A week ago, during the first day of TIFF, with a precious extra 90 minutes of time between afternoon screenings, It was enough time to sit down for a leisurely lunch at a cafe on Richmond, a block from the Scotiabank Theater. Sushi and a collection of trade magazines do a body good at a film festival like TIFF.
After that, I took advantage of my proximity to the shops and galleries at 401 Richmond, which I discovered last year, in much the same fashion, albeit far later in my festival stay to truly explore all of its hidden gems. I strolled in early this year, sensing that this might be the first of, hopefully, a couple of such detours.
My first stop, Abbozzo Gallery, lured me in with a painting exhibition (What Dreams May Come – September 3 through October 1, 2016) that, I found out, was a day away from its opening. So I took the time, to enjoy this quiet sneak peek, complete with Ineke Zigrossi who filled me in on the gallery’s connection to the artist Heather Horton and tidbits about her work. Ineke teased me with news of Horton’s impending arrival at the gallery with supplies (beer) for the opening. I still had time, but I wasn’t sure I needed to wait. The pieces, which I realized could be grouped into thematic sets – family artifacts, self-portraits, interiors, and water – spoke to me, sometimes in whispers from their frames of reference and in others through a tricky swirl of (e)motion.
I was drawn to Journal of a Polymath above, with its combination of written information and the specificity of the wood and shadows. And when Horton entered, bearing boxes of tasty beverages and a big smile, she immediately and graciously entertained questions about her work. I listened intently, keying in on Journal, and she explained that it belonged to her father, who had been ill before his passing, but actively engaged in life and living and enjoying every moment.
I wandered in for a close look, picking up the first line, “When you can do nothing, what do you do?” It taunted me, and yet I imagine, when scanning the rest of his notes on that page, that he must have found an answer to that query.
The paintings that comprise Horton’s water series (like the one above) are deceptively lifelike renderings of a woman in a pool, floating along, swimming in some shots, but in all of those refractions and ripples, there is a sense of movement akin to the stirring 3D images of James Cameron’s Avatar and Werner Herzog’s Cave of Forgotten Dreams, by my estimation, two of the best uses of 3D technology in film, up to this point. Their moving frames trigger an immediate desire to reach out and touch, to feel the alien colors and rough textures. It is like wandering in a new marketplace for the first time, although you’ve been instructed that you are not allowed to put your hands on anything. There is the constant internal struggle to restrain your better urges.
I asked her about those pools, and if film played any role in her process, as inspiration or something more. Her answer in that moment surprised me. She mentioned listening to films, rather than music, as she works. Music, she said, was too emotional, too disruptive for work, but the dialogue in films seemed to settle her.
I pressed her to see if she would be willing to take a few emailed questions, mainly ideas we had already touched upon at the gallery, and expand on them. She agreed, and she started with the influence of film.
Since I was a child, film has comprised a large part of my inner world…I’m an only child and film was my companion often, a surrogate sibling. I played cherished films while I was alone and found great comfort in the familiar lines and beautifully composed shots. I truly think that dialogue is the spine, the skeleton of a film, and the shots, colours and other choices are the muscles and skin which round out that creative organism.
As it applies to my work over the years and now, little has changed. I have a roster of beloved films which I play on more or less a regular rotation. These are films which are frequently dialogue-driven, or at least with lots of dialogue in them. I know the films well enough to not have to look at the screen while I’m working. I can enjoy the inflection and tension and nuances in these films without being distracted away from painting.
Some of the films in my rotating film roster are: 12 Angry Men, Rope, Rosemary’s Baby, Inglorious Basterds, Rear Window, Dial M For Murder, Shadow of a Doubt, The Thing (Carpenter’s version), Alien, Aliens, The Terminator, The Talented Mr. Ripley, Zodiac, Wait Until Dark, The Shining, Primal Fear, Prometheus, Presumed Innocent, Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978 version) and A Few Good Men.
I would learn later, in yet another conversation, that The Matrix is another touchstone for her. I shared not only my love for the film, but my undying belief that the trilogy is one of the greatest love stories ever committed to film.
My conversations with Horton, three in-person chats of various lengths along with the email exchange over the course of the festival, bandied with abandon, from topic to topic, still frame to big-screen and back again, forming one-long dialogue, that itself encapsulated the idea of TIFF’s infinite frames as much as the collection of films that comprised the event.
My final film on the first Friday of the fest, following a brief stopover at Abbozzo to take in the show with others, was Blind Sun, A Vanguard presentation from Joyce A. Nashawati. It was the story of a foreigner (Ziad Bakri) stranded in Greece, during an intensely hot summer (Do the Right Thing hot) with water shortages and the added stress of attempting to navigate through local hostilities without the benefit of his papers. Think Hitchcock (which obviously Horton does) filming Camus in a thoroughly modern (yet oddly dystopian) landscape of fear-mongering against immigrants.
But the story slipped away from me, as the protagonist, while housesitting for a rich couple on holiday, went for an afternoon swim, diving into the pool (which he was told to drain). Suddenly, as he streaked through the water, I shifted back to the gallery, into one of Horton’s frames, the distorted reflections, like a school of amoeba or mutated cells joining and splitting for survival. Her pool. The Blind frames. Flipping back and forth right before my eyes.
The water paintings are a place to truly test the limits of the illusion that paint provides….while I’m working I tend to become myopic and work on a small section here and there and only when I take a break to step back does any motion truly become apparent. I know some painters paint pretty far back from their canvas, but I like to get in quite close…it becomes quite technical while working…it is only when it completed or when I’m done work for the day that the effect of the motion or movement really sinks in.
It is such a treat when you see the figure “moving” on the canvas…as it is never a conscious choice to make it move, but a culmination of over a hundred hours of painting each component to make it move. It seems almost like an impossibility, but when it works, it is the best feeling in the world.
I skipped back to the day before, to Kelly Reichardt’s Certain Women, my second TIFF 2016 screening. In the beginning, there a lovely shot of Laura Dern’s character, a lawyer enjoying a lunch-time assignation in a hotel room. She’s reclining on the bed, while her lover (James Le Gros) dresses and prepares to head back to work. The camera watches him, but we see Dern, reflected in a mirror off to the side. It is a small frame, which distorts Dern, shrinks her down, past significance, despite the fact that this is her story.
As part of my emailed questions to Horton, I mention that scene, because it reminded me of the self-portrait below.
I love the sound of the Dern shot in that film. I LOVE paintings and films with tight, often mirrored images or at least those which are cropped heavily.
Think of The Shining with Jack framed in the mirror in the bedroom, or Tom Ripley’s head juxtaposed on Dickie Greenleaf’s body via strategic mirror placement on the wardrobe in The Talented Mr. Ripley. This sort of conscious cropping and framing via the forced parameters of a window, or even a reflected shape in the shower curtain…it’s all a way to control the viewer’s eye and make it go where you want it to.
I knew I wanted to paint distortion, and skin tones, and a portrait…the shower curtain piece didn’t HAVE to be a self-portrait, but it was convenient as it was a shower idea and I don’t ever paint anyone but myself in those sorts of scenarios!
The title came from words spoken by a yoga instructor. It reunited as they were spoken during a class which I took in the wake of a bad break-up. Her voice echoed with that tenet so strongly, that I had to paint them (the words) into a piece…as a sort of medallion or mantra I suppose.
For the last few years, my TIFF experience features a thematic mantra, if you will, in the form of interviews with film composers. I stumbled into an interview request with genuine curiosity and before I knew it, a PR rep had me pegged as the go-to for film score talent. After taking the first sit down, I can’t say I minded the association. I’ve always preferred to have musical accompaniment in my everyday life and I enjoy the subtle vibe a carefully chosen melody can add to a scene. Understanding how those snippets take shape, creating a secondary voice for a character or a slow-building dramatic moment, well, that’s another narrative dimension worth exploring.
I have already offered teasing hints regarding my conversations with Lesley Barber (Manchester By the Sea) and the dynamic duo (Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka) from Lion, and there will be more to come, as the release dates of those films approach. But I spent my last day at TIFF listening, as much as gazing at my final views of the 2016 screenings.
The music was utterly lost in the muddled and fiery mix of Deepwater Horizon – explosions and then periods where the sound drops off completely, to approximate the loss of hearing, but only for a moment, sometimes literally until the next burst – as if that somehow unclogs the ears or fuses the shattered eardrum back together.
Again, I drifted back to Abbozzo and Horton’s comment about music being a distraction, which she addressed, in more detail via email.
I think that painting requires a degree of concentration that music challenges, in that music takes me away to memories or to future possibilities, so much that I’m removed from the ability to mix paint effectively. It’s incredibly distracting.
Films too are so emotional, BUT given that I listen to familiar ones (I already know what is happening), whereas music resonates with a deeper part of the psyche I think and it actually undermines productivity. MANY artists that I know of paint to music and I think it is wonderful, but I know it is not effective for me.
Strange Weather writer-director Katherine Diekmann seemingly directs to music. Or maybe singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten writes music for moving images of characters in crises and dead reckonings ahead. I would have loved the opportunity to settle in with these two women and have them talk about their collaborative process for the film. Horton’s right though.
Films are emotional, just as much as music, and Strange Weather is a prime example. A soulful twang oozes like dark and stick raw molasses over early scenes, before tempo shifts as Holly Hunter’s character, a still-grieving mother, takes to the road to track down the friends of her dead son to find out what exactly happened to him on the night he committed suicide. Along with her inability to let go (of concerns that she might not have been the best mother) and a rising anger at the cold fact that one of the friends stole her son’s business plan and has transformed it into a successful franchise, this avenging mama also packs heat. Roots country-blues, mainly in the form of guitar and piano set the stage for a storied confrontation.
It plays out like the best Southern fiction, where the storytelling is all about the stops along the way, with stories springing up to complement the larger narrative, and the music, well, it bears its own too, whether sung or felt. I changed my schedule at the last minute, guaranteeing that Strange Weather would be the final grace note for my 2016 festival run. I tend to depart on notes like this, minor indie keys.
TIFF 2016 allowed me the chance to assimilate another layer, to track my select views of the infinite from the perspective of painted stills. Each year, there’s so much to see.
To sample more of Heather Horton’s art, check her out at heatherhorton.com or at the gallery site (abbozzogallery.com).