Monday, March 9, 2015
Love, loss and hope
That's all a bit surprising, since I was raised on a jarring mix of films featuring werewolves and vampires; stumbling and bumbling mummies and fantastical blobs; the Frankenstein monster and a wide assortment of aliens. In recent years, I've even sat through some really frightening misadventures featuring flying superheroes, massive explosions and ubiquitous car chases.
Of course all these Hollywood creatures and creations were ephemeral, mostly filled with special effects and comic bogeymen hiding about in the dark.
"Still Alice", meanwhile, is a film that has little to do with make believe monsters and demons. The spooky stuff it offers up is scarily grounded in reality. It tells the story of Alice Howland, a middle-aged professor of linguistics at Columbia University, who is bright and beautiful and, unfortunately, slowly losing her mind to early-onset Alzheimer's disease.
Julianne Moore won the Best Actress Oscar earlier this year for her quietly moving and point-on portrayal of Alice, capturing her intelligence and lust for life that is achingly lost as her mind and memories wither away like a flower wilting in the noon-day sun.
The first hint of something gone terribly wrong in Alice's perfect life -- she's smart and lovely, has a wonderful job and a beautiful family -- is when she ever so slightly stumbles about in search of a word while giving a lecture. Only days later she's losing her way when out on a daily jog, soon enough forgetting the names of friends and family and misplacing her cell phone in the fridge.
In a world turned upside down, Alice finds herself taking baby steps in reverse, losing all the special qualities and unique experiences that had once defined her charmed and special life. Her family watches in quiet horror, trying to figure out how best to continue living in a world now frighteningly askew.
Their choices and decisions, both good and bad, are the stuff of life, an aching reality captured in Alice's slow descent into a mindless hell. Ever so quickly, the third act is upon us, and even quicker yet, it all dissolves to white.
Lydia, Alice's youngest daughter (Kristen Stewart, a jarring blend of anger and defiance, mixed with love and strength) takes center stage, speaking a jumble of words that, after a time, morph into a lyrical monologue of hope.
I was so taken with the moment that I spent a few minutes on the web and discovered the scene was borrowed from Tony Kushner's "Angels in America": "And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls ... Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."
Lydia asks Alice if she understands and Alice, staring off in dazed befuddlement, becomes reanimated -- if only for a moment -- and manages to say "love ... it's about love."
It's a somewhat satisfying, if melancholy ending to a sad and melancholy film. It also, at least for me, had the ring of truth.
Five years ago my mother was lost and stumbling along the road that "Still Alice" explores. After a couple of years of steady decline, her last days were spent in a kind of suspended animation -- gone, but still here; mute, dazed and befuddled.
I often stopped by the nursing home where she was living and helped feed her if I was around for lunch or dinner. On one particular day, I managed to get her to eat several spoonfuls of some sort of pureed goo, then handed off the chore to a nearby aide.
As I stood to leave, my mother glanced up at me and, after weeks of silence, managed to say, "I love you." They were the last words I ever heard her speak.
So I'm thinking Alice had it right; it's about love. I'm also thinking that Lydia got it right when she shared the words of Tony Kushner: "Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead."