Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

September 20, 2017

Elizabeth Blue; Thy Father’s Chair

Filed under: Film — louisproyect @ 9:12 pm

The two films under review are about people living at society’s margins and not the flashy superheroes you are used to seeing in summer blockbusters about space alien invasions or super-spies but both are two of the better films I have seen in months and a testament to the integrity of their respective creative teams. In a period of commercialism running rampant, symbolized most of all by the garish and murderous clown in the White House, “Elizabeth Blue” and “Thy Father’s Chair” are reminders that humanism is still alive in a dying empire, at least in the world of cinema.

For the longest time, films about schizophrenics have tended to be horror stories like “Psycho” or Grand Guignol tales like “Shutter Island”. Given the cheap exploitation of a serious illness, we are thankful for a film like “Elizabeth Blue” that offers a fictional tale deeply engaged with the real medical challenges facing its victims. And we should be doubly thankful that first-time feature director/screenwriter has done it so well, making him the inside track for my nomination as top new director of 2017 when NYFCO has its awards meeting in December.

The hope of all schizophrenics is to live a normal and productive life, which is shared by Elizabeth who we meet as she is being discharged from a psychiatric ward. She is a young and attractive woman who had a career as an editor before the first in a series of psychotic breaks. Perhaps this time things will turn out better since she is soon to be married to a handsome young man named Grant who has accepted her illness in the spirt of the “for better or for worse” marriage vow.

To help her along, Elizabeth and Grant meet with a psychiatrist who prescribes a number of medications that will help relieve her of the symptoms that bedevil all schizophrenics. Despite Alfred Hitchcock’s lurid (if even cinematically memorable) tale, most are of no danger to other people. Instead their most frequent victims are themselves since the psychological torment often leads to suicide.

In Elizabeth’s case, you see a highly realistic portrayal of what typically happens. Auditory hallucinations take the effect of disembodied voices telling the schizophrenic that they are worthless and that they do not deserve to live. If this happens infrequently, one might assume that these attacks can be relieved through medication and the support of family or a future husband like Grant. But when it is incessant, it can reach the point where the illness can totally incapacitate the sufferer.

Elizabeth is played by Anna Shafer, who is superb. Her shifting moods and hallucinatory episodes are played most effectively without the need to exaggerate the emotional reactions to the horrors that such a patient would be enduring. In an interesting casting coup her mother, who in layperson’s terms might be seen as having driven her daughter crazy, is played by Kathleen Quinlan, who was the schizophrenic patient in the 1977 “I Never Promised You a Rose Garden”.

Success stories for this illness are infrequent. Among them are Tom Harrell, the jazz trumpeter, or the late John Nash, whose battles were dramatized in “A Beautiful Mind”. They also include director/screenwriter Vincent Sabella who as a schizophrenic himself knew first-hand how to dramatize the inner life of a schizophrenic as well as the medical regimen that is necessary to stay afloat. He has not only contributed to cinematic art but to the ongoing support campaign for a much stigmatized part of society. 3.2 million people suffer from the illness in the USA and most are regarded as either a danger to society or not worth supporting through a social safety net, even with its gaping holes. “Elizabeth Blue” is a stunning drama that will help to shed light on an illness that deserves to be understood dispassionately and without prejudice.

“Elizabeth Blue” opens on Friday at the Cinema Village in NYC. Highly recommended.

Opening on October 13nd at the Cinema Village in NYC and at the Laemmle in LA a week later, “Thy Father’s Chair” joins “Menashe” as a penetrating look at the orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn. While not Hasidim, twin brothers Shraga and Abraham are about as close as you can come. They worship in a Hasidic synagogue and wear full beards and the black suit and white shirts that are a virtual uniform in this world.

But unlike the Hasidim, they are not only bachelors but living in a completely degraded state. They are alcoholics and living in filth in an apartment that is so insect-ridden and malodorous that the upstairs neighbors in the building they own have gone on a rent strike until the mess is cleaned up.

That indeed is how the documentary starts with the Israeli owner of a specialized cleaning company and his Black and Latino workers tackling a job that would make the ordinary person gag. There is garbage strewn across the floor in every room and a kitchen and bathroom that looks like it hasn’t been cleaned in a decade.

The two sixtyish brothers are a distinct NYC type that you read about every so often, the pathological hoarder who we only find out about after they die. The smell of the decomposing body prompts the neighbors to call the police and attend to the body and the filth the dead man left behind.

On October 19, 2015 I blogged about this phenomenon after reading a story in the NY Times titled “The Lonely Death of George Bell”, a morbidly fascinating article that included this:

The two men foraged through the unedited anarchy, 800 square feet, one bedroom. A stench thickened the air. Mr. Plaza dabbed his nostrils with a Vicks vapor stick. Mr. Rodriguez toughed it out. Vicks bothered his nose.

The only bed was the lumpy foldout couch in the living room. The bedroom and bathroom looked pillaged. The kitchen was splashed with trash and balled-up, decades-old lottery tickets that had failed to deliver. A soiled shopping list read: sea salt, garlic, carrots, broccoli (two packs), “TV Guide.”

The faucet didn’t work. The chipped stove had no knobs and could not have been used to cook in a long time.

Instead of decades-old lottery tickets, the twin brothers have tons of Judaica that has accumulated alongside old newspapers and magazines, as well as junk they picked up off the street. If cleanliness is next to godliness, these brothers had no hope.

To me the most interesting aspect of the film is the clash between the Israeli and the two old-school Brooklyn Jews who probably spoke Yiddish growing up. At one point, Abraham asks him whether he believes in god. The Israeli says he doesn’t. Interestingly enough, the old observant Jew says that he is not sure he does himself. As a secular-minded take charge guy, the Israeli immigrant is an obvious contrast to the kind of shtetl life that Israel was meant to replace, including the Yiddish language. Why he has moved to the USA would probably be a good subject for another film.

This is a cinéma vérité that shows the influence of Frederic Wiseman and the Maysles brothers as the co-directors openly admit. Despite the advantage that a Jewish director, such as the one that made “Menashe”, would have in securing the agreement of the twin brothers to be filmed, it is instead a Spaniard named Alex Lora and an Australian named Antonio Tibaldi who made this extraordinary film. I can’t imagine how they ever hooked up with the Israeli cleaning contractor or the two lost souls who they have rescued from obscurity. Their readiness to make a film in the midst of such squalor shows a dedication to film art that most men and women could not muster.

Highly recommended.

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