Saturday, August 28, 2010

Can there be love without memory?

That's the question posed by the Canadian film Away From Her (2006). Contrary to what you expect in a film centered around an Alzheimer's patient, the central crisis is experienced by the husband of the patient, who comes to doubt his own identity and reason for living when his wife no longer remembers how they loved.

So, despite the focus on Julie Christie, who still looks lovely and is unafraid to give an unsympathetic performance, the central character is played by a respected Canadian actor named Gordon Pinsent, who is quiet and decent and long-suffering, and helps make this the most Canadian movie you've ever seen. In fact, it's so Canadian, that it takes the audience to brink of a terrible truth--that Alzheimer's patients die before their death--and then it pulls back from that truth, afraid to frighten the audience.

We are the cumulative result of all our experience. We start with certain proclivities and perhaps predispositions (I can testify to that as a parent) and then time and events go to work on us and make us who we are. But Alzheimer's takes that process away, stripping identity and in the process, connections with other people. Many Alzheimer's patients become very unpleasant people because they cannot remember why they are connected to others, what they should feel towards them, what they owe them or what they used to provide for others. It is a terrible living death.

Away From Her toys with that, as Christie's character develops an attachment to another patient, then becomes moody and ill when that patient leaves the facility, utterly ignoring and neglecting her husband. Then, being a Canadian movie, Christie gets a little better and she hugs her husband, and the movie fades out before the really, really bad stuff comes. Phooey.

I would prefer utter and complete fantasy to this weak, mealy-mouthed skirting of the terrible possibilities in a story. One would think that, given the talent, the proximity to American resources and the potentially large North American audience, that Canadian film would be robust, certainly more robust than some lesser countries that have bigger film communities. Yes, I know that Hollywood constitutes a big drain, but Away From Her has drawn cast from Hollywood and England, so it can be done (especially with Atom Egoyan as an executive producer).

But if your films are going to come up to the edge of drama, of conflict, of strong feelings, and then skitter away from them and have a cup of cocoa, you are not going to have great film art. The only art form I know that Canadians excel in is polite, institutional, semi-classical theater--middlebrow and middleclass, just the thing to see after a nice lemon chicken and a Riesling.

I'm not saying that a film has to start with a multi-vehicle pile-up and a couple of guys whacking each other with two-by-fours to be good.* But until Canadians get comfortable with conflict, they are not going to be important players on the world film stage.

*If you've made a movie that starts that way, please do let me know.

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