A documentary on the life, art and death of perhaps Canada's most famous painter – 95 years dead this July! – West Wind has been making the festival rounds and having abbreviated screenings here and there since last fall. Now it's settling into the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto for a proper run.
It's a lovely piece of work from two of the country's most esteemed documentarians, Peter Raymont ( Shake Hands with the Devil) and Michèle Hozer ( Genius Within: The Inner Life of Glenn Gould). It's also very thorough, chock full of arresting archival footage and musings in voiceover (from letters, journals and old audio recordings) by sundry pals, patrons and relatives, plus on-camera interviews with a potpourri of present-day experts, aficionados and collectors.
And, of course, there's lots of art, courtesy of Thomson's powerful sketches and paintings (many shot in nose-to-the-canvas close-up) and the documentary's directors of photography, Neville Ottey and John Westhauser, whose cinematography of Thomson's woodland haunts effectively mimics the artist's palette and vision. Among the highlights: the presentation of what's believed to be the earliest known authenticated Thomson painting, a small landscape (naturally) completed circa 1904, when the 26-year-old Thomson was living in Seattle, and given to his then-girlfriend, Alice Lambert.
Unsurprisingly, most of the film's final 25 minutes (out of a total of 95) are taken up with the mystery of Thomson's death by drowning in Algonquin Park's Canoe Lake, and the disputes as to just where his remains are buried. Accident or murder? Raymont and Hozer seem to incline to the latter but discreetly so. Indeed, their film's greatest virtue is its concentration on Thomson the artist – his creative genius, the potency of his effects – and not his stature as one of Canada's most famous corpses.
If there's a big flaw to West Wind, it has less to do with the conventionality of its structure – a largely chronological narrative mixing archival material and recreations, voiceovers and talking heads, images of art and nature – than its hushed, sepulchral tone. There's little grit and grime here, no plagues of mosquitoes and black flies, no stinky lumberjack shirts, no cursing, no unwashed frying pans caked in black fat or fetid cabins fugged with tobacco smoke, and few references to knocking back bottle upon bottle of home-made hooch. It's all quite quiet, antiseptic even, the reverence echoed by a soundtrack of pining tin whistles and mournful cellos, harp glissandi and lonesome bird calls.
Another "flaw" resides with Thomson himself. He's described here (and elsewhere) as Canada's Keats, "our van Gogh." But as art historian Ross King, one of the film's interviewees, notes, Thomson was, contra Keats and van Gogh, not much of a talker or writer, his extant letters mostly catalogues of the quotidian. ("Last night we had quite a heavy thunder storm.... I got quite a lot done last winter and so far have got some pretty good stuff.")
As a result, the paintings are forced to be his autobiography, at least as far as they can suggest emotion, feeling, intention, the eloquence of his sensibility. Would that Raymont and Hozer or some other Thomson scholar had found a stash of heretofore unknown but revealing letters or, better still, a Thomson diary!
They didn't, of course, and likely no one ever will. And so, for all its care, West Wind is finally about a mystery wrapped in a smattering of facts and guesses, hints and interpretation.
West Wind: The Vision of Tom Thomson
- Directed by Michèle Hozer and Peter Raymont
- Classification: NA
- 3 stars