Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

November 14, 2018

What They Had

Filed under: aging,Film — louisproyect @ 8:30 pm

A couple of weeks ago a publicist asked me to have a look at a documentary titled “Distant Constellation” set in an Istanbul old age home. I warned her that I had misgivings about such a film but would give it a shot since I have valued her efforts on behalf of non-commercial films. Within fifteen minutes, however, I realized that the film was too close to home. The residents of the nursing home were either suffering from dementia or unable to present a cogent account of their lives there. The title of the film derives from one of the elderly patient’s speculations about life on other planets.

The Guardian review of the film begins with a Philip Roth quote: “Old age isn’t a battle; old age is a massacre.” That summed it up for me.

When the publicist asked me why I bailed on the film, I explained that it was too close to home. Two years ago my father-in-law Hasan, now deceased, got on a minibus in Istanbul without any idea where he was going. His wife Meral grew increasingly frantic in his absence until she got a phone call from a good Samaritan who had figured out that Hasan was suffering from dementia and asked him politely to show him his wallet, which he did. That led to the phone call and the realization that he could only go outside their building accompanied by the live-in caregiver. Until his death a few months ago, the stress of caring for him weighed heavily on both my mother-in-law and my wife. Massacre, indeed.

Until my mother’s death a decade ago, I visited her fairly regularly at the upstate nursing home she had been living in for two years or so. Until the day she died, my mom did not suffer from any cognitive deficits. Her problem was mostly circulatory, a function of never doing the slightest bit of exercise, not even walking. A visit was always a pleasant experience but compromised by the sight of so many patients her age suffering from dementia or stroke-induced paralysis. Massacre, indeed.

Yesterday I watched a screener for “What They Had”, a film that had been sent to me under consideration for NYFCO’s annual awards meeting in December. This is a narrative film about a family dealing with an elderly woman’s descent into the final stages of Alzheimer’s with her husband fighting to keep her at home while his son and daughter try to persuade him that the best thing would be for her to be placed in a nursing home.

The woman, named Ruth, is played by Blythe Danner, who was a close friend of mine at Bard College that I lost touch with after I graduated, which was the case with just about everybody I knew at Bard except for a former girlfriend and my close friend Jeffrey who is my regular chess partner and a dispenser of valuable but free psychological advice over the years.

As was also the case with Chevy Chase, who dated Blythe briefly at Bard, I have tried to follow her career for the past 53 years. This did not necessarily mean seeing some of the forgettable films or TV movies she appeared in over the years but at least reading any article covering her latest appearance. In her earliest roles, she played the ingenue, typically as in the Broadway play “Butterflies are Free”, where she was the ditzy next door neighbor of a young and handsome blind man.

It was this play that left her with the raspy voice that probably narrowed the range of characters she would play over the years. In an interview with Susan Wloszczyna on the Roger Ebert website, she explained how it happened: “I hurt my voice while doing my first Broadway play. I had a very high voice and I lowered it for my character. I didn’t know it would get me in trouble. So I’m stuck with a raspy voice.”

I remember Blythe before the raspiness kicked in. She was a great singer who could have made it as a recording artist. In 1965, I brought Bill Evans up for a solo concert at Bard and he agreed to accompany Blythe for a couple of songs, which was very generous for a celebrity like Bill.

Her parents gave her the name that befit her personality. She certainly was a “blithe spirit”, almost like one of Shakespeare’s fairies in “Midsummer Night’s Dream”. To this day, I still have vivid memories of sitting on the lawn at Bard after smoking some pot and watching her and another theater major doing a highland fling just ten feet away. The sun shined on the two, with Blythe’s flaxen hair reflecting the sunbeams magically.

I used to sit alone in the dining commons at Bard, mainly because I felt anti-social most of the time. On numerous occasions, Blythe would join me at the table and confess her insecurities. She always felt inadequate academically and feared that people thought she was “ditzy”. I always tried to reassure her that she was very bright and level-headed but somehow I got the feeling that until she became a theater and film star, that feeling of inadequacy never disappeared.

Old age has a way of sneaking up on you. About five years ago, Blythe started doing commercials for Prolia, a medication for treating osteoporosis, an ailment she was suffering from herself.

It always felt strange to see the flaxen-haired ingenue of my youth appearing in such a commercial but that didn’t prepare me for “What They Had”, a story in which most of her dialog is off-kilter as you’d expect from her character. In one typical scene, when she hears the phone ringing, she comes back with an open stapler next to her ear, asking “Who’s there?” In another scene, she drinks the holy water in the Catholic church she, her husband and two children attend on a Sunday morning for old time’s sake. During the priest’s homily, she turns around and flips someone the finger for no apparent reason and then, a few minutes later, comes on sexually to her son. He is played convincingly—as always—by Michael Shannon. The daughter is played by Hilary Swank, who is more reluctant than Shannon’s character to place her in a home. Ruth’s husband is played by Robert Foster, an outstanding actor who captures the stubborn devotion his character has to a woman who can barely tell if he is her husband or not.

To be honest, “What They Had” is barely a step up from one of those Lifetime Cable “problem” movies that are geared to the network’s female audience. It was written and directed by the actress Elizabeth Chomko who was at least able to draw from personal experience in making the story so close to what families have to deal with when one of their number has to be institutionalized (there’s really no other word to describe it.) A slashfilm.com interviewer told her that the film came across as very personal. Chomko replied:

Yes. It is definitely personal—inspired by my grandparents, my family, and what we all went through coping with my grandmother’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis and loving her through all the subsequent memory loss and the ways in which it sort of—the caring for her—caregiving—the way in which it brought us to closer together and pulled us all apart. I think in the film everyone is reckoning with their memories and their own sense of time gone and past. I think when you start to witness someone losing their memories it really prompts—at least for me—a sense that memories are precious and that we take them for granted a little bit. So I think for all the characters, it prompts just a sense of coming of age. I think coming of age is something we do over the course of our life many times. I wanted to write something it felt like three generations kind of coming of age and in particular, the character that Hilary plays—a woman sort of reckoning with the decisions that she’s made and why she’s made them and does she want to continue down the path that’s led her on or not.

These strike me as very wise observations. Suffice it to say that the film embodies them even if it is not great filmmaking by any stretch of the imagination. You can expect the film to show up on VOD in a few months. As long as you don’t expect Orson Welles and as long as you can identify with the ordeal the family in the film have to deal with, it is worth watching.

Naturally, the question of dementia likely faces most of my readers, especially those closer to me in age than the average DSA’er. Over the past 10 years I find myself increasingly unable to remember the names of people, a “lapse” that is ubiquitous to senior citizens and not necessarily a sign that you will be drinking holy water at some point. As a way of doing sit-ups for my neurons, I play chess all the time on my computer and do the most difficult crossword puzzles I can find, especially the Saturday cryptic puzzles on the Wall Street Journal that would fry the brain of most people whatever their age. I also play a word game that does not require a pencil or a computer. I choose a category like jazz musician and then go through the alphabet trying to name as many as I can for each letter (Adderly, Ammons, Allen, Abrams, etc.)

According to the Alzheimer’s Association, 1 in 3 seniors dies with Alzheimer’s or another type of dementia. it kills more than breast cancer and prostate cancer combined. So we are talking about a very frightening illness that will turn us into something like a zombie. The thought of losing your identity, your independence and your ability to use your mind productively is enough to keep you awake at night.

Two days ago, the NY Times reported on how “Dementia Is Getting Some Very Public Faces” prompted by the news that retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor had released a letter announcing that she’d been diagnosed with dementia, probably Alzheimer’s disease. The Times tries to put the best possible spin on how public acknowledgement of the disease can remove the stigma and reduce the isolation most patients have to endure but the real issue that is never confronted in such articles is the right to die. If someone still has a grip on reality but is just at the cusp of losing it, there should be an exit door that is available. Instead of forcing family members to spend their entire savings to keep a loved on in a nursing home long after they have no idea who they are, let alone their children or loved ones, people should be allowed to spare themselves the difficult choices forced upon the family in “What They Had”.

As should be obvious, the same reactionary forces that prevent women from controlling their own bodies also prevents us from ending our lives gracefully. If we lived under socialism, the expenses would be far less since the profit motive would be eliminated from the health industry. However, there is still the existential question that each of us face and that has to be resolved through our own free will. That takes a combination of Karl Marx and his contemporary Schopenhauer to navigate successfully.

 

 

 

 

7 Comments »

  1. You should interview CNA’s. They are eyewitnesses of the massacre 24 7 365. Paid minimum wage to care of those we love.

    Comment by Erik Toren — November 14, 2018 @ 8:50 pm

  2. While self-professed socialists are pushing Medicare for All as the Impossible Dream, never to be reached in our lifetimes, we have no provision for long-term care at all, totally inadequate assistance to the unemployed,, no effective provision of housing for the many who are ill-housed or homeless, and on and on–not to mention substandard schools and decaying infrastructure. If you leave this up to the DSA and the Democratic Party it will be at least a century before these matters can even be put on the table.

    What about government annuities paying a decent rate that people with savings can buy in addition to social Security to protect themselves against the ravages of the stocks and bonds markets and the unreliability of insurance companies?

    Inconceivable.

    You can get these annuities in Modi’s India but here they are not even discussed. This is one reason why so-called Democratic (Party) Socialism deserves a big Fuck You from the American People. They have no intention of actually helping anyone!!!

    Comment by Farans Kalosar — November 14, 2018 @ 9:21 pm

  3. A very important message you gave to your readers, many of whom are probably approaching older age, dealing with a subject most people don’t want to think about; a good move on the part of our society would be to allow those who know what is happeing and that it will only get worse, to have accress to medication that will allow them to die when and where they want

    Comment by isabelle hayes — November 14, 2018 @ 9:23 pm

  4. Perfect timing. Blythe Danner is on the cover of this month’s AARP Magazine.

    Comment by Elliot Podwill — November 14, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

  5. Lou – You have enough material for a fascinating memoir, but I can’t promise you’d get $65 million for it like Michelle.

    Comment by harveycritic — November 14, 2018 @ 10:09 pm

  6. “Instead of forcing family members to spend their entire savings to keep a loved on in a nursing home long after they have no idea who they are”

    I agree with most of what you say, but money problems should not be part of the considerations here. People should have a choice to end their lives, or not, knowing that they will be cared for either way, without ruining their families. Otherwise, you give people the choice between killing themselves or becoming a burden on their loved ones.

    Comment by Thomas — November 15, 2018 @ 9:09 am

  7. You hit home with this one, Louis. As I age, I wonder what will happen. We can fight against the ending of the light all we want, but most of what happens is beyond our control. And I am not even talking about the way in which older people are just pitched onto the trash heap, after they are no longer “productive.” And whatever respect we once received dies pretty quickly. It is ironic that we are ruled by old white men who care not one whit for their age peers.

    Comment by Michael Yates — November 15, 2018 @ 11:43 pm


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