a bit closer, just enough to see hints of the deep pain behind her disability. Dolan's characterizations are simple but penetrating: he reminds me of the Québecois playwright Michel Tremblay. We never learn why Kyla is the way she is. Past histories are not of interest to Dolan; what matters most is how characters are living into the present moment, and what role is being played by deeply abiding, often sacrificial, profound love.

The film moves almost operatically between sequences of startling and powerful emotion, but there is still much opportunity for nuance and grace. In a short sequence in which Steve skateboards, the camera follows him as he raps quietly to himself under headphones, his dance-like moves (and the camera's, shadowing him) hinting at the violence under the surface and providing an awkward contrast, positioning him in his own humanity, and in a place of loving life even while his essentially violent nature cannot be subdued. It's an incredible sequence. Like Laurence AnywaysMommy is set against cold, sometimes wintery, dispassionate Québec landscapes, that are nonetheless emotionally lit up by the depth of feeling Dolan's characters find in their darknesses.

Clearly I am gushing too. It might be the only way to respond to this brittle and beautiful movie.

*Added after posting: TIFF has sponsored this beautiful and brilliant video portrait of Dolan which will now become a classic of my classroom for understanding how critical reception interacts with personal visual style.


Mali Harries in Hinterland
Ever heard of Mali Harries? I'm hoping so. This Welsh actress came into my view through a Netflix binge on the series Hinterland, a four episode crime drama (with a one-off second season opener that has just gone to air in the UK). The series puts detectives together in the coastal city of Aberystwyth and its environs in Wales. Also starring Richard Harrington, the show is both noir and reflective: characters search for clues and also seem to hang motionless, caught in tragic moments of their own lives. (Which is why I love Hinterland.) Harries caught my attention by always seeming to hold the emotional uncertainty that is at the dark heart of this fictional world. She has a very naturally emotive face: there is an immediacy to her presence, a kind of frank truth. She carries with her an energy of intensity: you watch her because you sense that something important is about to happen.

These two shots from the same scene of
The Indian Doctor show how much Harries'
naturally emotive face becomes the focal point
of a scene, even though the other character is
technically foregrounding the emotion.
The direction of camera seems to understand this
so that both performances are keenly felt.
I decided to see what else I could find. Although an award-winning actor in her home country who has been working almost non-stop since the late 90s in Welsh and English television, it is nearly impossible to get a hold of the most important pieces on this side of the Atlantic. The one exception is The Indian Doctor. As a woman making the best of a difficult life, her character Megan comes alive under the compassionate gaze of Sanjeev Bhaskar's doctor character Prem. Their scenes together are brief but among the best in the series and you can feel the natural chemistry of the performances pushing against the writing: the series doesn't have room for this relationship to grow as it might have. It is a shame: I loved this duo and wanted more of them. Harries is always compelling but does especially fine work in the third series, where her character grapples with depression. Deciding to review some of Megan and Prem's earlier scenes for use in teaching, I found myself watching them over and over, in part because they spoke to something difficult in my own life at the time. I was comforted by Harries' capacity to show both heartbreaking emotion and the resolution to continue on in spite of it.

In Hinterland, she plays a character (DI Rhys) whose tough professional edge belies an open and compassionate soul. I love how much I recognize her as someone any of us might know: she captures a sense of ordinary life while registering, when the moment is given to her, a number of layers at once. The show I want to get my hands on is Pen Talar, which fictionally recounts some of the more recent history of Wales, but there doesn't seem to be a Region 1, English-subbed version of it anywhere. Harries is vivid in scenes over a handful of Foyle's War episodes and her comic capacity brightens a tiny moment of the otherwise unremarkable Amy Adams vehicle Leap Year. I am excited for the next season of Hinterland and the show Critical, currently filming, and hoping they will bring her into greater light in North America. There is something magical about Mali and more people should know it. Here's a demo reel from IMDB.


I have tried several times and not been able to capture in writing the hold made on my heart by an impossibly beautiful first feature film called In the Crosswind (Risttuules) by Martti Helde. The film's story was inspired by the real-life journal of an Estonian woman named Erna who, with her daughter, was separated from her husband suddenly one day in the summer of 1941, after Stalin had invaded her country. She was taken to Siberia. Her deportation was part of an ethnic cleansing of Baltic natives that would eventually claim more than 40,000 lives. Helde's central vision is to divide the film along the lines of both live action and tableaux vivants. Until Erna is captured the movie is in live action. Then from the time of her deporation forward the film moves only in a series of frozen moments. The nearly constantly moving camera slowly winds through, revealing these tableaux to be complex and extensive and providing us with a very unique kind of cinematic juxtaposition unlike anything I have ever seen. (The idea was born out of a line in the original journal, which spoke of feeling that suspension in time.) Far from some sort of historical diorama, these tableaux are profoundly moving and speak through many layers.

I saw the film at TIFF14 and then took it out in the Industry video library, watching it for hours at a time, much like the way I watched Boyhood but this time by choice. Several sequences transfixed me. In particular, there was one that began with a close up of an Orthodox icon and candles on a rudimentary table.  As the camera moved down the legs to the floor and over that floor, it revealed a womans feet and legs as she knelt next to a bed. Her arms folded in prayer lay across the body of a child who lay sleeping. As we passed near to the face of that child we could see that she was dying or was perhaps already dead. Still moving, the camera continues off the bed and finds a dim dingy window elevated in the room, where the panes of sharp white light are divided by a cross of wood. The shot is therefore framed on each end by Christian imagery, which brackets and holds both the suffering and the faith of mother and child. I must have watched this short sequence about twelve times. Another sequence uses a series of windows to show progressive tableaux depicting of the fate of the husband. They are astonishing.

Searching out backgrounders on the film, I discovered that these tableaux were months in the making and while shot with actors posing, were then modified gently by 3D mapping and other visual effects. (This video describes the process.) The whole film took four years to put together.  I was in wonder at how narratively compelling it was, despite that two-thirds of the film occurs without movement. Perhaps this is due to a voiceover which narrates for us through Erna's letters a series of places in time in which life seemed to be both halted and moving on. Stealing bread in the woods. Rejoicing in a prison-camp wedding. These spoken words create a dreamy haze but not a romantic one. The words become the animator, alongside the camera's listless exploration. The lugubrious work of sound designer Janne Laine allows just enough ambient sound to mix in with the voice to suggest these realities to us without actually depicting them. The scoring by composer Pärt Uusberg then lies like a thin shroud overtop, delicately lacing the elements together. I was not the only one surprised by the film; it has received glowing reviews (see this one on Indiewire) among those who saw it. I keep waiting for it to turn up on indy circuits but I haven't seen any sign of it.

I am very intrigued that both In the Crosswind and Boyhood are playing cinematically with time in unprecedented ways and creating work of astounding beauty. There is something happening here which speaks to the very deepest truth of what film can do.


Embarrasing disclosure alert: I watched Boyhood in the worst possible way (by all counts) - on an online streaming site, where the hiccups were so bad that I had to wait every twenty seconds for a further ten seconds in order to continue. The film is two hours and forty-five minutes so I leave you to figure out how long that took me. But I also could not give it up. Watching Boyhood this way became a metaphysical experience. Each time the frame froze I was hung in a moment not of my choosing or of director Richard Linklater's choosing. I could study that frame, the colour, the light. I loved how this experience messed with Linklater's own unfolding of the inevitable cycles of time, while also fulfilling it. I was hypnotically compelled to go forward. Instead of being frustrated, most of the time I was amazed by some detail I might never have seen. I still haven't gone back to watch it again properly - though I will. In some ways I don't want to spoil that strange experience. And that's what this blog post is about - experiences.

Richard Linklater is one of the world's finest living filmmakers. He weaves his themes in such new and inventive ways that each time we are surprised to be offered the same ideas he has actually been reflecting on always: the heavy inevitability of the passage of time and the longing for genuine connection among souls. A teacher tells Mason before he goes off to college that he must be feeling a "voluptuous panic". That phrase captures how it feels for me to watch his movies sometimes. I'm not a fan of dialogue-heavy films (I often feel claustrophobic in them), and yet in his I am in love with where it takes me. His dialogue gives me a voluptuous panic. Linklater is an auteur: his writing voice and his visual eye are perfectly blended. But I don't think he would ever have such aspirations. He seems to be rather ego-less as a filmmaker. There is never a grandstanding of talent; he's too busy focusing on "real day-to-day moments" as a character says in Waking Life. Long, langorous shots in which his characters talk to each other at length are the principal form of his stories, but the talk always seems to live into its environments instead of just being set against it as a backdrop. A favourite example for me in Boyhood is a walk and talk down an urban alley as Mason chats casually with a girl he has just met in a town he has just moved to. He is carrying his skateboard, she is riding her bike. Snapshotted moments of adolescence found in the ordinary. Boyhood is Linklater's Tree of Life, a philosophical reflection on how we acquire memory, but unlike Malick's masterpiece Boyhood reaches us in a place of routine familiarity so truthfully realized that we hardly know how much we are being moved by our immersion in it. Boyhood calls to mind for me the best of Rohmer or Guédiguian.

From Linklater comes one of my favourite quotations of this year by any artist: "There’s a time element to all of our lives just inherently and the way we process every day, so I think in a lot of my storytelling methodologies time has largely replaced the notions of what a plot is, which to me feels kind of constructed." A man after my own heart - but that's another blog!


The theatre highlight of my year was a Stratford Festival production of Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage and Her Children, featuring Seana McKenna supported by some of the Festival's finest actors, young and old. I have always found it easier to be sucked into the imagined spaces of the Tom Patterson theatre than any other venue at Stratford: that proscenium-surround design is both intimate and overtly theatrical, both drawing me in and keeping me at distance. I like the strange intimacy I have with my seat-mates, as our knees are touching.

Martha Henry's gorgeous production of this classic work seemed to want to play on both our discomfort and our intimacy with those around us, including the players. Before the show started, actors in costume (but not in character) mingled with the audience, deliberately destroying the 'fourth wall' but increasing our sense of connection to them. The first time I went, I spoke with a young actress who was a graduate of the SUNY acting program, who asked me as many questions as I did her. The second time, I was on the other side and watched the musicians rehearse casually while hanging out with us. That time, my seat was so far to the side that I was able to watch them backstage as well, and all of this I know, was intended.

We have been so gifted in this country by the great Martha Henry, who is one of the world's finest living actors, but I have not always been convinced by her as a director. This production laid that to rest for me. Every single decision in staging and pacing and emotional life seemed designed to reveal the play's deepest life. The selection of the Davd Edgar translation/adaptation (with some additional changes by him for this production) was a great example. This version should be done more often as it brings forward the heart in Brecht much more than most versions do, which choose instead to dwell in the hard spaces offered by the play's relentless journey through war. This is my favourite role I've seen McKenna do in some time. The ruthlessness of Courage seemed to run like a rod of steel through her performance, making the moments of human failing and desire all the more profound, and she delivers these in careful shading. There is one moment in the play where Courage understands / hears the fate of one of her children, a fate complicated by the possibility that she might have saved him. We hear what we hear as it happens offstage, but we see her, sitting on a stump, the light shifting around her. The whole production was much more deeply felt than the play normally is in my experience.

The original music composed by Keith Thomas beautifully articulated both the political themes and emotional life of the play while staying true also to the Brechtian/Weill tradition. There is a moment where Courage and her daughter Kattrin pull a cart through a war-heavy winter: the music here was haunting but also gently underscoring the mood, without overwhelming us or telling us how to feel. The tradition of Brechtian theatre is one of irony. In this production that irony was present but not at the cost of the play's humanity, as it sometimes can be.

As a last note, I have to say that in a very strong cast, I have carried with me besides McKenna, the performance of Carmen Grant as Kattrin. Like Kyla in Mommy above, the character is unable to speak, allowing for many moments of what might have been a kind of clumsy mime, but which in this performance was always an expression of the inner anguish of the character. Her final moments on stage are the second most powerful scene in the play - and one gets the sense the actor has wholly earned her way to that place. I was less enamoured with the marching of place-and-time signs around the perimeter of the stage, though they were completely in keeping with Brecht. But no matter: this was a production I will remember for a long time. I heard the play newly, and have had many moments since of reliving its emotion.

On the second last day of October, I managed to get into a sold-out house concert here in Kitchener by Canadian virtuoso pianist Janina Fialkowska. Known largely as a Chopin interpreter, she is among a handful of female classical musicians I have had a long allegiance to, not only for her gorgeous music, but for somehow managing to occupy the art with a feminine sensibility, alongside a genius of technique and accomplishment. On this particular night, the venue was jammed. Concerts at KW Chamber Music take place in an enlarged living room space with seats on an L-shape to the performing area. I found myself sitting directly behind the pianist, about six feet away and with a clear view of her hands.

The music that night was a mixed program of Grieg miniatures, a Schubert sonata, selections from Ravel's Miroirs and an array of Chopin: an impromptu, some mazurkas and a ballade. Lulled into tranquility by the earlier pieces, the Chopin end of the night folded me into a deep introspection. It wasn't just that this is music my father often played while I was trying to go to sleep at night. The dance of hands had its own special beauty and seemed to divine the music more than summon it. They were the hands of an older woman like myself, bearing a lifetime of experience, endless years of rehearsal and performance, growing and changing and becoming more refined and precise. The music they made was sublimely realized. Besides Chopin, Fialkowska has acquired other Polish composers; she seems to climb in their skin. I remembered an old story about George Sand and how she would lie under the piano when Chopin played it. Being close to this master's hands were enough for me. I can still see them, can still reconnect with the place of peace and longing that the music found in me. Although a different work from the one I heard, this video captures some of what I felt. She is my favourite living pianist.


The dining room of the Leaskdale home of
Lucy Maud Montgomery
On a country sideroad in Uxbridge county is a house once lived in by Canadian writer Lucy Maud Montgomery. There are several such homesteads in the province, but the one in Leaskdale is where she lived the longest and wrote most of her books. For a couple of years I have been driving by this house and its memorial marker on my way to the Kawartha Lakes region without much thought. Then last summer, putting together some elements for a course, I found myself re-watching the Sullivan series of Anne of Green Gables films and from there I went to the first novel itself, which I had never actually read before. I was so very moved by how well-written it is. I have a tendency to take the classics for granted, or assume I know what they are like even when I have not read them, but I had no idea how skilled Montgomery was, a kind of Canadian Jane Austen. I began wondering about her other writings and then one day this past August, driving by that blue-shingled house, I turned in and parked. Since it was a quiet day of the week and business was slow, I had a private and personal tour by the young woman who runs the gift shop across the street. She told stories in each room as I lingered. Although Montgomery did not write the first Anne book that I'd been reading in this house, almost all the remaining books in the series were written in Leaskdale, a quiet crossing of roads you could barely call a village.

The guide spoke of Montgomery comprehensively, without being thorough. Yes, there's a difference. She spoke to the prism sides of the writer's personality, but not in unwanted detail. She described her darkness as well as her gifts, and without any prurience or showmanship or desire to show off her own knowledge. She spoke of her like a friend and as we passed from room to room, I could almost see the Prince Edward Island author, transported to Ontario, going about the tasks of her daily life, a life that included marriage to a pastor and motherhood of two boys.

These forty minutes I spent in a house I had passed many times without interest, in a strange way put me back in the heart of my own soul as a writer. I found myself imagining how she made room for her own work amid the chaos of other responsibilities (a real problem of my own). I came to a stop in one particular room, feeling a sense of creative energy and power. I dwelled there, unable to name what I felt. The guide told me: "this is where she did all her writing". I felt that energy come into my bones. Later, standing in a hallway, watching a breeze move some curtains at a window, I was grateful for this chance to live momentarily on the real life set of a writer I had just been coming to admire. Finally. For the first time. Indeed, I am grateful to all of the artists that inspired me in 2014.