Archive for June, 2010

An unfortunate trend with cancer movies is that no one makes movies about people being cured. They hardly even bring the idea of remission into the picture. Admittedly I don’t have a vast knowledge of cinematic history, so I may be unaware of movies about healing from cancer. I think this is unfortunate because there are beautiful experiences all the time with people who are cured or have substantial remission after treatment. In fact, from my experience it is more common for people with cancer to survive for months or years on various treatments, outliving the initial prognosis. The big question is not how you die, but how you live during that period of grace.

Is it possible for screenwriters to make use of the cancer experience in any other way than to manipulate audiences? In some cases, yes. There are painfully realistic movies about cancer (I’ll get to those another time), and then there are thoughtful movies that show the reactions of people living with a terminal illness. Two favorites are a fairly well-known big studio film, One True Thing, and a little-known indie film, My Life Without Me.

Both films explore stories in which the cancer patient has to choose how to sort out family conflict, personal needs, and a terminal diagnosis. What appeals to me in particular is that the characters’ choices don’t seem logical or predictable in these movies. If I’ve learned anything from my cancer friends, it’s that the choices we make rarely fit the expectations of the people around us. They often seem counter-intuitive. But there’s a certain logic to our choices. In both of these movies the characters are absolutely true to life in their cancer experience. If I’m not mistaken, both story writers have personal experience with a close family member’s cancer, so it makes sense that they get the emotional side right.

One True Thing has a powerhouse cast at the core of the story: William Hurt, Meryl Streep, and a young Renée Zellweger. Streep is radiant in her pain, maybe a little too radiant at times to be realistic, but I like how she maintains a core commitment to her own happiness no matter what is going on around her. She balances the vulnerability that comes with failing health and the need to make something out of the time she has left. As with many of her roles, she becomes the cancer survivor we all wish we could be.

The plot centers around family relationships that are threatened during the wife/mother’s terminal illness. Zellweger, as the adult daughter who is asked to return home to care for her mother, is caught in the middle of her parents’ separate choices. While Streep’s character is sweet with a subtle depth that becomes apparent toward the end, and Hurt is in the thankless position of playing the overly intellectual spouse of questionable integrity, Zellweger is given the task of mediating between the two, trying to find her own sense of integrity while still respecting both her parents’ choices. The movie beautifully shows how family members dealing with a loved one’s terminal illness don’t make consistent choices, or logical ones. They don’t know how to react to all the uncertainty and grief and loss and unfinished business.

As the movie progresses we see how the relationship between Hurt and Streep has been strained on different levels. There’s the obvious issue of dealing with the illness, but more powerful for me is the need to resolve lifelong issues that may otherwise have been kept under the surface. You can see the pain driving them away from each other, and you see them grieving individually. It seems very true to life that their fear nearly overwhelms them while they can hardly communicate with each other. In the middle of this pain, their daughter struggles to either help or understand.

In the ending of the film, the characters resolve a question that was hinted at in the opening scenes and then largely ignored until the end. That need to find a common answer to a mystery seems to parallel the many questions that cancer survivors and loved ones try to resolve as they deal with an unpredictable disease. Why do cancer survivors make the choices they do? And why do their families react in such unpredictable ways? How do you make sense of the experience? And how can you find resolution in relationships that have been stretched to the breaking point?

A smaller scale movie, My Life Without Me, asks a similar question about the central character. This independent film is directed by Isabelle Coixet, who has made several movies with a similarly narrow focus and questioning attitude. Our main character, Ann, is a very young mother of two who lives in a trailer in her mother’s backyard, working a late shift as a janitor and trying to juggle childrearing duties with her unemployed husband.

When she feels ill and goes to a hospital, she waits for hours, only to finally be told that she has an incurable cancer. While the details of this diagnosis are a bit vague, if you can withhold judgment on that scene, her story unfolds beautifully. I like the quirky doctor who delivers the news and becomes her accomplice, because he’s definitely not a stereotypical cancer doc. He is unusually empathetic, which of course I like too. And he says what you wish every doctor in the world had the good sense to tell their patients up front: “Medicine has terrible limitations.”

The story is a sort of anti-Bucket List: Ann makes a short list of things she has regretted in life and decides to do what she can in the short time she has left. And most surprisingly, she chooses to tell no one of her diagnosis. (Again, you’ll need to withhold judgment on whether that would be possible.) On the surface that seems absurd, but the story (based on a story by Nanci Kincaid) is a unique character study of people who are not particularly sympathetic or even likeable. Still, the movie mines all the nuances of this woman’s choices in a way that struck me as very believable.

Possibly more than any film I’ve seen, the characterization of Ann leads to a believable cancer story. When I first saw the film, I paused the DVD and wrote down snippets of dialogue (and some voiceover monologues by the main character) that spoke clearly to my own uncertainties and frustrations at the time. (A favorite quote: “Nobody ever thinks about death in a supermarket.” Trust me, it makes sense in the movie.) Some aspects of the movie don’t seem realistic, but if you let go of the details and follow the inner experience of the main character, you get a touching and surprising look at the reality of having your life shortened unexpectedly.

Another memorable quote says it all about a cancer diagnosis: “Alone. You’re alone. You’ve never been so alone in your whole life.” While the director takes some risks in making this movie, and throws in some odd details and interesting casting choices (a hairdresser obsessed with Milli Vanilli? Ann’s parents are played by Alfred Molina and Deborah Harry?), what she does admirably is capture that inner experience and the resolution that Ann chooses as she takes care of her unfinished business. Her choices are loving and generous, but selfish and illogical at the same time. The film comes together in a sad but loving way, and its great contribution is that it asks many questions of the viewer that are neither obvious nor easy.


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11 charming minutes

An amazing short animated film. Don’t know much about it except that it’s completely captivating, has a French title, and appears to be produced in Japan.

la maison en petits cubes

Update: my complete ignorance of world cinema is showing. This is a Japanese production from 2008 that won the best animated short Academy Award in 2009. And it absolutely deserved the award. I love this little film. Original title: Tusmiki no ie .

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