In “Still Max,” an artist candidly questions a cancer diagnosis — his shock, fears, and treatment options, in candid interviews. He also shares his ways of working through these questions – a concept art project.
The subject of the film is Max Dean, an award-winning Canadian artist who works in installations with robotic elements. Though hard to categorize, but one example spun through the film is his “robotic chair” – in which a seemingly simple wooden piece of furniture falls apart and then, in a surprisingly touching way, begins to reassemble itself thanks to machines hidden in each member.
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At the start of the film, Dean explains the impetus that drove his career until he was 70 – he wants to “be caught off guard by (my) own work”. He discusses the courage it takes to stay in the world of contemporary art, where he is several generations older than the upstarts.
Like the “falling chair”, which is in its own way assaulted by a crisis it must resolve, director Katherine Knight’s film follows Dean in an existential moment. Warned that he has prostate cancer, he must weigh whether he will undergo surgery or undergo chemotherapy.
The film split into two installments at the Big Sky Documentary Film Festival – “The Art of Aging” and “For the Love of Art”.
Director Katherine Knight is a landscape art photographer who has made documentaries about contemporary artists. For those who might feel put off by the words “conceptual art”, it should be noted that although Dean’s work is very contemporary, he is an outspoken and insightful person who makes it clear how his art finds its origins in questions and daily concerns.
For example, the notion of having surgery evokes thoughts in Dean that perhaps we don’t think of too often – If something is open, is it always the same? Who thought of opening human bodies?
Since Dean is an artist, the logical endpoint of such thoughts is a series of paintings, some based on masterpieces.
He visits Ontario Place, an amusement park that houses an enclosed wilderness adventure ride, where tourists took a boat ride on a water chute and witnessed scenes from the territorial history staged by animatronic models. Now in poor condition and in literal pieces, he rescues them and brings them back to his workshop, where he and his assistants begin resuscitating them. (To keep up with his treatment, you need a team, he says, and those are his men.)
What these scenes might look like: A mannequin dressed as artist Thomas Eakins, famous for his paintings of surgery in the late 1800s. He has a scalpel ready to cut open Dean’s stomach. For reference, the model has a guide – a photograph of Dean’s torso, already cut open, his torso revealing vintage anatomical diagrams. (Dean, viewers know, isn’t afraid of his body.)
The film has nothing to do with COVID, but for audiences its themes might resonate – an unexpected calamity has appeared in Dean’s world, and he decides that, rather than hide his diagnosis, he must confront it head-on. forehead, through creative projects that may seem fanciful or frustrating at the time, but are therapeutic.
He and his partner, Martha Fleury, an accomplished painter, talk about meeting when they were both getting older and the need to find someone who was sensitive to the demands of their chosen professions. Halfway through the film, she experiences her own health crisis and the stressors increase.
Knight and cinematographer John Price cut between direct interviews with Dean, following him as he works on projects, including many scenes in which he appears to be performing parts specifically for the camera.
The final installation, rooted in the idea of a tumor, “an alien,” as he calls it, sees him unpack the layers of his illness and his life with ritualistic humility. As he probably hopes, it catches you off guard when you realize what he’s done.