Apologia for these journals:
They are not about taking care of a relative with moderate to severe Alzheimer's/senile dementia.
For an explanation of what these journals are about, click the link above.
For internet sources that are about caring for relatives with moderate to severe
Alzheimer's/senile dementia, click through the Honorable Alzheimer's Blogs in my
links section to the right.
V[ery] T[ardy] R[eview]
Review begun 4/8/08
This morning I shipped back my through-the-mail rental copy of Away From Her, that movie which features a portrait of what Julie Christie would be like "on" Alzheimer's and about which everyone who has anything to say has already weighed in; the movie that, at least in my corner of the caregiver universe, aroused some surprisingly negative commentary, followed, a few months later, by a smaller but just as significant ruckus when the news media reported, in an attempt to be oh-so-sweetly-concerned, that Sandra Day O'Connor's husband, who was, by then, in assisted living due to his dementia, had "got a girlfriend" [quote from The American President, in which the only dementia suffered is the garden variety dementia of politicians].
I note from my queue that the movie was sent to me on October 7, 2007; thus, I received it, I'm sure, on October 8, precisely six months ago. In that I time watched it once when I received it and once again last night when I finally decided to write my review. In the meantime, I've read only one write-up about the movie (astonishing, for me)...the initial pre-release blurb in a local paper which initially aroused my interest to the point that I decided to seek out the Alice Munro story upon which it is very loosely based, The Bear Came Over the Mountain [the immediately previous link will take you to an online copy of the story, in case you want to read it].
By the time I watched the movie last October, I'd read the story twice. The pre-lease write-up led me to imagine the cast as the characters and, from the previews I'd seen, I was excited about seeing the story translated to film.
I was unpleasantly surprised. My problem with the movie, I'm sure, is that I read the short story first. You see, Alzheimer's is to the short story as toys are to Toy Story. Toys are a device in the movie, but the movie is not about toys. In The Bear Came Over the Mountain, Alzheimer's is a device, but the story is not about Alzheimer's. It isn't, really, even mainly about how Alzheimer's affects a relationship. Immediately after watching the movie my head was wobbling from the disconnect. I read the story again, then downloaded it and searched the text for two words, "Alzheimer's" and "dementia". Neither appeared in the story. Yesterday I downloaded the script of the movie and discovered that the word "Alzheimer's" appears thrice in the script. As I watched the movie I noticed one of the word's repetitions had been taken out but replaced with one of two scenes in which the co-stars are reading books about Alzheimer's, neither scene of which appears in the short story. On one of the books from which Fiona quotes, if you peer carefully at the small screen, you can just make out the title, The Forgetting, which includes in its subtitle, also visible on the small screen, the word "Alzheimer's". The movie is littered with with information about Alzheimer's passed from character to character and includes many scenes within the nursing home, not present in the original short story, that, I believe, are meant to inform the audience and create a bond between the movie and those in the audience whose lives have been rearranged by Alzheimer's. I daresay, considering the press the movie got after release, the tactic worked. My guess is that a good 50% of the movie is material not present in the short story but added to the previously mentioned purpose.
Why isn't this material present in the story? Well, the story isn't about Alzheimer's. It's about the question of love and betrayal and in a delicately complex construct reveals some surprising possibilities inherent in long-time, sturdy love and its attendant betrayals, obvious and oblique. The title, itself, reminds me of a Psychology 101 course I took in which, during a lecture on fear, the instructor chalked on the board the phrase, "I saw a bear and I was afraid." In the short story the bear is betrayal in love, but, even though Alzheimer's is often interpreted as a type of betrayal, albeit an of an innocent sort, and the short story doesn't disavow this possibility, the bear isn't Alzheimer's. I repeat, the story isn't about Alzheimer's. It's about discovering the nature of the bear and finding out, much to one's surprise, that one can not only live with bears but use them to the advantage of love. The movie, however, is clearly an Alzheimer's movie.
Much of what is simply considered in the story by the main character, Grant, is added to the movie as having happened; then, the movie adds even more. For instance:
- In the story, Grant considers what he might be willing to do to convince Marian to take her husband back to the nursing home, but we don't witness his decisions, whatever they are, acted out. Thus, the last "forsooken" scene, which is the same in both the movie and the short story, has added weight in the short story and its surprise made me laugh with delight and understanding. I'm not sure, had I not previously read the short story, that the last scene in the movie would have had the same impact on me.
- The nurse, Kristy, plays a very small role in the short story. The supervisor's role is even smaller. In the short story expanding their roles would have been intrusive. In the movie they function as heavy footed educators on behalf of Alzheimer's and heavy handed wielders of what the script writer perceives as the truths implicit in the story. I considered it much more enjoyable to discover the short story's truths on my own while reading and reflecting on it afterward. As well, the truths of the movie, I think, are different than the truths of the short story and, frankly, aren't nearly as true as those in the short story.
- The emphasis on light in the movie is absent in the short story. I believe there is a good reason for this and find the movie emphasis so obvious it is ridiculous.
- The movie insists that Grant is conflicted about his infidelities and comes right out and says that he wonders if his wife is, in her demented way, getting back at him through her perceived infidelity with Aubrey. The short story suggests that he does not consider this, but, rather, is reflecting on and reconsidering the concepts of infidelity and betrayal because of Fiona's dementia.
- Some of the "sweet" scenes in the movie are either additions or are elongated in order to sweeten them. Those that exist in the short story are not at all sweet; are, in fact, complicated and delicate.
- Finally, the DVD version of the movie includes a rather long ad trailer urging watchers to support Alzheimer's funding. Something like this would not only be out of place if tacked onto the short story, but corrupting.
Having said this, though, I have to admit that I haven't watched many Alzheimer's movies. I recall one, made for television, many years ago, starring Joanne Woodward and Richard Kiley, Do You Remember Love. I must admit, my memory of the movie isn't very clear: It consists of two scenes which my brain may have muddled: One in which Woodward's character becomes lost in a parking garage; another in which her character's sex drive becomes rapacious, much to her husband's dismay. I vaguely remember that the title comes from a speech Woodward's character delivers toward the end of the film in which she assures an audience that she "remembers love." At the time I saw the movie, although my grandmother was dementing rather quickly and I was watching the process with fascination, especially how her family dealt with it, the movie was so removed from what I knew of dementia that it didn't make much of an impression.
Review continued 4/23/08
I have deliberately avoided The Notebook, both the written and filmed versions. From others who've talked about the book and the movie I've gotten the impression that the story is too sweet for me, so sweet as to be implausible. However, a couple of months ago I noticed something coming on a cable channel that I wanted to watch. I tuned into it about 10 minutes early and was treated to the last scene of the movie in which James Garner and Gena Rowlands have a sweetly demented conversation that alludes to them dying together, settle in a hospital bed which I assumed to be in a nursing home and the next morning a nurse discovers them there dead. My thoughts on this were, "Oh Jesus, spare me." I was glad I hadn't seen any more.
I've noticed, though, that around the time that Away From Her was made, a couple of other movies came out that also featured Alzheimer's: The Savages, which purports to be about caregiving, and Memories of Tomorrow, which, from the review to which I've linked, sounds as though it might be a much more realistic and gritty Alzheimer's movie than any others about which I've heard. I've been looking forward to both, and, as well, yet another 1983 movie about the legend of how one sub-culture deals with old age, The Ballad of Narayama.
Of the two Japanese productions, the first hasn't been announced for DVD release yet; the second will be released this June. The Savages, though, was released yesterday in DVD format and I watched it. I'd read a fair amount about the film before watching it, thus, I had some preconceived notions, all of which were incorrect. I got the idea from what I read that the movie would attempt to describe an obviously hard relationship between two adult children and their father. Through a fair number of participants at Daily Strength's caregiver forum and a few other online journalists who have recorded their trials while caring for parents with whom they had much less than pleasant relationships I thought I had a fairly good idea of what might appear in the film. I kept looking for evidence in the film of this challenging past relationship in the way the children dealt with the father in his time of need and didn't find it until the end, when a scene from the daughter's play-in-production is shown. This doesn't make the movie a failure in my eyes...just incredibly misunderstood by the critics. The primary focus of this film is the relationship between the siblings. Their relationship with their father and how they deal with his need for care in his old age is, yet again, merely a device. There's a little bit of preachiness about nursing homes and what one can expect from a parent with, this time, vascular dementia. And, once again, the acting far and away supersedes the story. Each of the three leads is masterful in their parts. The chemistry among the actors creates an ensemble's ensemble. But, once again, the narrative is thin, fairly unrealistic and insists on an equally thin, sweet ending.
Ah, to watch a movie that really captures the devotion and the desperation, the ambivalence and the angst, the entrapment and the elation of caregiving. Ah, to watch a movie that truly does not gloss over the overwhelming "stranger in a strange land" ambiance that locks itself around both the caregiver and the care recipient. Ah, to watch a movie that portrays the battles that take place; the confusion that reigns; and includes Medicine's part in all of this, especially, but not exclusively, the Medicine that is practiced in nursing homes. Ah, to watch a movie that unstintingly dramatizes the societal isolation of the caregiver and the care recipient. Ah, to watch a movie that shows the reality of the aftermath, which doesn't always leave strengthened victors in its place but, just as often, leaves ragged, bloody souls there, as well. I am looking forward to the DVD release of Memories of Tomorrow and hoping that this movie contains some of that. Curiously, another story line in another film, Love Actually, which is not meant to be about intense needs caregiving contains a story line, also featuring Laura Linney as a caregiver, that, in far less time, communicates far more of what it is like to be an intense needs caregiver or someone who is demented than either Away From Her or The Savages.
I wonder why it is that our prominent artists in several media are having such a hard time translating dementia and caregiving into art with any honesty and without treacherous sentimentality. Is it because, as a society, we aren't used to noticing either of these circumstances, thus, many of our artists don't yet know what to say about them? Is it that the real caregivers and the real care recipients are just beginning to speak out and insist on being heard and that the artists among these caregivers and care recipients haven't yet come forth in droves? Years ago, when I lived in Sacramento, I read about a play, being staged in New York, not sure if it was on or off Broadway, a one person show in which the author of the play dramatized what it was like to have had a major stroke and fight to come back into one's own life and society from that wilderland. I've never forgotten the write-up, although I've forgotten much of what it said about the play; I can't even say whether the play dramatized a successful or unsuccessful fight, nor how success was defined. The idea, though, has since intrigued me and I've wished I could have seen that play. I've not heard of it again; I wonder if it was staged much. At any rate, I am reminded of the write-up because, now that caregivers and those with dementia are speaking out, often without filters, I'm hoping that we are close to a time when we will shed all our artistic silliness about caregiving and dementia and begin to create the art that truly, meticulously and shiveringly describes these conditions and, as well, not only speaks to our souls about them but helps our souls remain intact and afloat as we negotiate them. I'd like to think that Memories of Tomorrow will be in this category but I am positive that Away From Her and The Savages are not.
Thanks for your comment on The Tangled Neuron - you're right, great minds think alike!
I certainly didn't express my thoughts as eloquently as you did - I think your next career could be in film review, or perhaps film/literature appreciation teacher!
All material, except that not written by me, copyright at time of posting by Gail Rae Hudson