Archive for January, 2010

I’m no movie critic, but I’m becoming a connoisseur of cancer-themed movies, so it’s time for a series of reviews. Cancer is a mistreated topic in television and movies: it’s frequently distorted to fit the limitations of script-writing. Dramatic movie scripts don’t have room to show what it’s like to be diagnosed, go through treatment, wait for test results, experience periods of remission followed by recurrence—and still have time for anything else. Maybe you can do it justice in a documentary, a miniseries , or a full season of television, but not in a single movie.

Still, there are a handful of great movies about the cancer experience. Most focus on one aspect of serious illness or end-of-life issues while still remaining true to the unique experience of having cancer. If you’re lucky, they also have memorable, unique characters that are outside the Hollywood stereotypes. There are also great movies in which cancer plays a secondary role, movies that I think are worthwhile for giving cancer at least a prominent part in the script. And there are movies that misuse the cancer experience, turning it into a cliché, usually for sentimental effect.

My criteria for evaluating movies are based on the following themes:

  • The cancer experience: does it accurately portray what the actual experience of cancer is like?
  • Medical accuracy: is it true to the reality of medical treatment? or does it take shortcuts that run roughshod over medical facts?
  • Cancer as subject: is cancer a prominent part of the movie, or is it being used as a prop to move along a different story?
  • Grit vs. schmaltz: is the movie sentimental or painfully realistic?
  • Cliché count: Does the movie rely on clichéd, overused dialog, such as the old chestnut intoned by a somber physician: “I’m sorry, there’s nothing more we can do”?
  • Hope vs. despair: are you going to hate life or feel hopeful after seeing the movie?

There are better overall summaries of cancer in the movies, including two recommended essays: “The All-Cancer Film Festival” by Gary Sperling (Slate magazine, 2002), and “Reel Oncology: How Hollywood Films Portray Cancer” by Robert A. Clark, MD (Cancer Control journal, 1999). And intriguingly, there have been a couple of cancer-themed film festivals in the last few years, but I haven’t seen any of the films featured in them. While I don’t plan to review all the best-known cancer films, I’ll start with a couple of fairly well known movies to get things going.

Today’s big-screen smackdown: My Life, starring Michael Keaton and Nicole Kidman, versus Terms of Endearment, starring Shirley MacLaine and Debra Winger.

Terms of Endearment is one of the better-known films that use cancer as an important part of the plot. But it’s really a film about relationships: a mother and her daughter, playing out a crazy, manipulative life together as they move in and out of relationships with men. Late in the story, the daughter is diagnosed with terminal cancer, which leads to a certain level of resolution in the story. But she could have had any other illness or an accident to move the plot where it ends up; cancer is convenient because it takes a while for the patient to suffer and die–enough time to resolve the plot’s loose ends.

The movie has much to recommend, especially great performances by some great actors. But in Terms of Endearment, cancer’s just a word for “scary terminal illness.” (See also the old TV movie Brian’s Song or that 1970 gem, Love Story. Or don’t see them. Unless you need a good cry over a sentimental story.)

Wikipedia has a great quote from playwright Rebecca Gilman that summarizes why Terms of Endearment isn’t much of a cancer film—and why cancer is almost always abused by screenwriters:

Look at Terms of Endearment. We’re going along and going along, and there’s not really a plot. Then…oh, she gets cancer. You get it all the time when people don’t quite know what to do, and I think in those cases it is a shortcut to tragedy.

There really is no shortage of that kind of abuse in movies, so this is the first and last cancer-as-shorthand-for-scary-disease movie I’ll mention. I did want to bring it up because people still mention Terms of Endearment as a “cancer movie” when the topic comes up. But, no, it doesn’t make the cut for me.

So what do I recommend? How about another mainstream sort of film that made a meaningful statement about the cancer experience: My Life. Michael Keaton did this movie after his second Batman movie and before The Paper, while he was still a hot commodity (is it just me, or has anyone seen any of his movies after the mid-1990s?). This movie is notable for its blend of grit and sentimentality (heavier on the sentiment). It was typically reviewed with some disdain because of its focus on the emotional process that goes with a terminal diagnosis. Yes, it’s a major tearjerker, but Keaton does an admirable job of playing it straight and realistic. Nicole Kidman is a strong support as the wife who spends their last months together trying to find the real man instead of the superficial husband and public relations bigshot. And the writer (Bruce Joel Rubin) at least knew enough about cancer to mine some very real emotional truths while staying realistic.

The medical side of the story isn’t too detailed, but it’s accurate enough, and the dialog around the “there’s nothing more we can do for you” scene is handled gracefully (how many doctors are willing to say “medicine has some terrible limitations”?). What every cancer survivor cheers at is how Keaton handles the doctor’s recommendation to discontinue treatment. It’s so memorable to watch his face as he leaves the doctor’s office, then turns around in anger, barges into the clinic and confronts his physician. The key line, one of the best in my cancer film list, is: “You think you can take away my hope like that? Let me tell you something—that’s all I have!”

Although I’m not familiar enough with 1993-era medicine to know if the oncologist would really give up so soon after failing just one experimental treatment, I’m willing to overlook the medical brevity because of the emotional reality: you watch this man deal with the shock of a terminal diagnosis; you watch him battle with denying, disbelieving, and finally accepting that the cancer is terminal; and then you see him figure out how he wants to make the remainder of his life meaningful. Some reviewers were dismissive of the details, like his recording videos for his unborn son, but I think you can only dismiss that if you haven’t been touched closely by a similar experience.

Even with its somewhat golden, heavenly tone toward the end, My Life provides a strong sense of what it feels like to confront your own mortality. People with cancer do start out feeling invincible—they’re going to beat it! And sometimes they feel like giving up. And they do seek out weird alternative treatments when there’s nothing else available. They do things to ensure that their family has something to remember them by. And they hopefully make peace with the parts of their life that are unresolved. Go ahead, cry when you watch My Life. Bawl like a baby if you want. It gets the emotional reality just right, and it’s very much worth a look.


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a perfect pop song

I don’t do best-of lists (typical for this time of year), and I don’t like to rank songs and artists. I’m more of a generalist: there are good songs, great songs, and then there are absolutely untouchable songs that will always be perfect.

I found a classic TV clip of one of the perfect songs from the 1960s. I’m not sure which TV variety show it’s from, but I love the quirky stage design and Petula’s awkward stage presence (poor thing, they glued her shoes to the floor and she’s handling it with such grace 🙂 ).

Petula Clark won the 1965 Grammy for Rock n Roll song of the year, the first British woman to do so. I think this is one of those rare times that the Grammys got it right. Even though I was 5 years old when this came out and was more interested in the Beach Boys and the Beatles, I heard this song on the radio constantly. And later on I came to appreciate its sweet pop perfection.

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