Maudie: A Marriage of Misfits

I am Canadian, work at an art gallery, but had never heard of Nova Scotia folk painter Maud Lewis before.

That changed when I saw Maudie, and I am really grateful to this beautiful movie for introducing me to her (it was filmed in Newfoundland though).

I saw it around the time my own artist-husband and I celebrated a wedding anniversary and it got me thinking about Maud and Everett’s unconventional marriage.

As much as the movie shows Maud painting her charming scenes of rural life in her 13.5 by 12.5-foot house, the story is more about two misfits stumbling their way towards happiness together.

maudie-telluride1

The artist opening her house covered in paintings (Mongrel Media)

Maud Lewis was born in 1903, tinier than everyone else and with almost no chin. She suffered from juvenile arthritis that worsened as she grew older and made it incredibly difficult for her to hold a paintbrush. In the movie version, brilliantly played by Sally Hawkins, she walks with a limp and keeps her chin tucked in, her body more and more bent as time goes on.

MV5BM2U0ZWJkNTItNDAzNS00YmNjLTk5OTUtN2RhZjgyYjA1YWY4XkEyXkFqcGdeQXVyNTk1MzcwNTI@._V1_SY1000_CR0,0,1500,1000_AL_

Typical look on Everett’s face (Mongrel Media)

Everett is an irascible fish peddler with little to no social skills (Ethan Hawke also gives a great performance). That’s why it’s rather funny that when he puts up an ad for a housekeeper and Maud answers it, he takes convincing to accept it.

He reluctantly makes space for Maud in his house, yet doesn’t know what to do with this woman who, despite so much pain in her past (and far from just physical), exudes an infectious joy. She is also very witty.

Everett and Maud eventually get married but they enter into it without ideals. A man Everett works with and his partner are the only witnesses, and he says to the newlywed couple, “I don’t know whether to offer you congratulations or condolences.” Early in the story, he had seen Everett hit Maud.

maudie_02

Just married (Mongrel Media)

There are definitely times when Everett and Maud’s relationship made me uneasy. As my sister pointed out, their complicated love story is not surprising given they are two hurting people coming together. (My one criticism of the movie is that we don’t know anything of Everett’s past to connect with his pain in the same way we get to with Maud). And yet we see a softer side to Everett as he and Maud spend more time together as husband and wife. Kate Taylor in her Globe & Mail review sums up how I felt watching his character:

Hawke’s precise performance manages to make the plight of an illiterate, insecure and occasionally abusive man deeply sympathetic, inducing pity rather than anger.

When Everett and Maud return home after their wedding, she puts her stocking feet on his dress shoes and they hold each other like they are dancing. She says, “We’re like a pair of odd socks.” He tells her he is an old grey one, all bent and misshapen, while she is a cotton sock, canary yellow. They continue to dance. He says he’s sure to say something cantankerous in the morning again. She smiles.

This was such a tender scene to witness. It showed a choice, an acceptance, to love someone as they are. After living and working together so closely, Maud and Everett didn’t seem to have any illusions about each other. Maud changed Everett to a certain extent, but in other ways, not really. He was still a grumpy, reclusive man who didn’t know what to do with emotion. Do I think they found happiness together? At least the way the film portrayed it, yes. A dying aunt tells Maudie she is probably the only family member who ended up happy. And she certainly looked it, despite her failing body. And she certainly painted it.

lewis_house_maud

Maud Lewis poses with one of her paintings in front of her home in Marshalltown, Nova Scotia (Courtesy AGNS)

Advertisements

We Have Plenty of Matches in Our House

The description from VIFF had me at “bus driver and poet.”

This movie takes you through a week in Paterson’s life (played by the subtle and brilliant Adam Driver). Each day doesn’t look too different than the other. Paterson wakes up next to his wife, retrieves his work clothes from the bedroom chair, eats cheerios while examining a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches, walks to work, writes a few lines of poetry in his secret notebook before listening to his boss’s litany of things bothering him, responds that he’s okay whenever he’s asked, smiles to himself at the bus conversations he overhears, drives around Paterson, New Jersey, the city he shares a name with, eats his lunch at the Great Falls, walks back to his modest house, straightens out the mailbox that his English bulldog Marvin dislodges every day, greets his artsy wife who is happy to see him and tell him about her latest career idea, takes the dog for a walk after a healthy but usually unappealing dinner, leashes Marvin outside his favourite bar while he enjoys a drink and conversation with the owner, comes home, kisses his wife, and goes to bed to repeat it all the next day.

There are a few deviations in this routine but that’s pretty much it for seven days. You’re probably thinking that sounds boring but it really isn’t, and it’s a long movie for not having a plot—just shy of two hours. Could it be that the ordinary is actually quite interesting? That a quiet life is worth celebrating? That a content marriage is worth showing?

This is a movie you could picture yourself in. No great thing happens, just a bunch of small things—some of which may mean something, some of which may not.

The poems were my favourite part, voiced by Adam Driver who reads them as if they could be his while the words come up on screen in his handwritten scrawl. We are given just a few lines at a time, echoing real life where we don’t finish drafts all in one go. We are constantly interrupted. And then our desire is finally satisfied when we hear the poem whole. I left wanting to hear them again. All the poems in Paterson are written by Ron Padgett, whom I am delighted to have been introduced to thanks to this movie. He’s a perfect match to this film because his poetry is all in the details.

Love Poem – by Ron Padgett

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though we used to prefer Diamond brand.
That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone,
as if to say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world,
its one and a half inch soft pine stem capped
by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious
and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,
lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love,
for the first time, and it was never really the same
after that. All this will we give you.”
That is what you gave me, I
became the cigarette and you the match, or I
the match and you the cigarette, blazing
with kisses that smolder toward heaven.

 

I doubt everyone sitting in the movie theatre was a poetry lover, but Padgett’s poems seem like the easiest entry into this form for even the most hardened sceptic. Like the film, the poem doesn’t try too hard to be more than it is. It doesn’t use fancy language or opt for easy emotion.

It talks straight and simply, like it is having a conversation with you. Like it knows what it is and is content to be just that. Nothing more, nothing less.

I want more movies like this. I want more poetry like this.

This is Where I Leave You

Book titles like this always intrigue me. Who’s speaking? Where is “this”? Who’s being left? Who does the leaving? (don’t worry, no spoilers in this review!)

img_4046

I’m glad I read this book by Jonathan Tropper even though it’s quite different from my norm. It’s crass, comic, and tragic all at the same time. And so wryly observant.

Judd Foxman is a recently cuckolded husband, 34 years old. He catches his beautiful wife of ten years cheating on him with his macho boss. We meet him at rock bottom, sleeping on a couch in a friend’s basement, when he learns from his older sister Wendy that their dad died. The Foxmans are Jewish and though their dad didn’t believe in God, he wanted the family to sit shiva.

So Judd, Wendy, and their other brothers Paul and Phillip reconvene at their mother’s home with their partners to mourn for seven days.

Judd, of course, goes alone. He says in one of his acute one-liners that are scattered throughout the book, “You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.”

Even though it’s apparent that their dad’s dying request for them to sit shiva is a plot device to get all the members of this highly dysfunctional family together for seven days to sort through their crap, it works. Or you don’t care if it really works because getting such damaged, emotionally repressed, and large personalities all in one room leads to some hilarious and healing moments. And also a lot of sex, brawls, and reopened wounds (both literally and figuratively).

Here’s an example of a passage that had me laughing out loud:

Serena, Wendy’s baby girl, screams like she’s been stabbed. We can all hear her in amplified stereo as we eat lunch, thanks to the high-tech baby monitor Wendy has set up on the table in the front hall, but Wendy doesn’t seem at all inclined to go upstairs and quiet the baby. “We’re Letting Her Cry,” she announces, like it’s a movement they’ve joined. If they’re letting her cry anyway, I don’t really see the point of the baby monitor, but that’s just one of those questions I’ve learned not to ask, because I’ll just get that condescending look all parents reserve for non-parents, to remind you that you’re not yet a complete person.

There are times I laughed even though I didn’t really want to because the comedy in the book comes from a sad place. Each of the Foxman children is mourning, not so much their dad,  but where their own lives have (or haven’t) taken them—bad decisions they made, accidents they had no control over, love that feels “completely useless,” or just the relentless passing of time that takes you from the innocence of childhood to the murky quagmire of adulthood, ready or not.

There’s something about coming home that digs all of this up. At the end of the seven days, which equals the end of the book, each character leaves the Foxman home with varying degrees of difference to how they entered it. (As an aside, I think the book’s title works in a number of ways, including the narrator talking to the reader).

I enjoy stories of families and I think that’s why I liked This is Where I Leave You so much. All the Foxmans were so believably messed up and so believably human. And you really want everything to turn out okay for them.

In an interview on The Hollywood Reporter, the journalist asks author Jonathan Tropper, “What do you hope viewers take away from This is Where I Leave You?”

Tropper responds:

It’s funny, because I never write with any intention of a lesson, I just want to tell a story. But to me, the takeaway from the book and film is that family will save you, whether you want them to or not.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

Our Little Sister

I mentioned last post that I saw a wonderful movie at the Victoria Film Fest earlier in February—a movie I had no expectations about and which completely surprised me with its understated beauty.

Our Little Sister is a 2015 Japanese movie by Hirokazu Kore-eda about three sisters in their 20s who live together in Kamakura and take in their 13-year-old half sister after their father dies. In Japanese, it’s called Umimachi Diary which means “seaside town diary.”

It’s a quiet film that relies on subtle storytelling and believable characters to give it it its emotional depth. None of it feels sentimental and none of the four sisters conform to easy stereotypes. Each sister was her own character and got fairly equal screen treatment, which I felt was a wise move.

tumblr_npqnzilnP71qaqhbwo1_1280

The sisters live in their grandmother’s house that they refer to as the “girls’ dorm.” Sachi, Yoshina, and Chika Kouda have grown up in this home by themselves. The eldest, Sachi, inadvertently became the mom to the younger two after their father had an affair and their parents divorced. Their father remarried, having another daughter Suzu. The girls’ mom had some sort of breakdown and left them shortly after their father did.

The three Kouda sisters meet their half-sister at their father’s funeral (whom they hadn’t seen in 15 years). They take Suzu in because her stepmother is not a great caregiver (Suzu’s mom had died earlier), and Suzu is happy to join them. She is a gentle and sweet presence in their lives and they love looking after her, but her addition in the “girls’ dorm” also brings up a lot of memories and unhealed wounds from the past.

I love that the sisters felt so human, so nuanced, so relatable. Having a sister myself, I found a lot to identify with, but you don’t need to be a sister to appreciate this film.

OurLittleSister

Sachi is responsible, loving, cautious, lonely, and, as it turns  out, still angry at her mom and still so eager for her love. She is a senior nurse in palliative care at the local hospital, unhappily involved in a relationship with a married man.

Yoshina (Yoshi) is the high-heeled wearing reckless middle sister (not that reckless, she just drinks too much) and isn’t afraid to confront people about their actions (like her older sister’s pent-up anger). She has a decent job at a bank. Her compassion is really poignant closer to the end of the film when she has to consult clients about filing for bankruptcy and asks Sachi for advice about how to do her job well and not bring it home with her so much.

Film-Festival-Our-Little-Sister-2

Chika is the somewhat nerdy and free spirited youngest child who, according to the other two, has “weird taste in men.” She works at a sports store and is the peacemaker when familial tensions get tight. But her depth comes out too, like when she wants to know from Suzu what their dad was like. None of the other sisters ask Suzu this, even though they’re all yearning to know. It’s not surprising that Chika forms the closest relationship with Suzu, being the closest in age.

Suzu is quiet, thoughtful, and wise beyond her years. You feel her tension of being caught between sisterly love and a heightened sensitivity about her very existence bringing pain to those she loves: “Someone is always hurt, just because I’m here.”

This is a movie that made me laugh and made me weep. I was watching a family that was beautiful and messy and full of joy and sadness and everything in between. All those ideas were wrapped up in the recurring motif of cherry blossom trees, symbolic to Japanese culture of the beauty and fragility of life, the acceptance of loss and the hope of new growth.

image