Friday, October 19, 2007

"Away from Her"

I’m calling this a “think piece,” 'cause I have to think this through…

Ebert recently
posted his review of Sarah Polley’s Away from Her. He’s been doubling back to cover movies he missed while he was out, and he made some interesting points. Like almost everyone else, he gave it four stars and a rave. As you may know, this is the story of Grant (Gordon Pinsent) and Fiona (Julie Christie), who after being married for almost 50 years, are faced with Fiona’s slip into Alzheimer’s disease. Add to that Grant’s guilt over an infidelity years ago, and well, you could have a lot of interesting things happen in that kind of setup.

Ebert first compared it to other films about Alzheimer’s: Bille August’s
A Song for Martin (2002), Nick Cassavetes’ The Notebook (2004), and Erik Van Looy’s Memory of a Killer (2005) - “All very good, the third perhaps the best.” Compared to Away from Her, he made the comment that all of those films “persist in linking Alzheimer’s disease to a story.” And then he went on to say, “Sarah Polley, whose Away From Her is a heartbreaking masterpiece, has the courage to simply observe the devastation of the disease. Alzheimer’s is usually like that. There are few great love stories replayed in the closing days, few books written, few flashbacks as enjoyable for the victims as they are for us. There are only the victims going far, far away, until finally, as if they have fallen into a black hole, no signs can ever reach us from them again.

This made me think a few thoughts (and I’m not sure how well I can articulate them). With respect to having “the courage to simply observe the devastation of the disease,” let me ask you - is there anything wrong with that approach in terms of screenwriting? I certainly don’t think so. You have an arc in the protagonist, a shifting of values, a man facing an inevitable, heartbreaking change in his life, and maybe/maybe not, some resolution at the end. That’s a story rooted in its characters, is it not? If you want to write something real and true, it doesn’t get much more real than that, right? This may not be high-concept or heavy plot-wise, but you know this setup could be very compelling from scene-to-scene, especially if those characters have
depth, because this disease would have an enormous emotional impact on the characters. And this would have great meaning to people.

I loved what was said of Grant and Fiona’s relationship in the
press release: “Polley wanted to explore how a long marriage survives without falling back on remembrances of a more romantic past, a gambit on which many films rely. She states, ‘Love stories about older people tend to be either extremely sentimentalized or justified by a million flashbacks to when they were young, which I think is a lot less interesting.’ New love is a chemical ride of hormones, fraught with the meshing of lives, but invariably, new lovers arrive in each other’s arms with a clean slate. If there is baggage, it is from previous relationships. Give the new couple half a century of being accountable to each other, and that’s when Polley becomes interested because they have their own emotional scar tissue which, being the strongest part, is remembered the longest. What Grant did to Fiona may have been the folly of his youth, but he was mistaken if he thought time would wash it away. ‘I wanted to make this relationship a real one that’s been through incredible things and come out the other side. It’s made up of all that experience and emotion and transgression.’

Great! At the same time, I think you’d have to be extremely careful with this setup, because you would need just the right cast design and the right element of characters surrounding your protagonist to bring out the different aspects of this particular issue and to make the transition to closure in the end satisfying for the audience. Indeed, Ebert went so far as to list the characters in such a way that we know we’ll get a complete picture when we see the film:

The performances here are carefully controlled, as they must be, so that we see no false awareness slipping out from behind the masks; no sense that the Julie Christie character is in touch with a more complete reality than, from day to day, she is. No sense that Gordon Pinsent, as her husband, is finally able to feel revenge, consolation, contrition or anything else but inescapable loss. No sense that the Olympia Dukakis character deceives herself for a moment. No sense that Michael Murphy’s character understands his behavior. The one aware character is Kristen Thomson as Kristy, the kind nurse who gives Grant practical advice. She has empathy for him, and pity, and she can explain routines and treatments and progressions to him, but she cannot do anything about his grief. She has worked in the home for while. She knows how Alzheimer’s is, and must be. I have gotten to know some nurses well over the last year, and seen the sadness in their eyes as they discuss patients (never by name) who they are helpless to help. Thomson finds that precise note.

When you tackle a difficult subject like Alzheimer’s (or any difficult subject for that matter), I think you have to consider what’s been done previously and how your approach will be fresh, different, and (hopefully) better. Too few aspiring screenwriters take the time to really think this through before cranking out a script. Not only that, they incorporate too many aspects of other similar films they love and when we read it, we’re reminded too much of those films, which pulls us out of the story and lowers our confidence in the writer. Besides, what worked in another film may not necessarily fit right in the context of your story. What's best for your story?

We also have to recognize that a screenplay is the foundation to a film’s visual palette and that lightness and darkness and tone are monumental considerations to make when comparing your screenplay to other films on a similar subject. Ebert wrote about how we see this story “
not in darkness and shadows and the gloom of winter and visions in the night, but in bright focus. Polley told Andrew O’Hehir of Salon: ‘For me the overriding palette that we were working with was the idea of this very strong, sometimes blinding winter sunlight that should infuse every frame. I didn’t want the visual style to draw too much focus to itself. I felt like this needed to be an elegant and simple film, and that it had to have a certain grace.’

I also want to mention that James Berardinelli, whose reviews I’ve been reading more often lately,
praised Sarah’s film but had some constructive concerns about dialogue that, to me, was a good reminder to always be careful: “While Polley has a keen sense of how to develop the emotional side of the story, and her eye for detail is impeccable (especially the authenticity of the nursing home), her ear for dialogue needs fine-tuning. Many of the lines spoken in the movie have a scripted feel, often sounding too polished and poetic, and occasionally educating and sermonizing. The source of the problem is readily apparent: roughly 75% of the movie's dialogue is taken verbatim from Munro's story, and the written word can feel unnatural when placed unaltered into the mouth of an actor. While this does not interfere with Away from Her's emotional impact, it lends a sporadic sense of artificiality to some scenes.”

There might be a little truth to that. Here's a clip:

I don’t know why, but all of this makes me think of some other comments
Ebert made about a different film - Rails and Ties by Alison Eastwood, Clint's daughter. It’s about a childless couple (Marcia Gay Harden and Kevin Bacon). She's dying of cancer. He's a train engineer, whose train slams into the car of a woman who overdosed on pills and parked on the tracks. The woman's 11-year-old son (Miles Heizer), angry because the engineer “didn't even try to stop,” tracks him down and confronts him. But it's more complicated. He's a runaway from a heartless foster home. The couple grows to love him and… more I do not know. Anyway, the ending in Away from Her provides closure appropriate for the protagonist (so I’ve read). Of the ending in Rails and Ties, Ebert wrote, “But the real sadness in the opening third of the movie is visceral and true. We look into the eyes of the woman and see bleak grief, and we look into the eyes of the man who chooses to drive a train on a day he should be with her, and see a man who lives his life by the book, which is no life at all. And then they are freed from their fixed positions by the lonely need of the boy. It’s a powerful setup, although I found the final shot less than satisfying. Yes, that’s what would happen. But more and more I question realism as a complete justification for events in movies. In some movies, yes, maybe a lot of movies; but sometimes what we need is a movie that doesn’t turn out like life.”

Yes, I think there’s truth in that. While we aspire to create a (typically satisfying) ending rooted in reality or the reality of the characters – what’s best for the audience? What should they see?

By the way, you can read for free online the short story Away from Her was based, Alice Munro’s
The Bear Came Over the Mountain.



Christina said...

Wow - what a great write up!! Now I want to see every movie you mentioned. I meant to see "Away from Her" in the theater and it slipped by. I must find it and see it on DVD.

I admire Sarah Polley, especially for taking on such a mature project. If the most signficant criticism of her first feature is that her dialogue is a little stilted, she's off to a good start. I saw one of her shorts about 4 years back and there was obvious talent at hand. I'm also impressed with Julie Delpy, another actress who has crossed over to writing and directing.

GimmeABreak said...

I haven't seen the movie or read the screenplay but I hope the protag is the husband and not the wife. It seems to me if Julie is the protag, that would be the dictionary definition of passive - someone who just sits and watches. However, if the husband is the main character and struggles with the effects of the debilitating disease on his life and the lives of the ones he loves, that's a story.

Anonymous said...

I loved the movie. Such an elegant way of telling a simple but lovely story

Laura Deerfield said...

I loved Iris and found that heartbreaking in its observation of a once-great mind fading away due to alzheimer's, and it's effect on her husband... I definitely want to see this.

As for endings: are you making stories that are familiar? Or stories that we need? Life is messy, and we rarely get satisfying resolutions. We need myths and legends, and even stories that are close to reality succeed best when they are taken a step away from it. Of course, two hours on a screen can never really capture the nuances of a real life - so there are always

Unknown said...

I think this is a gentle reminder that you don't have to have people do bad things to make a good movie.

Joshua James said...

Haven't seen it as of yet, but it's on the list.

I do agree, though, that there's nothing wrong with just observing people deal with a phenom as a film . . . as King says, when he begins a story, he gets people in certain situations and tries to imagine them working their way out of it . . . sometimes it leads to a bangup ending (Misery, Green Mile) and sometimes it leads to a different kind of ending (the upcoming MIST) . . . he's really observing ordinary people in extraordinary situations . . .

Mystery Man said...

Christina - thanks. I admire her, too, for taking on this project. An assignment like this would've made me think "be careful," but it sounds like she made all the right decisions. I loved "Before Sunset" when it first came out, but now, I can't sit through all of that dialogue. I hear her new film is very talky, too.

Pat - Yes, the protag is the husband.

Caritto - Thanks so much.

Laura - Ya know, Ebert mentioned Iris in his review, and I don't know how it didn't make it into the article. There are always... WHAT? Are you being funny?

Bob - AMEN.

Josh - I once read an article where Tarantino talked a lot about that same thing. He coined it "method writing." Hehehe... I like that. I like it a lot.


Laura Deerfield said...

"WHAT? Are you being funny?"

Hahaha - totally unintentional, but appropos, no?
The dog must have distracted me.