Sunday, November 25, 2007

WC: Art, Entertainment, and Reality

How much do we really want reality in our art/entertainment? That question kept going through my head yesterday as I watched Away From Her, Sarah Polley's film in which Julie Christie gets Alzheimer's disease. (WARNING: many plot points included in this discussion.)

Some sample reviews:
  • "Away from Her . . . stares uncomfortably into the face of Alzheimer's disease."
  • "Represents one of the few clear-headed, uncompromising looks at [Alzheimer's] and its impacts."
  • "Portrays the ravages of [Alzheimer's] with clear-eyed honesty."

The film does not remotely begin to show the ravages of Alzheimer's. Julie Christie never looks less than stunning. She's never viciously angry or horribly scared. She does at one point start wearing a tacky sweater she would never wear, but that's it. No dirt, no vomit, no curse words.

And it is Julie who decides to go to a nursing home, fairly early on in her Alzheimer's, so as to spare her husband. And not once does she change her mind--or forget her decision--or get angry about being left behind. Even when she forgets who her husband is, she is unfailingly kind to him.

And even when her disease progresses (a word her husband notes the irony of) and she has to move to the dreaded second floor, she just gets quiet and turns in emotionally. Again, no tantrums, no fury, no diapers.

The film uses Alzheimer's as a device, and to a certain extent that's legit. But in our very weird world, where people get more information from fictional movies than from magazines and nonfiction books, it's almost irresponsible to present this lovely, clean, quiet version of Alzheimer's. And it's frightening that so many reviewers thought it was reality.

I had a similar response to Lovely Bones, the book by Alice Sebold. (WARNING: more spoilers ahead.) It was hailed as an uncompromising look at the devastation of a family after the young daughter is murdered. Uncompromising? Ha.

I don't mean to harp on bodily fluids, but again, everyone's grief is very very clean. And the girl's sister has this perfect boyfriend who stays with her from junior high school on, being supportive and unselfish and patient every step of the way. That human doesn't exist, male or female. No one is perfect for years at a time.

The book also skirts the idea of the young girl even being dead, because she narrates it from the beyond and somehow manages a visit to earth to have sex, which she had never done before she died.

Both the book and the movie end with a sense of closure and even redemption, two commodities very very hard to come by for the loved ones of people who are murdered and people who have Alzheimer's. They provide versions of happy endings, trivializing the day-in, day-out, grinding, ugly realities of these awful occurrences.

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