Maudie: A Small Life with a Big Heart


MAUDIE (2016/17)
Directed by Aisling Walsh
Mongrel Media, 115 minutes, PG-13

This film's titular character is Maud (Dowley) Lewis (1903-1970), could be considered the Grandma Moses of Nova Scotia, except that Anna Mary Robertson Moses (1860-1961) lived a charmed life compared to that of Lewis.

Lewis is played by British actress Sally Hawkins, who contorts her stick figure body into all manner of grotesque proportions to portray the rheumatoid arthritis that plagued Ms. Lewis for her entire life. This was but one of many of the bad cards Maud was dealt. Teased unmercifully by other children for her deformities and assumed retardation, Lewis left school after the fifth grade. After both parents died within two years of each other (1935 and 1937), Maud lived with authoritarian older brother Charles (Zachary Bennett), who farmed her out to her Aunt Ida (Gabrielle Rose) when she was impregnated and jilted by a local lad.

This is where Maudie picks up the tale. In the hands of director Aisling Walsh and screenwriter Sherry White, Lewis emerges as a sneakily assertive woman who finds joy and beauty despite her physical challenges and the ugliness of some of the villagers. That ugliness included the man she eventually married, Everett Lewis (Ethan Hawke), a fisherman, woodsman, and jack-of-all-trades with whom she lived in a 10 by 12 foot shack from 1937 until her death 24 years later. If the size sounds daunting, consider also that the cottage was on an isolated dirt road across a causeway more than a mile from the Digby County village of Marshalltown. Winters are long, deep, and hard in a place where the Bay of Fundy and St. Mary's Bay come together. Imagine spending it with Everett, who tells Maud that his levels of concern were, in order, "me, the dogs, the chickens, and then you." He probably exaggerated in placing her fourth!

Art was Lewis' salvation. The film concentrates on the years 1945 through 1970, a time in which Lewis transformed the cottage into a colorful canvas of flowers, animals, plants, and village life as viewed through a window. A fortuitous meeting with Sandra (Kari Matchett), a New Yorker who summered in Marshalltown, led to commissions of folk art greeting cards and then experimentation with larger works (8-10") painted on scraps of wood, which she peddled from the cottage. None sold for more than $10 in her lifetime, though she was indeed hailed as the Canadian Grandma Moses, was lionized by a Canadian Broadcasting Company documentary, and even Richard Nixon owned two of her paintings. Earlier this year one of her works fetched $45,000 at auction. (In 2006, a Moses painting went for a record $1.2 million.)

The Lewis cabin now stands in the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in Halifax* and a steel replica marks its original spot in Marshalltown. Posthumous fame always seems unfair, but Walsh emphasizes Lewis' humanity rather exiling her to a tragic realm. As she is fading, Hawkins-as-Lewis tells us that her small world is the one she chose and that her window was the frame through which she viewed and painted it. Hawkins gives a bold and convincing performance. To underscore an earlier observation, Hawkins twists her body to convey Lewis' crippling arthritis. No prosthetics were used and Hawkins' physicality should draw rightful comparisons to the Oscar-winning turn of Daniel Day-Lewis in My Left Foot (1989).

Were I nominating Oscars, though, I'd hand one to Ethan Hawke, who endows the brutish and gauche Everett Lewis with more depth and dignity than he had in real life. Hawke is like a reed that bends with a gale but never breaks. We come to like him more than we first did, but no one will walk away mistaking Everett Lewis for a good man. At his core he is as icy and difficult as a February blizzard.

Kudos also to Walsh for the ways in which geography, topography, and weather are subtly woven into the film's fabric. (The filming actually took place in Newfoundland, which evokes post-World War II Digby County.) Walsh shows the fragility of summer and the harshness of winter, but uses repetition and understatement to present challenges that lesser directors convey with melodramatic one-offs. Walsh and White did take a few biographical liberties—Sandra is a composite used to heighten contrasts between urban sophistication with homespun perspectives; Everett was worse than presented, and Maud perhaps not as sunny**—but little is sacrificed in stretching the story at the margins. Maudie is a triumph. Like last year's Icelandic film Rams, it testifies that it is still possible to make small movies with big hearts that beat louder than the thunder of big-budget schlock.

Rob Weir

* Personal Note: I have seen the Lewis cottage in Halifax, though I confess not knowing much about Maud Lewis until this film. The cottage and the art gallery are among many reasons why you should visit Halifax if you have a chance.

** Biographical notes: Maud Lewis's biographer claims that Everett never loved Maud, and kept her around because he liked the money her paintings brought in. A burglar murdered him in 1979. Unlike the film, Maud was not obsessed with the daughter she lost and wasn't as content as portrayed.



Four Past Shows Highlight Top Curatorship at MFA

The Boston Museum of Fine Arts doesn't have the cash or cachet of the Met in New York City, but I get to the MFA much more often. This affords me the luxury of taking in just a few exhibits at a time so I can contemplate things in depth rather than breadth. Four recent shows illustrate what I mean. Don't despair if you didn't make it to these. The thing about great urban museums is that most of their "special" exhibits tend to expand upon things already in their collection.

The MFA owns Virgin and Child with St. John the Baptist, a truly great work by Sandro Botticelli (c. 1445-1510). It was a key part in "Botticelli and the Search for the Divine." which was reputedly the largest Botticelli exhibit ever displayed in the United States. But that isn't that many, as much of the famed Renaissance painter's works are too big, too fragile, or too important to loan.

Botticelli is considered one of the giants of the Florentine Renaissance and few have rivaled his use of lush color—especially his eye-popping blues. His patron was one of the giants of Italian history, Lorenzo de Medici (1449-1492), a man of such power that he was known in his lifetime as Il Magnifico. He gave Botticelli the freedom to explore emerging humanist values and to break with the somber hues and stiff formalist poses of pre-Renaissance religious art. Courtesy of new ways of cleaning away the accumulated grime from medieval and Renaissance art, we now know that another Renaissance innovation was the cartoon-like vibrancy of figures, which we see in the MFA's own Botticelli. And there were the earthy qualities that come through in works such as Minerva and the Centaur, a work I first embraced at the Uffizi; to mention nothing of increasingly sensual nudity. The Birth of Venus didn't leave Florence, but a full-sized study did.

Newton observed that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The Florentine Renaissance ended abruptly upon Lorenzo's death and the city fell under the sway of the friar Savonarola (1452-1498). He plunged Florence into a period of religious zealotry (1494-98) from which it took decades to overcome. All things worldly and secular were suspect, even destroyed. (Burnings under Savonarola gave us the phrase "bonfire of the vanities.") Botticelli's work was seriously hampered, though there were veiled references to the era's horrors.

 Speaking of horrors, Polish photographer Henryk Ross (1910-1991) documented the Nazi roundup of Jews and Roma in the Lodz Ghetto. Are there words that can express the barbaric savagery of the Holocaust? Probably not. That's why a picture is indeed worth a thousand words. The good news is that MFA's photographic collections are strong and seeing images on the wall allow us to remember all that is noble about humanity—and all that is dark and must not prevail.

On a much sunnier note, the MFA has lately paid more attention to illustrators. Who better to showcase than Robert McCloskey, whose 1941 Make Way for Ducklings was set in Boston and remains a children's book favorite. The MFA recently showcased 50 of McCloskey's works—many of them from a collection housed at Emporia State University in Kansas. In addition to his beloved fowl in the city drawings, there were others from equally fun books such as Blueberries for Sal (1948) and Centerburg Tales (1951).

 Do you know a museum of consequence that doesn't have works by Henri Matisse (1869-1954)? The MFA's Matisse in the Studio put his wonderful, whimsical, inventive career in literal context: 34 paintings, 26 drawings, 11 bronzes, 9 woodcuts, 3 prints, and 39 personally collected objects from the Musée Matisse. Believe me when I tell you that this is only the iceberg's tip. I've been to his Matisse's home in Nice where the museum is now housed, an experience I'd not trade, though I have to say that the MFA display allowed to relieve it sans sensory overload. It was subdivided into four self-descriptive themes: "The Object is an Actor," "The Nude," "Studio as Theatre," and "Essential Forms." Painter, sculptor, printmaker, draftsman… Lump Matisse with Cézanne and Picasso as the troika that reinvented Western art in the 20th century.  


There are tons of good shows coming up at the MFA, including photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, Inuit art, idealized female images in Japanese art, and posters and graphics from the 1967 Summer of Love.  Check out: http://www.mfa.org/news/advance-exhibition-schedule

Rob Weir


Ten Dead Comedians Reworks Agatha Christie


By Fred Van Lente
Quirk Books/Penguin Random House, 289 pages

Is there a worse kept secret in the entire entertainment world than the fact that a lot of comedians are seriously screwed up individuals? The world of comedy is littered with self-inflicted corpses, but what if someone decided to pick out nine stand up comics and do the job for them? That's the premise of Fred Van Lente's debut mystery novel Ten Stand Ups, Nine Murders, One Solution.  Van Lente has hitherto been known for writing zombie comics and the occasional graphic novel, including Cowboys and  Aliens, which was made into a film that bombed critically and at the box office.

One suspects that some of Van Lente's experience got exorcised in his novel, as its pivotal character, Dustin Walker, was once a big late night TV star who fell from grace after making a trashy but surprise hit film, I Married a Cat. It spawned a series of ludicrous sequels that ultimately exiled its creator to a fate worse than death: celebrity irrelevance. That is, unless you're an insider and still think guys like Walker have pull. When his personal assistant, Meredith, invites nine individuals to come to Walker's private island to discuss a future "project," the allure proves too great to resist. To be sure, their motives are less than lofty—vanity, flagging careers, seeking to bask in reflected glory, perchance to brag…. They come, but Walker is nowhere in evidence, the Wi-Fi code doesn't work, groundskeeper Dave is missing, Meredith seems clueless about everything, and there's no way off the island until the boat that brought them returns. In short, they are left their own devices, a tool chest that mostly contains professional jealousy, one-upmanship, and mutual loathing. And then things really go wrong: a video showing Walker's apparent suicide is prelude to stand ups meeting grisly ends.

Comedy fans will entertain themselves by matching egos and biographies to the imperiled islanders. The washed-up TV host Walker has many parallels—among them, Joey Bishop, Chevy Chase, Jerry Lewis, and David Brenner—and his character is probably a composite, but how about Janet Kahn, the Real Queen of Mean? Joan Rivers, anyone? Or Margaret Cho as the inspiration for lesbian comic Ruby Ng, who blew her career by uttering something unutterable. It's pretty hard not to think of Sarah Silverman as a template for Zoe Schwartz, the gagster who delights in talking about her vagina to the point where she becomes—if I might mix body parts—the butt of her own routine. How can we not imagine Sam Kinison as a stand-in for William Griffith, aka/ "Billy the Contractor," a rich jerk who pretends to represent "Real America?" Is Dante Dupree part Richard Pryor? Who is Oliver Rees, aka "Orange Baby Man," a decidedly unfunny person who portrays a grown infant and has a knack for trade marking associated kitsch? (Andy Kaufman?) Or T J Martinez, who fancies himself a revolutionary Latino—as long as it doesn't crimp his comfortable lifestyle? And then there's improv teacher Steve Gordon, whom TJ pretends not to know, though they once worked together.

The structure and content of the book is pretty much that of Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. This is, depending on your point of view, either homage or intellectual pilfering. I'm willing to give Van Lente the benefit of the doubt and call it a Christie update. Let's face it, we don't read many mysteries because they are literary masterpieces; we consume them for cheap thrills and as respites from that denser genre we label "literature." Van Lente is not a great stylist, but he enlivens his text with excerpted monologues from his comedians and demonstrates, if nothing else, that he knows his way around comedy clubs. His debut novel is entertaining. It's summertime. That's enough.

Rob Weir