29th 11 - 2015 | no comment »

James White (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Josh Mond


By Marilyn Ferdinand

I want to get one thing straight at the outset: I do not see James White as a movie about a self-destructive, self-centered, rich-ish 20-something who needs to grow up. The character of James White is not the problem that needs figuring out in this film. In fact, from where I sit, James White, as played brilliantly by Christopher Abbott, who is never offscreen, is a sensitive human being who feels everything so deeply and sees everything so clearly that he uses sex, drugs, and alcohol to beat reality back to a tolerable distance. James White is likely a difficult person to be with and live with because of how he deals with his sensitivity, but those who focus on these difficulties will miss the larger beauty of James and the film itself—the opportunity to understand how to behave when someone is grieving and how to undertake the sad privilege of caring for a dying loved one.

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We first meet James in a pulsating nightclub where the in-your-face glitz and noise form an insignificant background to the almost full-frame shots of James’ sweat-soaked face and hair as he gets visibly more wasted as time goes by. Eventually, the scene shifts to a nice apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan where his mother, Gail (Cynthia Nixon), is sitting shiva for James’ father, her ex-husband Barry (Scott Cohen). Nick (Scott Mescudi, who also provides the evocative score), James’ best friend from childhood, has flown in from Europe to lend his support, a support he must know James will need desperately in the weeks ahead. The shiva, a bizarre exercise given that Gail is not Jewish, is loaded with people from Barry’s life with his second wife, Karen (Sue Jean Kim), and friends of Gail’s who cruelly greet James with remarks like, “We always thought you’d end up in prison.” James and Nick leave the gathering to drink and find a couple of one-night stands to take to a hotel. When they return to Gail’s, the mourners are watching a tape of Karen and Barry’s wedding. Incensed at the insensitivity of this act toward his mother, James throws everyone out of the apartment. Very soon thereafter, he decamps to a posh Mexican resort with Nick, where he meets fellow New Yorker and future girlfriend Jayne (Makenzie Leigh), drops acid, and is called back home by a frantic Gail, who has learned that her cancer has returned.

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Josh Mond’s perceptive first feature is shot in a way that refuses us the comfort of distance. His extreme close-ups, handheld camera work, and honest dialogue force us into James’ world, a world of loss, pain, and above all, love. The searing first scene in the nightclub gives us no clue as to what kind of a man James is or what his story will be. We are as disoriented as he is, and Mond keeps us off balance throughout the film. There is no settling into a familiar narrative rhythm, as James remains constantly on the move, free-falling through what plot there is, making tentative connections episodically and living in the raw through sensorial experiences as oppositive as beatdowns and being beat off by Jayne. In Mexico, the ocean laps at him, and an LSD trip makes his excursion through a shopping mall almost tactile for the audience as he and his friends reach toward the colorful baubles on display in a kind of parody of the dazzling allure of acquisitiveness.


The painful truth of James’ life is his ironclad connection to his creative, dependent mother who raised him without the presence of James’ father to provide him with a strong sense of direction in life—indeed, James never even met his father’s second wife until the shiva. James, a would-be fiction writer who promises more than he has so far delivered in the way of actual work, seems stuck in place, but some of his paralysis is beyond his control. Gail excoriates him for being a slacker who lives off her, while in the same breath condemning him for not being where he says he will be, for not being there for her. In fact, James has given up long stretches of his life to care for her through her various bouts with cancer. We see just how much when he races home from Mexico to be her advocate, her caregiver, her son during her final illness. His extreme competence in taking care of his mother shows what skills he was required to hone during the time of life when newly mature adults are establishing career trajectories and looking to settle down. His friendly alliance with Gail’s home care nurses shows that he has this drill down pat, while subtly emphasizing that no one else in Gail’s life seems to be around to help carry the water. Cynthia Nixon’s beautifully off-balanced intensity completely sells the double-bind Gail has necessarily put James in.

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Mond moves into the intimate space of illness as we watch Gail remove her wig after the shiva to reveal a spiky, short hairdo that hints at the hair loss she experienced as a result of chemotherapy, and then in her gradual spiral to the end of her life. We see her embarrassment when she vomits suddenly, her temporary victory in getting her fever down, her helplessness when hospitalized with only James to scold the call nurse for not cleaning up the diarrhea she is sitting in. In the most touching scene I have seen in years, James is with Gail in their bathroom at home after she has just been sick. He asks her where she wants to be. Paris, she says. She leans her head on his chest as he starts to describe a beautiful life in the City of Light, where he lives with his wife and two children. She lives in her own apartment just a few doors away, close enough to visit frequently to play with her grandchildren and dine with them. It is in this moment that we see the essential utility of being able to escape, to pretend for a little while to get over the horrors of each moment leading to death. Who would be callous enough to deny either of them this harmless comfort?


Of course, escape for James and Gail is only temporary. Eventually, the reality of Gail’s imminent death results in a vigil of James, Nick, Jayne, and a number of the people who attended Barry’s shiva. Gail’s death rattle is frightening and so very final. James’ despair is almost too difficult to watch, but the aftermath offers us another dark chasm of uncertainty. Mond has softened the blow somewhat by writing in an editor (Ron Livingston) at New York Magazine who seems willing to hire James when he gets his act together, and the enduring presence of Jayne in James’ life is unexpected, but welcome.

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Nonetheless, James is alone. Whether he will weather this raging storm is very much in doubt, and that heartbreaking reality forms a coda to his sadly tenuous life.

6th 04 - 2007 | no comment »

God Said, “Ha!” (1998)

Director/Writer/Star: Julia Sweeney


By Marilyn Ferdinand

The 1980s will be remembered for many things—most of them bad—but one positive development of that go-go decade was the blossoming of comic monologues. Spalding Gray gave us Swimming to Cambodia, Lily Tomlin revealed the depth of her talents in The Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, and Billy Crystal created one memorable character after another in a variety of works.
I was dismayed when I caught the latest in this line of monologists, Sarah Silverman, in her filmed concert performance Sarah Silverman: Jesus Is Magic (2006). Silverman, like Tomlin and Crystal, creates a character, an uber-prejudiced, self-involved Jewish American Princess named Sarah Silverman. She is clearly a very gifted individual, but her act is so one-note that it loses its flavor after about 15 minutes. However, nasty sells these days, and her popularity is assured because she is a pretty woman who talks dirty.

After this painful experience, I needed something to cleanse my soul, and that brings me to former Saturday Night Live star Julia Sweeney and her warm and courageous monologue God Said, “Ha!” Over the course of 90 minutes, Sweeney tells us about 1994-1995, the worst year of her life.

She tells us that the year started very hopefully for her. Although she had just come off a divorce and her bomb of a movie It’s Pat, based on her gender-ambiguous character from SNL, her divorce was amicable and she looked forward to moving from New York to Los Angeles and into her newly purchased bungalow for one. Her idealized vision for her life was one of a sophisticated, strong, single woman and happy about it! Her fears come out, however, as she envisions being one of the active elderly, involved and admired by her neighbors for her independence—in other words, alone forever.

No sooner does she start her brave new life than her brother Mike is diagnosed with lymphoma. She moves him into her bungalow, and her parents come down from their home in Spokane and move in to help care for Mike. Julia has a lot of hand-me-down furniture from her parents. Thus, the experience is akin to moving back home. To Julia’s plans, “God said, ‘ha’!”

In the midst of this nightmare, Julia relates the comedy of family life in affectionate caricatures of her parents. For example, Mrs. Sweeney interrupts Julia’s work in the coach house behind the main house to ask her where her “mixes” are. Julia is baffled about this term. “You know,” she says in a nasal imitation of her mother, “your boxes of Hamburger Helper.” Pasta becomes noodles; marinara sauce becomes red topping. The 1950s live again for Julia, the would-be sophisticate.

The arrangement has its unforeseen benefits, however. When Julia begins a romance with Carl, a outdoorsy type from Idaho, she finds she has to sneak around her own place to have sex with him when he comes to Los Angeles for a visit. She finds herself saying things like, “My parents are so weird. Come on, let’s go neck in the coach house!” The unexpected titillation of the fear of discovery becomes a sweetly humorous memory when she finds that her parents purposely leave the house empty so Julia and Carl can have some privacy. Her apparently clueless parents are, in fact, adults, and that comes perhaps as no surprise to Julia.

The horrors of dealing with a very sick person aren’t glossed over, but the focus is on what Mike has to go through, not very much on her reactions or those of her family. I liked how she recognized that it is the patient who really does all the heavy lifting, and Mike’s procedures (chemo every other day through a spinal tap; a shunt placed directly into his skull) are gruesome to contemplate. Her life-goes-on approach is refreshing and hopeful for all of us who will one day face taking care of a dying loved one.

As Mike continues his downward slide, Julia discovers that she has a rare form of cervical cancer and must have a hysterectomy. The odds of this much pain coming in this short a time to one family is mind-boggling. That Julia can joke about a misplaced ovary and Mike can accuse her of trying to steal the cancer spotlight from him is testament to the beauty that can accompany our darkest moments.

Mike succumbs to cancer, though he has to have a psychologist brought in to help him let go of life. Julia survives to this day, still a single woman, an adoptive mother, stronger and in greater awe of the wonderful foundation of her family. I hope she’ll see fit to bring us an update on the Sweeney clan. The world needs some gentle and wise comic monologists today to give us hope and a good laugh. l

27th 03 - 2006 | 1 comment »

Our Backstreets #7: A Message for Nancy

By Marilyn Ferdinand

I got word a few weeks ago that cancer had struck my counselor Nancy. She said she was giving up her practice to concentrate on fighting her illness and hoped to come back to the work she loves at the end of a successful battle. I haven’t been to see Nancy in a while. All the hard work we did when I was digging my way out of a divorce and back into a happy and productive life, has long been over. A few smaller crises have come and gone. I guess I always thought that whenever I needed her, she’d tell me in her cheerful voice to come in.

Now I can’t do that, but I don’t feel sorry for myself. Nancy pushed me, coaxed me, cheered me, and taught me how to come out the other end of a bad situation better than before. She said that she had come to trust that I always seemed to know what was good for me and that I would always point my nose in the right direction, even if I got a little sidetracked on the way. So, yes, I know I can take care of myself.

I hope that my example helped Nancy, too. I saw us as a team, so I wanted to do my part. Nancy, you have shown me that your instincts are exceptional, which is why you are such a good counselor. And I, too, trust that you know what’s right for you. The world will miss you at work, doing your best to help people find their way. We are fighting alongside you in spirit and feel confident that you’ll be back, in your brightly colored outfits, with your feet on your foot stool, to share our stories with us.

POSTSCRIPT: Nancy lost her battle with cancer. I miss her.

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