Monthly Archives: October 2021

VIFF 2021 Review: The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain

Benedict Cumberbatch plays a troubled eccentric artist with a passion for cats in The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain.

Have you ever heard of artist Louis Wain? I should hope every cat lover has heard of him. You may have seen his art in the past, but may now know it. The film The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain is a colorful portrait of a colorful artist.

The film begins set in 1925. Louis Wain is in a mental institution. On the radio is a voice giving support for the troubled Louis Wain. He talks of how Wain fascinated us all with cats. He also talks of the need to raise funds to bring Wain to a better mental institute that allows him to paint and be with cats. The film then goes back to 1880. Wain is 20 years old and his father has passed. He is the first-born of six and the only son. His father’s passing now puts on him the responsibility of being the family breadwinner.

This is not a responsibility Wain can do easily. He has a history of losing jobs and his drawings and paintings are not exactly the type that can win the general public over, nor newspapers looking for illustrators. This is troubling for all the family members, but it’s oldest sister Claire who really lets Louis know through her frustrations how much of a pressure this is. On a train trip, he meets businessman Asim Chaudhry who sees his drawings and gives him advise. Wain’s drawings do attract the attention of Sir William Ingram: the Managing Director of the Illustrated London Daily News. Ingram gives him the opportunity to draw for the paper, but on a part-time basis. This, along with other odd jobs, is enough to provide for the family and allow them to hire a governess to teach the three youngest daughters: Emily Richardson. Emily is ten years Louis’ senior, but Louis can’t help but take a liking to her. During this time, Louis also keeps his drawings of his inspirations and fears inside a personal journal of his own.

Over time, the money Wain is able to provide goes so far, adding to the frustration. Wain’s fast swimming at the Turkish Baths gets on people’s nerves, even though Ingram is willing to tolerate it. Louis keeps on having recurring nightmares of drowning in a capsized ship: nightmares he’s had since childhood and may explain the scar underneath is lip. Louis’ feelings to Emily are feelings he feels he has to keep hidden, but there’s Shakepeare’s The Tempest the whole family plans to see in the theatre. Louis invites Emily by slipping the ad under the door, and she accepts. Before the Show, Emily reads his journal and is surprised by the paintings and drawings. During the play, it goes into a scene of a story boat trip, which causes Louis to leave for the bathroom. After he’s finished, he sees Emily. Emily reveals she read his journal and understands him and they kiss for the first time!

The romance of Louis and Emily does not go well with the family. They don’t want to be the source of scandal because of the class-gap and age-gap of the two. At the same time, Louis learns of photography from a boxing match he watches with Asim. Asim tells him that photography can replace illustrations for newspapers in the future. That does not settle well with Louis not just because of his job, but he feels photography lacks the imagination and electricity of drawings. Then one day, the closeness of Emily and Louis gets to the point Claire has to fire Emily. It’s then he asks Emily to marry her. He reveals to her he doesn’t care what others think of them both. Emily accepts, revealing she doesn’t care either. The two find a home in the countryside to avoid controversy and they have a happy first six months.

Then the news come Emily has fatal cancer. Louis agrees to live with her the final years of her life. Then one rainy day, they hear a meowing out in their yard. It’s a kitten and he’s freezing. The two take him in and they make a pet out of him. Making a pet out of a cat was seen as odd in British society as cats are seen as either nuisances or only good for catching mice on the farm. However the two decide to make a pet out of the cat and name him Peter. For the next three years, it’s just Louis, Emily and Peter together. However Emily’s condition deteriorates. Louis doesn’t know how to deal with life without Emily, but Emily encourages him to continue to live on and not be afraid to make his imagination come alive.

After Emily dies, Louis secludes himself and is broke. Claire gets on his case for that. However it’s after this time, he learns the more he hurts, the better he paints. He starts creating cat drawing and cat paintings. The images depict cats as charming, cute and mischievous. The works attract many a reader of the Illustrated London News. His cat paintings start selling like nobody’s business. He even gets honorary memberships to cat societies in London who always saw cats as pets long before the mass public did. This brought him considerable fame, but not fortune. It’s after receiving a lot of debts he confesses to sister Claire he didn’t copyright his works and people are copying and getting their own piece of the action. The only way he can make money is through his original paintings. Ingram came to the rescue and gave him additional work in illustrations.

Then in 1900, Peter dies. Wain is heartbroken. Soon he learns the harder he grieves, the bigger his imagination grows. He then paints multi-colored pictures of cats that take his art in a new direction. It grants him bigger fortune, which comes in time as Marie is diagnosed as schizophrenic and needs to be sent to a better hospital. Unfortunately the luck runs out after a few years and fortune went just as fast as it came. He attempts to market his work in the United States, which attracts the attention of William Randolph Hearst and Max Case. The trips to New York give him a bigger fascination with electricity, but the boat trips also bring back his recurring nightmares of drowning on a ship.

Bad business decisions continue to get Wain sudden riches and back into debt. Over the years, Wain loses people close to him like his mother, sisters Marie and Claire and his mentor William Ingram. Then in 1925, he has a violent mental outburst that puts him in a metal hospital. Asim sees him in the hospital. He notices his drawings lack the magic he once had. Also Louis appears dead inside as there are no cats. This allows Asim to team up with H. G. Wells and his three surviving sisters to start a fundraiser to help bring Wain to a better hospital where he’s allowed a better quality of life where he can draw, paint, be around nature, and cats. The hospital where he spends his last years is much better and it allows Louis to again experience his image of paradise. The paradise he and Emily possessed together.

I’m sure anyone who’s seen Louis Wain’s art may have mixed feeling about it. Some will think it’s not for them, especially people who don’t care for cats or can’t stand them. Others will wonder how one can call cat pictures art? Some can even look at some of his more colorful pictures of cats in his latter years and even see them as ‘psychedelic!’ Hard to believe they’d have this ‘psychedelic’ look many decades before the psychedelic look of the 60’s that is iconic of the term ‘psychedelia’ would come to be.

The film also shows how Louis Wain possessed a lot of traits that are common among even the most famous artists. Firstly it shows Louis Wain’s imagination: one common artistic trait. It takes you into his love of cats and his fascination of electricity and how he turned it into his art. It shows how he used his imagination to create his paintings. The best artists always did. His imagination gave Brits a new look towards cats. No longer were they seen as good just for mousing or nuisances. They could be seen as pets. The film also shows you the eccentricities he had during his lifetime. Artsy people are known for possessing eccentricities. The film showed how Wain was both a non-conformist and what we call today a ‘slacker.’ He didn’t care what society thought of him when he married Emily, and neither did she. Artists are also still seen as non-conformists in the way they lived. He was unable to maintain a real job and a steady income sweating it out; another common trait we see in a lot of artists.

The film includes the family pressures he faced, being the oldest of the Wain children and only male. Wain had to act as a provider to his family and his artistic talents were more of a hindrance in that aspect. Especially financially as there would be times he’d starve, times he’d prosper and times when his riches were all squandered. Many of the best artists would not receive their renown in their lifetime and some like Van Gogh starved. Wain received his renown, but still had periods of poverty. The film also takes one into the heartaches he experienced in his life like the death of his only wife Emily and the death of his first cat Peter. Even though he would have many cats since, Peter would still remain his beloved and he would never get over his death. It showed the deaths of his two sisters, his mother and his biggest mentor. He noticed the more he grieved the better and the more imaginative he painted.

The film also takes you into Wain’s mental torture. It’s a common belief among people that an artist should be the type to suffer for their art. Artists have been known to be people that suffer inside and Wain was no exception. One will notice early on in the film as they learn Louis had recurring nightmares of drowning upon a sinking ship. That was a nightmare that would never leave him. Many people into art want to see artists draw out or paint out their pain. Wain reminds us that even artists that do supposedly ‘happy’ pictures like his cat paintings also can possess inner demons and they make one their own worst enemy as much as they make them an artistic genius. Being type-two bipolar himself, director Will Sharpe let it be known about Wain and what it’s like to have those troubles.

Biographical films have changed a lot in the last twenty years. Most of the time, you see the story unravel itself over time without narration. Very rarely do you see a modern biographical film go from start to finish about their lives. This film does a lot of ‘traditional’ ways of going about the biographical film, but instead of it being a setback for the film, it enhances it. Hearing the narration from Olivia Colman is a delight to hear. Also the narration of the film actually adds humor to the film and the story. Seeing Louis Wain’s life unravel from the turning point of his life in 1880 up to his death in 1939 actually helps make the film instead of hinders it. The film even includes moments in his life that become picture perfect moments for his drawings and paintings. The film even shows times in Wain’s life when it becomes moments for his best work. However it’s shown imperfectly and sometimes becomes uneven with the story. I’ve seen biographic films of artists before. Often they try to mix the life experiences and mentalities of the artist in with some of their biggest art works. This film does it very well for the most part, but there are times when it comes off as lacking consistency or out of place.

This is a very good work from director Will Sharpe. He’s co-directed two films before with Tom Kingsley, but this is the first film he holds his own in. The film he directs and the story he co-wrote with Simon Stephenson is an impressive artistic biography. It’s as much of a comedy as it is a drama. It follows the ‘traditional’ way of making a biographical film, but it’s more of a benefit than a drawback. These aspects make the film. The layout of the film also works for the most part, despite the flaws being noticeable. Nevertheless it does tell us a lot about Wain. It reminds us that he was a troubled man who did not make a lot of smart decisions, had a tough family life and was mentally troubled. However it was his imaginative way of looking at things, his view of the beauty of the world, his love for cats, and the reassurance of Emily’s love for him that gave him his drive to create.

Benedict Cumberbatch did an excellent job in his portrayal of Louis Wain. He did a great job in showing both the comical side and the tragic side of the man which made the film impressive to watch. There weren’t too many standout supporting performances, but Claire Foy was very good as Emily Wain. She was very good in playing the woman that understood his mental troubles and still loved him. She was also good in showcasing how she was the one who inspired Louis to paint his imagination and to still continue to inspire even after her passing. Of the sisters, Aimee Lou Wood was the standout as Claire: the sister who was frustrated by Louis’ misdoings, but ended up admiring him as she was about to pass. Toby Jones was also an occasional scene-stealer as William Ingram, as was Taika Waititi as Max Case and Adeel Akhtar as Asim Choudhry. Standout technical elements are the cinematography by Erik Wilson and the score by Arthur Sharpe: Will’s brother.

The Electrical Life Of Louis Wain is more than just a biographical film of an artist. It takes one into the mind of the artist in his inspiration and of his troubles. Sometimes it doesn’t make complete sense or appear all together, but it is an excellent film that will get you interested in the artist and his work.

VIFF 2021 Shorts Forum: Programme 3

I had already fulfilled one of my VIFF goals of seeing a segment of short films when I saw MODES 2. However I was hoping that for short films, I would see something less experimental and more in the lines of either documentaries or live-action storytelling. I had my opportunity when I saw the shorts segment entitled Programme 3. They were seven films by Canadian directors that were all unique in their films and their messages.

-Flower Boy (Canada – dir. Anya Chirkova): It’s summer. Nav is a musical dreamer. He plays music from piano to guitar to his analog synthesizer at parties. His girlfriend Sarah is a painter who has artistic dreams of her own. She even painted a portrait of Nav with a flower instead of a head. For summer income, Nav works at a laser tag ground where he does the typical duties and the co-workers talk of how much they hate the job and the boss. As the months pass, Nav grows further in love with Sarah, but knows summer will end and he will be heading to college in another province. Also during the job, the 60 year-old boss shows Nav that he had music dreams too, as a rock ‘n roll drummer. The boss shares with him his passion. As summer ends, he makes a decision that a surprise to all.

This is a nice picturesque story. The images do as much of the storytelling as the dialogue. The story is pretty much a celebration to any and all artistic dreamers. Even for those who eventually went on to pursue real jobs. Those who’ve had artistic dreams of their own when they were young can identify with this story of see themselves in some way somehow. This also works well for me because I had dreams of being an actor when I was younger and, well, I turn 50 next September. It’s a reminder of no matter how old you get or even how successful you are at your real job, the dream never dies. Even if it’s in an against-all-odds profession, it’s still worth it to chase the dream and never stop dreaming!

-Things We Feel But Do Not Say (Canada – dir. Lauren Grant): Genevieve is hurting, but does not make it obvious. Later we learn what’s been hurting her. The pregnancy that’s supposed to be, isn’t. It’s a miscarriage. She tries to keep it inside, even to her husband, but you know it’s going to come out. She goes with him to the doctor’s appointment and tries to keep a poker face about it, but you know it will come out. Then it does. She then returns back to her work, greeted warmly by her friend, and carries on with her day.

This isn’t just a story about a miscarriage and the hurt one feels. It’s also about trying to hide emotions and go about daily life, even though one is hurting inside. The body language actually does more telling about the story and Genevieve’s feelings than the dialogue. That’s what the film is for the most part. About unspoken feelings we hold deep inside.

-Tla-o-qui-aht Dugout Canoe (Canada – dir. Steven Davies): Joe martin is a 66 year-old man from the Tofino First Nation. His profession is making dugout canoes: canoes made from trees that are dug out from the trunk. He is skilled from teachings from his late father. The skills he uses to make the canoes, like the hand-carving and painting, are centuries-old traditions passed on from his people. The skills and canoes were scorned upon by the Canadian government decades ago who had a system to assimilate the Indigenous people, robbing them of their culture and language and sending them to Residential Schools where they were abused and neglected mercilessly. Joe is now free to make his canoes. His daughter Tsimka uses the canoes he made to take visitors on tours of Clayoquot Sound.

This is one of two documentaries that’s part of ‘indigiDOCS.’ This allows the canoe maker to tell his story of his craft and how it’s important to him and his people. At a time when Indigenous peoples are going through Truth And Reconciliation and working to take back what was stolen from them in the past, like their languages and cultural rites, this is an important documentary. You learn of the skill of how it’s important for the maker and his people and why it’s worth keeping alive and worth passing on to generations.

-News From Home (Canada – dir. Sara Wylie): It’s March 2020. A daughter makes a phone call to her mother. She has anxiety and she’s scared. She doesn’t know what to do. She wants to fly back to be with her mother, but her mother advises it’s not a smart idea. This breaks the daughter’s heart. She’s scared and frustrated to tears. She just doesn’t know what to do. Another phone call some days later. The daughter again calls the mother. The daughter doesn’t have the same frustration she had during the first phone call. She reassures her mother she’s calmed down, if imperfectly. The mother says things of reassurance. It ends with a friendly goodbye.

This is a film that consists of recorded phone calls, home movies, and the images of the rooms inside the hose where the calls took place. No actors or people present. One thing we should not forget is it’s in March 2020 when the COVID pandemic hit Canada and all these social restrictions and isolations started taking place. There was a lot of fear among people about what would be next. I too anticipated this could be the next Influenza. This film captures the moment. Even reminds us of our own first moments of dread when this all started. However it also shows the moment of relief and reassurance over time. It even shows the close bond of family. It’s that bond with someone who reminds us things will be fine that we all need.

-Indigenous Dads (Canada – dir. Peter Brass): The film is a documentary. It’s an interview of four Indigenous fathers from across Canada and of various Indigenous Nations including Brass himself. Two are fathers of two, one is a father of four, and one is a father of one. All of them share their feelings of what it was like when they became a father for the first time, both positive and negative. All four talk about how fatherhood made them grow and change as men. All talk of their love for their children. They also all talk of how they teach their children of what it is to be Indigenous and how they even remind them of the racism they can face. They also all talk about their hopes and dreams for their futures and what they want their children to grow us to be.

This is an important documentary short. It’s very inciteful. This shows a side of being both a father and being Indigenous that we rarely see. It’s an eye opener to this subject. It reminds you of the immense responsibilities these men have to face and are willing to face head-on, despite how hard it is. They speak their hopes, their joys and their fears. There are times of great emotion as well. I’m really glad I saw this.

-Srikandi (Indonesia/Canada – dir. Andrea Nirmala Widjajanto): Anjani, a young girl in Indonesia, is about to start college. This comes in the aftermath of the death of her father and as her mother is about to sell the house. Something her daughter is out protesting over. Soon, her daughter discovers something. She comes across her father’s puppet studio. Her father’s profession was the traditional Indonesian puppetry of Srikandi. She discovers she has been taught the skills of Srikandi by her father, even though Srikandi is traditionally forbidden o females. Anjani makes a decision about her career path to her mother. Her mother is not happy with it as it won’t guarantee a steady income, but Anjani is firm in her decision as he is days from leaving for Jakarta.

This is a student film from a Vancouver Film School student. Andrea Widjajanto is born and raised in Indonesia and came to Vancouver to study film. This is another film about artistic passions burning inside one’s self. This is also as she faces the heartache of the death of her father and the time in one’s life where she’s reached the college age and now preparing for a path she is to pursue for the rest of her life. This is a good film as it involves an artistic puppetry few people from outside Indonesia know about. It also reminds you that this desire to pursue your dream with the pressure from others to pursue something more bankable and steady is universal. It transcends cultures and borders. The dream to pursue one’s dream is universal. Despite the story taking place half a world away, one can relate to the story.

-Together (South Korea/Canada – dir. Albert Shin): It’s a seaside motel in South Korea. Two strangers who met online with fake names, a young-adult female who goes by the name Happy Virus and a middle-aged male who goes by Rabbit Doll X, are there. They are here for one reason: a suicide pact. Both have a cooking element and chemicals ready to do the job. During the time there, they talk about their lives and what they’ve been through. They take an interest in each other and even laugh and have a mini-party of just the two of them. It gets to the point the woman feels she can’t go through with this.

This is a story by Korean-Canadian director Albert Shin that treads on a serious subject matter. It’s of a common thing in South Korea of the type of suicide pact where two strangers with suicidal feelings meet online to commit their suicide together. Shin taps into human feelings as well as ethics and morals. In the end, he delivers a story that goes from potentially tragic to life-affirming in the end.

Overall these seven shorts have their differences, but they share a lot in common. All are from either Canadian directors or students in Canada. Some are documentaries or docudramas, while some are live-action. Most are in English while two are in different languages. All speak a message about the human spirit and human feeling.

Each of the seven films of the VIFF Shorts Segment Programme 3 either contain an aspect of life that we can all relate to or they will open our eyes. All of them are valuable to watch. I’m glad I had the chance.