29th 11 - 2015 | no comment »

James White (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Josh Mond

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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.

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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?

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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.


11th 10 - 2015 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2015: Chronic (2015)

Director/Screenwriter: Michel Franco

2015 Chicago International Film Festival

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Mexican director Michel Franco is a man whose creative brief is life and death. His clear-eyed look at grief, bullying, and retribution, After Lucia (2012), is something of a modern horror masterpiece made all the more terrifying because the behaviors on which it focuses are all too human. In his new feature, Chronic, winner of the best screenplay at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, Franco again takes unblinking aim at a chronic condition of the human animal—mortality.

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David (Tim Roth) is a home health nurse working for a Los Angeles agency catering to a wealthy clientele. When we first see him, he’s parked outside a house waiting for a young woman to emerge. When she does, he follows her car to a college campus. Then he takes off for work. Next, we see a wasted woman (Rachel Pickup) leaning motionless against a tiled wall as a handheld shower head positioned near her sprays water on her naked body. David steps into the frame and repeatedly squeezes soapy water from a sponge onto her body, as much for her physical comfort as to clean her. His cheerful efficiency and calm command are a balm to Sarah, who is his patient, and her sister (Kari Coleman) and her sister’s family when they pay what very well could be their last visit to her. When David goes home, he visits the Facebook page of a young woman named Nadia Wilson (Sarah Sutherland) and scrolls through her photos, an action he will repeat several times during the film. Was this the woman he followed from her home?

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Over the next few days, David sits with Sarah, fixing her a bit of food, helping her stand, putting her in a wheelchair, getting her into her nightgown. One morning, he arrives for work and finds that Sarah has died. Angry that the night nurse has not washed her because the family told her not to touch Sarah, he slams into Sarah’s bedroom, shuts the door, washes her lifeless body, and puts a nightgown on her—a rather grisly echo of our first encounter with the dying woman and her caregiver. That evening, after his usual run on the treadmill at his gym, he goes to a bar. A couple who have just become engaged buy him a shot to toast their good news. When asked if he’s married, he says he was but that his wife died quite recently. Her name was Sarah. The three toast Sarah instead of the engagement.

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What are we to make of David? He seems like a man looking at life from the outside, as though some part of him is dead or on life support and using his work to connect with others like himself. Even more, the fact that dying people allow him the privilege of journeying with them to the end makes his declarations that they are members of his family quite plausible. It’s not easy for the actual families of the dying to make that connection, which arouses their jealousy, and one of his patients, Marta (Robin Bartlett), aware of the mutual dependency that has developed between them, uses it to manipulate him to help her die.

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Franco reveals David’s backstory slowly, not allowing us to put the pieces together quickly or easily and not resolving questions that arise from our newfound knowledge. His is a fly-on-the-wall approach that uses static framing to observe actions loaded with meaning for the characters but that go unnoticed to anyone outside their circle. As with After Lucia, a hidden grief leads to psychological disaster and is at least partially responsible for David’s too-close contact with his patients—a stark contrast with the detachment of real caregivers similarly observed by documentarian Frederick Wiseman in his brilliant Near Death (1989)—as well as an estrangement from closer engagement. When Sarah’s niece (Maribeth Monroe) tries to talk with David about her aunt at the cemetery following her funeral, he refuses to speak with her—her need is more than he can bear.

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Tim Roth is beyond brilliant, containing his emotions behind a brittle wall that cracks only once, heartbreakingly. His quiet, compassionate approach to his patients makes death a bearable event. For example, as he washes Sarah, he doesn’t shrink from her limp, skeletal corpse, which requires his careful manipulation. When he helps Marta die, he works quickly and without hesitation to push four syringes of a drug that will arrest her heart into a catheter in her neck. I don’t know how Pickup was able to look so convincingly dead, but she betrayed not a sign of life, and Bartlett’s stillness was a model of how death can move gently, imperceptibly over life. Michael Cristofer, Bitsie Tulloch, and Tate Ellington were all terrific as stroke patient John and his grown children, the latter of whom are grateful and then hostile toward David.

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Finally, the ending of this film has been criticized by some as abrupt, unsatisfying, or a failure of imagination. It is abrupt, but it is entirely consonant with the theme of the film and the many ways that death is the ultimate leveler. In giving us films that make us think and help us negotiate the big questions of our lives, Michel Franco is an incredibly brave and committed artist. His films are priceless gifts to us all.

Chronic screens Wednesday, October 21 at 8:15 p.m., Thursday October 22 at 8:30 p.m., and Monday, October 26 at 12:30 p.m. at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Clever: A divorced martial arts instructor pursues the reconstruction of his ego with a custom paint job on his car in this knowing comedy about human foibles. (Uruguay)

Adama: This ingeniously animated coming-of-age story takes a West African boy from his sheltered village to the very heart of darkness—the battlefield of Verdun during World War I—to bring his older brother home. (France)

How to Win Enemies: On the eve of his brother’s wedding, a lawyer is drawn into investigating a theft that hits close to home in this comedy set in the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. (Argentina)

Women He’s Undressed: Renowned director Gillian Armstrong offers an entertaining, partially dramatized documentary about Australian costume designer Orry-Kelly, who dressed some of the biggest stars in Hollywood. (Australia)


27th 06 - 2015 | 1 comment »

Near Death (1989)

Director: Frederick Wiseman

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By Marilyn Ferdinand

Among the documentarians whose films are hallowed by critics and audiences alike, perhaps none stand taller than Frederick Wiseman. A fly-on-the-wall chronicler of subjects as varied as the University of California at Berkeley, the New York City Ballet, the Panamanian Canal Zone, and Long Island’s Belmont Park racetrack, Wiseman demonstrates again and again that those entities we call institutions are, in fact, human expressions, organizing principles for social intercourse. At the perhaps not-incidental age of 60, Wiseman chose to spend several months filming the denizens of the medical intensive care unit (MICU) at Beth Israel Hospital in his home town of Boston. His interest was more specific than the workings of an MICU, however—he fixed his gaze only upon dying patients. Thus, Near Death looks at the modern approach to the end of life and the clinicians who work near death on a regular basis.

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Health care has come a long way in less than 100 years. The discovery of penicillin in 1929 heralded an age of miracle drugs that eradicated the death sentences previously dealt by many infectious diseases. Further advances in medicine, medical technology, and surgery have increased the life expectancy and vigor of the aged; today, the United States has more centenarians than any other nation—53,364 reported in the 2010 census, or 17.3 per 100,000 people. Health care has become a consumer-driven industry from which we have come to expect a fix for every ailment from infertility to paralysis. The formerly unimaginable ability to prolong life after a person’s vital functions have failed is a particularly acute one for Beth Israel’s MICU clinicians.

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Just what constitutes life and death had become a real muddle by the time Wiseman began this film. He shows MICU nurses participating in an ethics training group discuss the difficulty family members have understanding that “brain dead” means “dead” because they see their loved ones breathing with the aid of a respirator. The growth of the hospice care movement since the 1990s has eased this confusion and offered a real alternative to patients and families searching for a more consistent and peaceful end-of-life care plan. None of the clinicians in this film seem to think that prolonging life at any cost is humane, but Wiseman gives us room to consider whether they might sometimes be in too big a rush to throw in the towel.

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Bernice Factor, a stroke victim who cannot speak, was admitted to the MICU after her breathing proved inadequate to sustain her. A tube was inserted down her windpipe through her nose and attached to a ventilator to support her breathing. This is the seventh time Mrs. Factor has undergone the painful procedure of temporary intubation, and the clinical staff discuss creating a permanent airway for their tubes via a tracheostomy in her neck. After telling a nurse and the attending physician, a pulmonary specialist named Dr. Weiss, that she doesn’t want a tracheostomy or further intubation should she stop breathing after the tube is removed—in effect, that she wants to be allowed to die naturally—her long-time physician, Dr. Curlin, goes to see her and finds her to have grown more ambivalent about her decision.

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Mrs. Factor is not truly terminal in the sense that prolonging her life is pointless—she can still communicate and share time with her devoted husband—thus Dr. Weiss seems to have jumped too far forward in thinking that he understood the clear wishes of the patient. To further illustrate this point, Mrs. Factor’s story follows one in which a dying patient named Mr. Gavin and his family are told at least five times in exhaustive detail about treatment options and the consequences of a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order, even though the patient has a living will stating his wish to be allowed to die with dignity. Although these discussions get a bit tedious for the viewer, they are vitally important to include to illustrate how difficult it is to help people in crisis to reach a rational decision, particularly when the decision will lead to death.

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At the time this film was made, Beth Israel’s policy of including patients and families in all treatment decisions was not routine in the medical community, and it’s clear that some of the clinicians find it frustrating. We hear Dr. Weiss say what many had long suspected—that lethal doses of morphine were administered to patients who were “imminent.” Behind this seemingly cold-blooded “angel of death” approach are philosophical questions that clinicians face every day and that society at large has yet to come to grips with: Are we managing patients’ lives or manipulating their deaths for our own emotional ends?

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In the film, Dr. Taylor is the individual who provides a bridge for the audience between the clinicians and the patients and their families. A man who can speak frankly about death to his colleagues, he shows seemingly infinite patience as he listens carefully to Mrs. Sperazzo as she goes over the choices for her beloved husband Charlie. She is a sweet, old woman who breaks down in tears frequently as she contemplates life without Charlie, but she affirms to Dr. Taylor that she understands what he is saying about working not toward Charlie’s recovery, which is unlikely, but toward his comfort. Dr. Taylor, choosing his words carefully, never rules out the possibility of a miracle, never claims 100 percent certainty about Charlie’s prognosis, but helps ease Mrs. Sperazzo toward acceptance of the inevitable. Wiseman’s carefully tuned ear offers as much dignity to her in his edit of Near Death as he tries to offer to the gravely ill patients on the MICU—both are sometimes robbed of their humanity by the machines that engulf them and the medical professionals who dismiss their intelligence and emotional struggles.

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Although the core of Near Death is death’s approach, the film inevitably spills into the after-death activities at Beth Israel, including showing nurses move a body discreetly through the hospital corridors and into a drawer in the morgue. We see only one of Wiseman’s subjects beyond death, Mr. Cabra, a 33-year-old Latino father of three who successfully fought testicular cancer. He returns to the hospital in rapidly failing health and is eventually found to have fibroids in his lungs, a rare side effect of gliomycin, the drug used to treat his cancer. He will never be able to breathe with his own lungs again, and his wife bravely agrees to a DNR order and donates his body to science. The end point of this tragedy, as an MICU nurse accurately describes it, is knowledge for a medical school class that has a chance to examine his lungs.

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With a running time of 6 hours, Near Death is Wiseman’s longest film. Through his compassionate, unblinking gaze we become attuned to the rhythms of the MICU, the regular comings and goings of the orderlies appearing to pick up the trash and wipe down the rooms and floors, the nurses giving report on their patients’ status to the next shift, the meetings and grand rounds of clinicians, the beeps and displays of monitors and infusion devices. Wiseman gets exceedingly lucky in recording a snippet of diagetic music, the Nino Rota/Eugene Walter love song “What Is a Youth” from Franco Zefferelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968). The lyrics provide a wistful commentary on the human drama unfolding on the screen:

What is a youth? Impetuous fire.
What is a maid? Ice and desire.
The world wags on,
a rose will bloom….
It then will fade:
so does a youth,
so does the fairest maid.

Death will come soon to hush us along.

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Wiseman’s deep engagement with this most primal of subjects avoids the romance of Romeo and Juliet, but reveals the peculiar kind of love of humanity these sometimes brusque clinicians must have to face down death every day of their working lives. By escorting us through their world, Wiseman largely succeeds in getting us past the kind of morbidity that causes most of us to crane our necks toward a car accident and breathe an uneasy sigh of relief that it was someone else, not us, who was unlucky—this time.


26th 04 - 2010 | 6 comments »

Departures (Okuribito, 2008)

Director: Yôjirô Takita

Roger Ebert’s Film Festival 2010

By Marilyn Ferdinand

Many of the films many of us see are filled with death. War movies, detective and serial killer movies, fantasy and action films—and above all, horror movies—entertain us in one way or another by strewing the screen with corpses. It is the rare film, however, that actually deals with death as a rite of passage that all human beings will face. It’s easier to watch troops get mowed down somehow than it is to consider our own extinction. It’s a shame, really, that people rarely turn to the movies for instruction on how to die, because there are some great features and documentaries out there that could help us learn about our own mortality and create a fairly comfortable space for it in our thoughts and lives.

Departures, the 2009 Best Foreign Film Oscar winner, is one such film. A gentle, often humorous look at death that explores not only grief and reconciliation, but also the commonplace needs of the dead and their families, Departures focuses on one man’s passage from one way of life to another—one in which he ritually prepares bodies for burial.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a cellist for a Tokyo orchestra. We watch as the musicians perform the rousing finale to Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and then learn after the performance that the bankrupt orchestra is being dissolved. Daigo breaks the news to his sweet wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue), and they decide to move to his hometown, where he has a paid-for home his deceased mother left him in her will. Daigo sells his expensive cello, which he cannot afford to pay off, with a sigh of relief, feeling he was never a good enough cellist for the instrument. It’s time for a new kind of life.

Daigo sees a help-wanted ad in the local paper for someone to handle departures for a firm called NK Agency. The ad promises great pay and short hours. Thinking it must be a travel agency, Daigo arranges an interview with the owner, Ikuei Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki). He enters the establishment, and meets Yuriko (Kimiko Yo), the office manager, who tells him to have a seat. Directly in his line of sight are three wooden coffins. When Mr. Sasaki arrives, Daigo hands him his resume. Sasaki shoves it aside, looks at him closely, and asks him if he will work hard. When Daigo says “yes,” Sasaki hires him at a very handsome salary. When Daigo asks what the job entails, Sasaki merely says, “You’ll be my assistant.”

It isn’t until the next day, when Daigo is told to meet Sasaki at a theatre, that he learns what he is to do. Sasaki uses him as a demonstration model for an instructional video on encoffinment, showing how to pack the cavities of the body for burial, how to shave and handle necrotic skin, and how to dress and apply make-up to corpses. NK, it turns out, stands for “nokan” (encoffinment), and the ad should have said “the departed” rather than “departures.” When the next job involves handling a body that has been decomposing for two weeks, Daigo loses his cookies and very nearly quits, that is, until he goes with Sasaki to a proper funeral and watches the careful attention his boss pays to the corpse and the relief and gratitude the grieving family experience. He takes pride in the comfort he can bring to people and the reverence he can show for the deceased—but he keeps the nature of his work a secret from Mika, fearing she will be repulsed. When she does finally find out, she basically says, “your job or me.” When Daigo chooses his job, Mika leaves him.

Departures zeroes in on the passages of Daigo’s life in a way that universalizes the progression of life from birth to death. Daigo, in the middle of his life, has written off in bitterness the father who left him and his mother when Daigo was 6, and he failed to attend his mother’s funeral. Finding in Sasaki a surrogate father in whose shoes he can follow, he regresses somewhat and lets go of his adult life with Mika. Invited by Sasaki to share dinner with him after Mika’s departure, Daigo observes Sasaki’s lingering sadness over his wife’s death nine years before. He starts learning lessons his own father never had time to teach him and relearning some he did, such as returning to the cello he learned on when he was a child. Eventually, Daigo becomes reconciled to his past and ready to move forward as an adult.

The film mixes a bit of pathos with comedy, such as Daigo’s bewilderment at his role in the training video; Daigo’s first corpse preparation, when he learns the young woman he is washing is actually a man; and a full-scale fight among members of a family that blame each other for the death they are grieving. Although the story is somewhat predictable and broadly sketched, the fine performances of Motoki and especially Yamazaki as Daigo and Sasaki ground this film and keep it from flying away with the first strong gust of wind.

Director Takita provides some gorgeous “pillow shots” that show the beauty of nature, making death seem a natural part of life and encouraging audiences not to turn away from it. In the Q&A Takita mentioned a happenstance by which he first learned of the encoffinment profession and his own advancing age as spurs to his desire to make this film. I’ve seen better films on death and dying than Departures, but perhaps none as sweet and accessible. l

Q&A with Yôjirô Takita


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