Friday, 28 March 2014

Things I learned during March Break

The corridors leading to the exhibits at the National
Gallery. It's a slow incline and is rarely this deserted.
March Break is usually pretty grim in Hades, but younger daughter gets two weeks off from her independent school.  We generally spend the first week catching up on movies, because the museums are crammed with kids from the regular school system -- usually in March Break day camps, so they're there under duress and often with not quite enough supervision. It can be a bit of a zoo.

In the second week, we hit the museums because Hades, being The National Capital, is rife with them. We found them well-attended (lots of university and school groups doing special tours and scavenger hunts), but less zoological.

Younger daughter has been snappish and short-tempered.  For the past five years, the catch-phrase in our household has been:  "Is it autism or adolescence?"  This year an exacerbating factor has been The Winter That Won't Leave.  The whole city has been in the doldrums for over a month.  We've actually had longer winters and colder winters, but this one has had a depressing persistent sameness that has worn everyone down.

Younger daughter seems to be in perpetual fear of another White Easter, like the one we had in 2008. Elder daughter flew off with her class to Europe between blizzards and enthusiastically described the turquoise waters off Cassis as I held the phone in my slackening hand and gazed out at the three-foot drifts on the deck.  Mind you, Easter was early that year and is not until late April this year, so we should be safe.  That's what I keep telling younger daughter.

Anyway, we must grasp what grace and beauty we can, even in the midst of this off-white (and downright dirty) limbo in which we find ourselves.  Keats tells me that all I need to know is that beauty and truth are one and the same, so here are things I've learned during March Break:

1.  John Ruskin, whom I knew superficially as a writer and critic, was one hell of a sketcher and watercolourist.  There's a visiting exhibit about him at the National Gallery of Canada this "spring".  Here's an overview of the exhibition, which focuses mainly on his architectural preservation work. The video excludes, alas, his amazing nature drawings and paintings.  I've dabbled in watercolour and know that the crispness and detail here ain't easy in that medium. The fellows here do natter on a bit; I'd just focus on the paintings and ignore the first couple of minutes. Ruskin was a photographer too -- did you know that?  In short, I went to the gallery feeling vaguely interested and came away stunned.  If you're in Ottawa before May 11th, do go see it!

2.  The 40 Part Motet art installation by artist Janet Cardiff has been to the National Gallery before, because  a)  it is amazing; and b)  the gallery has an actual historical chapel restored and reconstructed off the indoor garden which is the ideal space to set up forty individual speakers so you can wander around or sit in the centre of a flood of Thomas Tallis.  This video is in a less ideal space, but the roaming camera gives you an idea of how you can get close to the separate voices: 
However, that is not what I learned.

I've had a sore knee since before Christmas and am beginning to despair that it will ever entirely go away, so I had to sit down and rest while the Resident Fan Boy and younger daughter zoomed off to the Modern galleries. The motet is on repeat, of course and I gradually became aware that the babble in the Rideau Chapel was rather louder than it should be for the half a dozen people visiting at the time. I realized that the installation includes the conversation of the singers as they wait to begin. I got up and limped around the circle of speakers, hearing someone warming up, two baritones joking and shooting the breeze, etc. Then the singing began again, in small groups taking turns before all forty voices filled the chapel with tsunamis of sound.


3. The renaming of the Museum of Civilization which, as I've mentioned in a previous post, has annoyed elder daughter, has changed it not one whit.  We made it in to see a rather unimpressive exhibit called "Snow"(which is about snow), and I discovered I'd actually seen the IMAX film on Kenya before.  However, they have a wonderful new bistro, an extra balm to the spirit since the food in the downstairs cafeteria has been dropping precipitously in quality over the past few years.

4.  The Museum of Nature, a favourite of younger daughter's due to its beautifully renovated exhibits on wildlife, marine life, and dinosaurs (also its close proximity to the Elgin Street Diner), has actually quite a beautiful basement, featuring what they call a Stone Wall Gallery and a 3D theatre. In our past visits we've always used the upper floor washrooms, so this was a pleasant surprise.  We'll have to take in a film sometime.

5. I already knew from past experience, that sometimes one of the most interesting (and indeed devastating) exhibits can be hiding down the little corridor just behind the grim but clean washrooms beyond the Hall of Honour at the Canadian War Museum (another rather inexplicable favourite of younger daughter).  This time we were lucky to catch a tiny display devoted to Ansel Adams and Leonard Frank and their work recording the plight of Japanese-Americans (Adams) and Japanese-Canadians (Frank) -  when citizens of the USA and Canada were rounded up, dispossessed, and placed in internment camps because they or their ancestors happened to be Japanese.  I had long been familiar with the photography of Ansel Adams; I even attempted to replicate his famous photo of the church in Bodega, California when I was staying there the summer before the advent of elder daughter, but I was unfamiliar with this aspect of his work and knew nothing, I'm afraid, of Leonard Frank.  This was the last week of the display; I'm glad we saw it.  (And am even more hopping mad about the subject.)

6. Being close to the Bytowne Cinema, we have seen the collection of Oscar-nominated animated shorts in past year and enjoyed it again this year.  However, I've never seen the nominated short live-action films, and after seeing this batch, I'd like to do it again next year, though I really wish we could see these compilations before the awards ceremony.

Three of the films are about half an hour each, one is about fifteen minutes and one is about eight minutes. As with the feature films, it's difficult to say which one is "best", because it's very much an apple and oranges situation.

Helium, the Danish winner of the Oscar, is a gentle film about a children's hospice which I sat through dry-eyed until the very last image which hit me in the solar plexus and left me struggling for control while waiting for the next film.   The Voorman Problem (England) is one of the shorter films; it feels very much like something from The Twilight Zone and stars Martin Freeman as a psychologist confronting a prisoner who claims to be a deity.  Do I Have to Do Everything? is also very short, very funny and features a Finnish family struggling through disasters to get to a wedding.  The Spanish production That Wasn't Me was the hardest to stomach, being about child soldiers and serving up a graphic rape scene which I wasn't expecting, sitting there with my seventeen-year-old special needs daughter.

The film that continues to live with me is Just Before Losing Everything which takes a seemingly ordinary day in small-town France and gradually heightens the tension as a woman's break for safety from her abusive husband leads to and through her workplace.  The understated performances and the ambiguous ending are haunting, as is the knowledge that this is happening around the corner, every day.

So, while truth and beauty cannot removed the sting of a relentless winter, nor the heartbreak of a young girl who clearly didn't want to go back to school, I can only imagine how bleak March would have been without some helpings of food for the soul.

Perhaps it's better not to imagine it.