Culture

Home, home on the Grange

David Livingstone November 27 1978
Culture

Home, home on the Grange

David Livingstone November 27 1978

Home, home on the Grange

Culture

Thanks to its gift shop and film program, the Art Gallery of Ontario has long ceased to be a hangout just for out-of-towners and well-heeled ladies with nothing better to do with their afternoons than appreciate the Impressionists. Now, along with handcrafted jewelry and engagement calendars, the AGO is offering home movies.

“Autobiography: Film / Video /Photography,” a current presentation at the gallery, is a survey of autobiographical work by North American artists. Although video screenings, dramatic performances, and photographs by Michael Snow and Robert Frank are part of the series continuing to Dec. 7,

the most prominent feature is the more than 50 movies chosen by Ian Birnie, head of the AGO’s Media Programme, and John Stuart Katz, associate professor of film at York University. Last winter, Birnie proved that galleries aren’t what they used to be with “American Melodrama,” a series that acknowledged the directorial genius of Douglas Sirk and Vincente Minnelli, and showed that, for dopey, hapless glamor, Lana Turner has never been surpassed. With “Autobiography,” the gallery becomes a forum for movies that fall short of the commercially acceptable feature length, and that otherwise might never get shown. And, instead of Lana, Rose Borris is a star.

Rose appears as herself in Rose’s House{made by her son Clay) and, as a fearless woman making sure her kids don’t steal and her boarders pay up, gives a performance that won her a best actress nomination at the 1977 Canadian Film Awards. The film, recently awarded a Silver Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, portrays the life of ex-Maritimers in Toronto’s Cabbagetown in gritty documentary style. But details, such as the canned milk and molasses that grace the kitchen ta-

ble, account less for the movie’s impact than Rose herself; her every gesture warns you not to play her cheap. Tucking a pack of Belvederes into the pocket of her fake fur as she prepares to visit a son who has been arrested, she confronts the camera with a selfassurance that makes Glenda Jackson seem tentative.

During a post-screening discussion with the film-maker, a man in the audience admits some difficulty in responding to the movie: “It’s hard to criticize somebody’s mother.” But, unlike many of the other movies being shown at the AGO, Rose's House is at least scripted, its raw, intimate edge further smoothed by the fact that not all the characters play themselves.

Nothing is rehearsed in Joe and Maxi in which New York artist Maxi Cohen turns the camera on herself and her father—a man who had frightened her with his sexual advances just as he impressed her with his self-made success. A few months after they started shooting, he learned he had cancer. Watching Maxi feel the tumors on her father’s thigh or watching a 105-yearold woman whose face looks like death had already got at it (in Ed Pineus’ Life and Other Anxieties) you wonder how much reality audiences can bear.

At the beginning of David Holzman's Diary, made in 1967 by Jim McBride, the hero looks into the camera and says: “Objects, people, events, seem to speak to me. They seem to carry some meaning that I can’t quite get. My life, though ordinary enough, seems to haunt me—in uncommon ways.” Even before the end of the film when we learn that David Holzman is actor Kit Carson, the film seems a prophetic joke on the kind of self-absorption for which the ’70s are often chastised. However, words such as exhibitionism and selfindulgence evaporate in the face of avant-garde pioneer Stan Brakhage’s Sincerity III and Duplicity. The films, both of which had world premieres at the AGO, mesmerize with meticulously crafted, soundless images.

Autobiographical films demand a faith in their makers. One has to trust that Edith Beale and her daughter Edie, the subjects of Albert and David Maysles’ Grey Gardens, knew what they were doing when they decided to show the world their molten flesh and constant, if witty, bickering. Sometimes, as in Italianamerican by Martin Scorsese (Mean Streets, Taxi Driver), the private glimpses have such a warm glow that the director’s motives could only be healthy. In a kitchen papered with overblown turquoise poppies which no art director would ever dream of, Catherine Scorsese faces her son’s camera and candidly demonstrates her recipe for spaghetti sauce.

David Livingstone