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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

Sarah Prefers to Run

The Vancouver International Film Festival (VIFF) is going on right now, and having never attended before, I decided to check it out.

Sarah Prefers to Run (Sarah Préfère La Course) was my first film festival experience, and it was a good one. Directed by Chloé Robichaud, the 97-minute film tells the story of Sarah (Sophie Desmarais), a 20-year old middle-distance runner recruited to McGill’s prestigious track team, who, quite simply, prefers running to anything else. She can’t answer the question what she would do if her legs got cut off and she couldn’t run. She can’t conceive of a world without running.

I really enjoyed the after-film part. If this is how every film festival is like, I can see why people go. It’s like having the author of a book you just finished reading available to answer all your questions. It’s not like Chloé Robichaud gave “answers” as to how to interpret certain scenes—she intentionally leaves it ambiguous for viewers to decide—but it is helpful to hear some of the motivations and ideas behind the movie.

An audience member asked about the metaphor of running and how it’s often used negatively, as a running from. While Chloé affirmed this interpretation, she also mentioned how running can be a running towards. Sarah is happiest when she’s running. And so, while the ending is rather abrupt and ambiguous, it’s more hopeful than it is unhopeful. Sarah is doing what she does & loves best, although the downside to this is that she doesn’t seem to care for people as much as she cares for her sport. That balance between going after what you love and navigating the downsides that can result from such an intense focus is what makes the film feel like a coming-of-age story.

Sarah’s passion for sport is not unlike an artist’s passion—relentlessly pursuing what she loves despite the reservations of family (her mother) and her own better judgment of marrying her best friend simply for financial reasons. I’m going to quote from Tim Grierson because he describes this artistic similarity in his review better than I can:

It wouldn’t be a stretch to compare Sarah’s passion to that of an artist’s, throwing away everything else in the focused pursuit of one’s calling, in part to block out the rest of the world that’s so confusing and painful. There are plenty of artists whose drive didn’t result in a happy ending, and what makes Sarah Prefers to Run so touching is that we’re not quite sure what the resolution will be for Sarah. She isn’t, either. But she just keeps running.

While Sarah is top of her field in her running accomplishments, it’s interesting that we never see her win a race. It’s always told after the fact, or there’s a shot of her recovering her breath afterwards, but the emphasis is not on the results of her running. It’s on the act of running itself, and the psychology of who she is when she’s in that space.

But who she is is hard to figure out because she’s a character of minimal dialogue, and so a lot depends on her body language, especially her eyes—which Sophie Desmarais does a great at communicating through—but sometimes I just wanted more words.

Chloé said she could have chosen another activity for her character to pursue, like Sarah Prefers Administration (the very word puts you to sleep) but it certainly doesn’t have the same cinematographic qualities that running has. From the opening sounds of feet scampering across the track and the inhale and exhale of breath, the audience is invited into Sarah’s natural rhythm—also natural in the sense that running doesn’t require any equipment. Just body, breath, and ground.

In keeping with the fact that running is Sarah’s life (yet also has the potential to be the opposite), it makes sense that most of the film contains scenes of Sarah running or training. At the same time, she’s a new undergraduate student and, apart from one party and one on-campus interview for the school newspaper, the whole “first-time-away-from-home/freshman-at-university experience” is lacking, which is a pretty significant part of her new life. We don’t even know what she’s studying, and I was a little surprised to see no shots of McGill’s beautiful, European-style campus or even the outdoor track, Molson Stadium. All the running takes place in the fieldhouse.

The film brought back memories of Juno in terms of Michael Cera and his squadron of yellow short shorts teammates, as well as the way in which both Juno and Sarah refer to the fact that they did things “backwards.” And yet, in the last shot, Sarah’s running forward. Decisively. Because that’s what she knows how to do.

Take this Waltz

She wanted to make a movie about desire. So Sarah Polley made Take this Waltz where desire is everywhere, even in the light-infused cracks of a sultry Toronto street in summertime. She said she knows she has a romanticized view of the city, and I think any person watching the film can see that. She made it look desirable. Tantalizing.

Margot (Michelle Williams) is an aimless woman married to Lou (Seth Rogen), a loving husband who cooks chicken all day in his effort to compile a chicken-only cookbook. Margot meets Daniel, her dark-haired, handsome artist neighbour who drives a rickshaw.

As the object of Margot’s desire, Daniel’s character is fairly two-dimensional. We know him the least. And I suppose this is to be expected when someone is made to represent something. (His biggest, most personal action was moving away). It’s a brave task to make a film about that which eludes, but Polley played out well the complexities of this difficult thing called desire. How anything you desire, you kill once obtained. It never lives up to your expectation. You like it better when you didn’t have it.

And so you, the viewer, can see clearly the path Margot is choosing the more she hangs out with Daniel. Polley holds off the sexual tension between them for so long that you know it’s going to come big when it eventually comes, but the sex scene(s) to the titular song by Leonard Cohen felt the most anti-climactic of the entire movie. Maybe because you know what’s going to come next and you wished Margot had enough foresight to see this too. But as Polley says, this movie is about flawed people. She even calls it a celebration of flawed people.

Interestingly, as soon as Margot runs away (literally) from her husband, the plot lags. I thought the film was over. The latter parts with Daniel weren’t nearly as interesting or coherent as the “boring domestic scenes” with Lou. In the “Making Of” feature of the DVD, Rogen comments on how different it was for him to play a character who was in a committed relationship. He mentions how it was fun to pretend to be married and play those everyday scenes like making breakfast in the kitchen, spraying your wife with the sprinkler, joking around, brushing your teeth while she sits on the toilet.

Polley said she wanted people to be uncertain what decision Margot should make. Yet I think she makes it pretty clear, early on, that Margot will choose Daniel and that it will be a mistake. Her sister-in-law Geraldine (played by Sarah Silverman) is a recovering alcoholic and the wisest, most honest and likeable character in the movie. We get a lot of these clues through her looks and the comments she tells Margot. Women figure out other women pretty quickly, and we know she knows exactly what Margot is up to. She subtly hints/warns Margot in the after-aqua fit shower scene: “New things get old,” but she doesn’t criticize Margot directly until Margot leaves Lou.

In the best line of the movie, she tells Margot, “Life has a gap in it, it just does. You don’t go crazy trying to fill it like some lunatic.”

This might be one of my favourite movie lines, period. Maybe Margot’s not completely happy with Lou but she’s less happy when she’s finally with Daniel. The regret is all over her face when her and Lou talk again at the end, in what is their last conversation.

She comments on the success of his chicken cookbook and he shares in her surprise: “Yeah, who knew so many people would like chicken.” She adds, “And in so many different ways.” It’s probably true that she didn’t appreciate all the ways to know and love Lou until she left him, but the movie implies that that is a lesson taken on faith without having to experiment with the greener grass. As Lou tells her when she hints at them getting back together, “Some things you do in life, they stick.”

The annoying and yet completely human thing about Margot is that she doesn’t know what’s the matter and she doesn’t know what she wants, and maybe the two are one and the same. Even Daniel asks shortly after meeting her, “What’s wrong with you? You seem restless, but in a permanent kind of way.” If her unhappiness and restlessness is permanent, this was another clue that it doesn’t matter who she’s with. Her gap isn’t something someone can fix. It’s about her learning to live in the gap.

You know you’ve watched a good movie when it reminds you of other art on the same topic, when it participates and adds something to the conversation. Two poems come to mind.

The first one takes us back to 14th century Italy. Petrarch is a goldmine on the deadly nature of desire. This figure of early humanism obsessed over Laura, a married woman he saw briefly in a church and whose image inspired a life-long passion/agony he channeled into verse.

No. 141 from Il Canzoniere

As sometimes when the sun shines bright

a foolish butterfly, seeking the light

in its desire, flies into someone’s eyes

and kills itself and makes the other cry:

I, too, am always racing toward the fatal

light of her eyes that show me so much sweetness

it makes Love careless with the veins of reason,

and who discerns is vanquished by desire.

And I can see how much her eyes disdain me,

and I am certain I will die from it–

my strength cannot hold out against such pain;

but so mellifluously Love dazzles me

that I mourn for her wrong, not my own pain,

and my soul, blind, consents to its own death.

The second is a modern poem written precisely for women like Margot.

The Feast by Robert Fass

The lovers loitered on the deck talking,

the men who were with men and the men who were with new women,

a little shrill and electric, and the wifely women

who had repose and beautifully lined faces

and coppery skin. She had taken the turkey from the oven

and her friends were talking on the deck

in the steady sunshine. She imagined them

drifting toward the food, in small groups, finishing

sentences, lifting a pickle or a sliver of turkey,

nibbling a little with unconscious pleasure. And

she imagined setting it out artfully, the white meat,

the breads, the antipasto, the mushrooms and salad

arranged down the oak counter cleanly, and how they all came as in a dance when she called them. She carved meat

and then she was crying. Then she was in darkness

crying. She didn’t know what she wanted.

The Great Gatsby

I wrote briefly about The Great Gatsby before. After watching Baz Luhrmann’s version in theatres this weekend, I may as well add my thoughts to the plethora of critiques and articles out there.

If you haven’t watched it or read the book, which I highly suggest you do, you might not want to read further. In other words, spoiler alert. Then again, if you haven’t read The Great Gatsby, come on, it’s been around since 1925!

The Great Gatsby movie posterFirst off, I liked the movie. It was more faithful to the book than I anticipated. I don’t know why I anticipated otherwise. In fact, when I got home, I re-read sections of the book and kept muttering to myself, “Oh, that line was actually in the book!” “Oh, so was this one!” If you’re going to make a cinematic adaptation of a literary classic, it SHOULD be close to the book, but I guess I didn’t go into it with super high hopes in this regard.

This article is the best one I’ve read on the movie, commenting more specifically on Daisy’s character and why we dislike her and yet also pity her. I love Carey Mulligan’s acting and thought she did a good a job as possible to capture the ephemeral, delicate, and superficial nature of a girl like Daisy who floats from room to room in Gatsby’s mansion as fascinated by his objects as he is by her. The article makes an astute comment linking one of the covers of the book where Daisy is clad in green to the green light that symbolizes her presence but also her unattainableness.

I don’t think this was the cover the article talks about, but it’s green so it still works

She’s the enchanted object, the great American dream, all bright eyes and a voice full of money—and of course she’s the light, that green light, drawing men, mothlike, to her flame. (by Katie Baker)

Overall, I think the characters were well cast. The first time we see Leonardo DiCaprio out on his dock with the stars and fireworks twinkling behind him, well, that’s the essence of Gatsby right there: a dazzling spectacle who believes himself a “son of God.”

Gatsby’s signature smile Fitzgerald devotes an entire paragraph to

Jordan Baker is the one character who’s much better developed in the book than the movie. Would those who haven’t read the book pick up on the irony of her golf career and the narrator’s descriptions of her always reclining on a couch as if she’s the most sloth-like person to exist? Or the complicated attraction between her and Nick? It’s not surprising nothing works out between those two. I think they find themselves only drawn to one another because they’re both secondary acts to the central drama between Gatsby and Daisy. Nevertheless, Jordan perfectly wore the aloof/bored/cool expression Fitzgerald gives her in the book:

The bored haughty face that she turned to the world concealed something – most affections conceal something eventually, even though they don’t in the beginning. . . I suppose she had begun dealing in subterfuges when she was very young in order to keep that cool, insolent smile turned to the world and yet satisfy the demands of her hard, jaunty body.

The mysterious Jordan Baker

I had to laugh at Jordan’s expression in the Plaza Hotel when Gatsby loses his temper at Tom and looks “as if he had killed a man.” Jordan is sitting on a chair, fanning herself and wearing a staged expression of shock. I think we’re meant to be amused by her aloofness. Nick’s comment that ends the scene, “I just remembered it’s my birthday” adds to this point that Nick and Jordan are only significant insofar as they create the opportunity for Gatsby and Daisy to meet, and then become wallflowers to their stories. They are the onlookers in the same room at the Plaza Hotel who may as well be watching the scene from the street below.

Tension in the Plaza Hotel. Notice how Nick and Jordan are on the peripherals of this shot.

Yet Nick is the necessary wallflower without whom we wouldn’t have a story, as we learn about and see Daisy and Gatsby through his eyes. This, however, leads to a problem I had with Nick’s interpretation – is it just me or did anyone else find themselves needing more convincing of why Nick had such admiration for Gatsby? Sure, he had never seen a man so full of hope before and with such a grand vision for his life, but is that really it? His last phrases to Gatsby is, “They’re a rotten crowd. You’re worth the whole damn bunch put together.” I don’t really believe these words and, in the movie, Gatsby doesn’t look like he believes them either. Gatsby’s quintessential gesture is the outstretched arm grasping at the green light on Daisy’s dock, a gesture that signifies he kept climbing and reaching for more. This didn’t really strike me as admirable though – more pitiable in that it’s a symbol of the human condition. We all have our green light we extend our hands towards, and even if we attain it, something else calls to us from across the bay, an evanescent light reminding us we are never satisfied. And how fitting that it’s green – a constant reminder to keep striving. Enough is never enough. Such a “great” man and yet nobody came to his funeral.

The green light

The green light

That aside, I liked how the directors played with Nick Carraway’s role insofar as he is the first person narrator of the story (as he is in the book), but because he’s writing a memoir in the movie, he also becomes F. Scott Fitzgerald. There aren’t many roles I think Tobey Maguire is perfectly suited for, but he plays the unassuming character well (he always looks slightly surprised) and thus he makes the perfect embodiment of Nick Carraway who is “within and without.” The scene where he stands out on the balcony after the party in Myrtle’s apartment and peers into all the other New York apartment windows was probably my favourite part. It was brilliantly done, and very postmodern. The movie presents the city as the collector of our narratives – these windows of our lives that strangers can glimpse in and out of from street level or parallel balconies without ever knowing us. Closeness without togetherness (reminds me of Sidewalls in that way).

“I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.”

It’s interesting that New York repels Nick after Gatsby’s death. I don’t think Nick ever really loved the city, but his relationship with it shows the big city is vibrant and teeming with life when you feel full of life yourself, and a complete bore when you are disenchanted, walking around dead. In that sense, maybe the city is just a macrocosm for the emotions and experiences of the individual. Like a magnifying glass, the city amplifies ourselves. I think New York does this on a bigger scale than any other city, and for that reason, the novel couldn’t have taken place anywhere else.

What are your thoughts on the film?