Still Max at Hot Docs, online

By Jon Claytor

Still Max, screening online this week at Hot Docs, is a documentary about art, play, love, aging, cancer and the seventy-one year old Canadian artist Max Dean. He has made his recent diagnosis of prostate cancer the centre of his work and it is a decision that seems at once stoic and playful. Director Katherine Knight and cinematographer John Price maintain a tone of distanced observation with shots that are clean, clinical, and precise. Theirs is an almost scientific approach that, like the operating theatre featured in Dean’s new work, acts as a pristine and methodical space where things normally hidden may be revealed. As medical expertise and instruments reveal the artist’s cancer, the film creates a place where we can see how art mediates his experience of a possibly life-threatening disease. We are shown how Dean and his partner, artist Martha Fleury (who has ovarian cancer), take their diagnosis and prognosis, and turn them into lovingly playful artistic games. Dean is shown to be someone who can’t resist toying with the good and bad elements of his life. Moving, as he says, “the negative into the positive.” Yet in doing so, many questions are raised. How do you make art about cancer? How do you find hope in illness? How do you stay youthful in old age? Why not give up? Knight directs with a quiet intelligence, stepping back to allow her camera to reveal the answers.

Max Dean, The Gross Clinic, 2016

How does one make art about his prostate cancer? Dean starts by rummaging through the corroding remnants of an Ontario Place amusement ride. Then he uses the remains of animatronic robots from that ride to recreate the medical team in Thomas Eakins’ The Gross Clinic (a painting from 1875 that depicts an active operating theatre). Dean’s status as the Canadian godfather of robotic art comes into play here as he assembles an alternate world of “fake” doctors to treat his disease. This pseudo medical team of life-sized action figures turns his diagnosis into a game. Much of Dean’s work is essentially asking us to make a choice. Do we want the real? The living doctors and dangerous surgery? Or do we choose the artificial? The mannequin doctors and improvised treatments? Do we want reality or make believe? Which will cure the disease and which will cure the soul? When he first provides his diagnosis, the artist’s doctor, Lawrence Klotz, says, “You should treat this as a pseudo cancer. It’s part of the aging process.” He probably didn’t think his patient would take it so literally, but  Dean clearly needs make-believe to survive.

Max Dean, Water Fight, 2020

The film’s answer to the question, “How do you make art about prostate cancer?” could be summed up in one word: play. At the same time this answers another question: “What is art?” For Dean the answer is clear: art also equals play. And Fleury matches his inquisitive sense of wonder. They are like teenagers bonding over a similar world view as they work side by side, building a creative life together. They make it seem as though life can be art, art can be a game, and the game need not end. At one point Dean even expresses a desire that the film not end. Knight underlines this attitude with beautiful images of a demolition as we hear Dean say, “We are all in the middle of a changing story. It’s just a matter of how much we want to admit it.”

Max Dean, The Agnew Clinic

Max Dean is the age of my father. I am twenty-two years their junior. I see in my father and Dean, a glimpse of my not so distant future. They both have found answers to the questions I am still asking myself. How do you live a meaningful life? What role do I play in this chaotic existence? Is there meaning in my actions, my thoughts, my friendships? What is art anyway? Unable to find my answers, I’ve tried changing jobs, quitting art, moving, and all sorts of other things in search of a blueprint for life. I admire Dean for finding his solutions. In this film we see him make a game of everything that life throws at him. It’s optimistic and maybe even brave to be so playful. As Dean says, “What we get to see, what we get to do, how we get to play, for me that is what it is all about, that is why I do it.”

Hot Docs continues until May 9.
Hot Docs 2021: https://www.hotdocs.ca/p/hot-docs-festival

Jon Claytor is an artist living and working in Sackville, New Brunswick. He is the co-founder of Sappyfest and Thunder & Lightning Ideas Ltd.