Canadian Painting

film 2 of 5


Film Review by Dean Duncan Mar 2, 2015

This combination educational film and artist celebration was made before the Varley film (q.v.), which share’s this one’s objectives, and pulls them off a little better. The second builds upon the first, and both provide considerable pleasure and benefit.

Mr. Lismer comes off very attractively, if just a bit inflatedly. The inflation is all in the film’s tone mind you, and not in its subject. Apparently he’s the greatest man ever! A nice thing is that a close and sympathetic look at the evidence suggests that this generous assertion might not be too far from fact. In this the viewer might compare Lismer with, say, William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953). That film’s deference to the idea and entire institution of royalty can seem positively obsequious, even objectionable these days. Shouldn’t we, rather, hound Princesses to their deaths? That’s the thing: even if they are overly deferential, these two texts both contain a deep, unconscious courtesy, the general lack of which is one of the most exhausting things about the present day. It can be nice to be nice!

It is fair to observe that many of the interactions portrayed in this film—Lismer with children, with adult amateur painters, with art ed students, etc.—feel kind of canned. Like many non-fiction films of an earlier vintage, Lismer is a directed documentary, which is to say that someone was telling real people, in their real social circumstances, how to be themselves. The results were often awkward, and the impulse or institution have even, subsequently, been condemned (cf. generations’ worth of debate about Robert Flaherty).  

But if the directed documentary could be canned, it still, definitely, carried compensations. These are the contrivances, this is the self-consciousness that also characterized neo-realist film, not to mention the medieval mystery play. The various personages in this picture are all social actors, and these are, still, their social interactions. I notice that that little girl wouldn’t let go of Lismer’s hand, and they certainly didn’t script that.

As for contrivance, I declare that the scripted and directed conclusion of the dialogue with that obnoxious lady is funny. More fundamentally and art-appropriately, Varley features some lovely colour photography, which showcases the paintings very nicely. The best bit of all is an exquisite little piece of documentary montage that patiently lays out the materials and the process that will go into a particular painting, and then cuts forward to that painting being nearly done.  Alchemists!

On Lismer, from Canada’s National Gallery

The film itself: