Wendy, Lenny and Jon Savage
Among the films I received in conjunction with the NYFCO 2007 awards meeting were two that dealt with the impact of Alzheimer’s disease on the victims’ relatives. Although “The Savages” and “Away from Her” are thematically related, they could not be more different. In the first instance, you get a brilliantly written, acted and directed, no-holds-barred, mordantly funny portrait of a dysfunctional family whose Tolstoyan misery (“Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”) is only amplified when an aging father begins to lose it. In the second, you get a by now familiar treatment of how a romantically idealized marriage is shattered by the onset of the disease and the “inspiring” efforts to cope with it.
“The Savages” is a reference to the surname of Jon and Wendy, a brother and sister entering middle age, and their father Lenny (Philip Bosco), whose initial break from reality is marked by the graffiti he writes on his bathroom wall with his own feces. As I said, this is a no-holds-barred film.
Like their namesakes in “Peter Pan,” Jon and Wendy are doing everything they can to resist growing up. The 40 year old Jon Savage (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is a theater professor and Brecht specialist at the University of Buffalo who is about to dump his Polish girlfriend because she cannot get a visa. He won’t consider marriage since he believes that their academic careers would likely lead them to work in separate cities–an obvious rationalization for his own refusal to make a commitment.
Wendy (Laura Linney) is even more childish. At the age of 39, she is still single and trapped in a dead-end affair with a married man who lives next door. In front of the computer at the desk of her current office temp assignment, she deftly minimizes a play she is working on and maximizes a spreadsheet when a supervisor approaches (I could certainly identify with that!) Spending every spare moment drafting applications for playwriting grants from major foundations, she is the quintessential New Yorker with artistic ambitions. When you are 23, it is of course entirely normal to live in a dream world like Wendy but at the age of 39, it is not. I should of course confess to being something of a Peter Pan myself with my own revolutionary ardor burning bright at the age of 62.
Reality comes crashing down on Jon and Wendy when they receive a phone call about their father’s rapidly deteriorating status. They fly out to Sun City, Arizona, where Lenny has been living for a number of years, to join him at a nearby hospital where he is hooked up to a battery of support gear. Wendy looks ruefully at a urine bag. No holds barred.
Lenny has shared a house with a long-term girlfriend, also suffering from dementia, who has just died. The girlfriend’s children have no intentions of paying to keep him in the house and demand that Jon and Wendy take possession of their father and his belongings. Jon lines up a nursing home in Buffalo and Wendy is assigned to transport the old man on a jet plane back to Buffalo.
Unlike other Alzheimer’s patients depicted in film or television dramas, there is nothing at all endearing about Tamara Jenkins’s Lenny Savage. Indeed, he exhibits the confusion, anger and hostility that are fairly typical. Despite the grimness of the situation, Jenkins draws out comic elements but in a manner totally unlike the forced, phony transgressive style of the typical indie venture like “Little Miss Sunshine.” For example, after Lenny confusedly informs the nursing home attendants that his son–a doctor–will be looking after him, Wendy informs him that he is not that kind of doctor but a doctor of the theater. He asks her, “Like Broadway?” She replies, “No, like social conflict.”
Reflecting further on the comparisons between “The Savages” and “Little Miss Sunshine,” we also note that both films involve elderly relatives in a nursing home who die in the course of the action. The character played by Alan Arkin in “Little Miss Sunshine” has not a shred of reality, however, and his death prompts an even more unrealistic response from family members (they conceal his body from authorities). There is also a feckless college professor in “Little Miss Sunshine,” the Proust specialist played by Steve Carrell. Suffice it to say that his character demonstrates not the slightest inkling that he has ever read Proust, not to speak of the screenwriters who simply chose to elevate their work through cultural references to Proust and Nietzsche. In contrast, Jon Savage strikes one as totally erudite with Brecht, even to the point of lecturing his students about the difference between ordinary and epic theater in a quite knowing manner.
The differences between “The Savages” and “Little Miss Sunshine” can be attributed to the differences between the people who made them. “Little Miss Sunshine” lacks the engagement with real life that makes “The Savages” so compelling. You need a certain amount of schooling in hard knocks as Tamara Jenkins endured to make such a film. As someone who went through the experiences of placing her father in a nursing home when she was in her mid-30′s, she knows the drill. So do I. My own mother has been in a nursing home for the past 3 years and I fully identified with Tamara Jenkins’s ordeal. Even though she based her screenplay on personal experiences, she transformed them through the sure hand of art. Now showing in theaters everywhere, I recommend “The Savages” as the definitive film about the ordeal many baby boomers will eventually have to face, either in the capacity as care-givers or as the elderly themselves one day.
An airbrushed portrait of a disease
About “Away from Her,” the less said the better. Based on a New Yorker short story by Alice Munro, it inflates a rather spare narrative with a lot of flowery dialog between the husband, a retired professor named Grant (Gordon Pinsent), and his ailing wife Fiona (Julie Christie). As he is about to leave her at the nursing home after her admission, she says to him: “I’d like to make love, and then I’d like you to go. Because I need to stay here and if you make it hard for me, I may cry so hard I’ll never stop.” There is nothing like that in Munro’s short story, which is much less interested in presenting their marriage in an idealized form, even to the point of detailing his adulterous past:
He chose a woman named Jacqui Adams. She was the opposite of Fiona—short, cushiony, dark-eyed, effusive. A stranger to irony. The affair lasted for a year, until her husband was transferred. When they were saying goodbye in her car, she began to shake uncontrollably. It was as if she had hypothermia. She wrote to him a few times, but he found the tone of her letters overwrought and could not decide how to answer. He let the time for answering slip away while he became magically and unexpectedly involved with a girl who was young enough to be Jacqui’s daughter.
Both the short story and the film include an unlikely MacGuffin that propels the story forward. The nursing home has a policy that prohibits visits from family members for the first 30 days, supposedly in the interest of allowing the patient to accustom themselves to the new environment without reminders of home. In those 30 days, Fiona develops a kind of relationship with another mentally impaired patient and forgets who Grant is. The drama revolves around his struggle to remind his wife who he is and to transcend any feelings of jealousy toward his new adversary.
Suffice it to say that no nursing home has such a 30 day isolation policy. It makes no sense from a medical standpoint since visits from loved ones is the one thing that will make adjustment possible for the patient. I say that as somebody who has made such visits.
The other plot element, however, is plausible. Alzheimer patients do strike up such friendship/relationships apparently.
Even when Alzheimer’s disease robs them of the life they once knew, some people can still find love among the ruins.
And in most cases — as highlighted by recent news on retired Supreme Court Judge Sandra Day O’Connor — the spouse or child of the Alzheimer’s patient grows to understand and accept the new relationship, experts say.
O’Connor’s Alzheimer’s-stricken husband John, 77, has found companionship with a woman in the nursing home where he now resides, according to recent news reports. The two spend time together, holding hands, even when Justice O’Connor is nearby, the reports said.
This type of relationship was also the focus of the recent film Away From Her, starring Julie Christie as a woman with Alzheimer’s who gradually forgets her husband and forms a new bond with a fellow nursing home resident. Her husband gradually comes to accept the relationship, understanding that it gives his wife comfort and stability amid the confusion that Alzheimer’s can bring.
–Washington Post, December 10, 2007
Like other movies about Alzheimer’s, “Away from Her” sees the need to put the marriage of the two principals on a kind of pedestal. The screenwriter evidently feels that it is necessary to establish the tragic dimensions of the disease by creating as sharp a distinction as possible between life before and after the disease. In the case of Grant and Fiona, the marriage is a kind of middle-class Eden with the couple cooing at each other as if in a Hallmark card. The disease then becomes a kind of fall from Eden.
Within this genre, I found the Japanese film “Memories of Tomorrow” (now available from Netflix) far more effective. As the victim of early Alzheimer’s the salary-man protagonist is just an ordinary human being about whom I wrote:
Masayuki Saeki is a successful, hard-driving advertising agency executive with a wife named Emiko (Kanaku Higuchi) and a daughter Rie (Kazue Fukiishi) who is about to be wed. They have everything they could possibly want, even though Masayuki’s monomaniacal work ethic tends to undermine the emotional bonds between him and his wife. As the disease progresses, the two begin to bond together as never before.
Even though Alzheimer’s was not identified as a specific disease until 1901, there are signs of its ravages throughout the millennia, as well as attempts to deal with it artistically long before the advent of motion pictures. Despite the high achievements of “The Savages,” it is doubtful that anything will ever surpass Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” a study of an aging ex-monarch suffering the obvious signs of dementia.
Thou think’st ’tis much that this contentious storm
Invades us to the skin: so ’tis to thee;
But where the greater malady is fix’d,
The lesser is scarce felt. Thou’ldst shun a bear;
But if thy flight lay toward the raging sea,
Thou’ldst meet the bear i’ the mouth. When the
The body’s delicate: the tempest in my mind
Doth from my senses take all feeling else
Save what beats there. Filial ingratitude!
Is it not as this mouth should tear this hand
For lifting food to’t? But I will punish home:
No, I will weep no more. In such a night
To shut me out! Pour on; I will endure.
In such a night as this! O Regan, Goneril!
Your old kind father, whose frank heart gave all,–
O, that way madness lies; let me shun that;
No more of that.
There will never be another Shakespeare!