Monday, February 16, 2015

A tough subject: Wit (Mike Nichols, 2001)

Forget about the morbid adolescents of Restless, the cheesy bromance of 50/50, and even the well-off academics of The Barbarian Invasions. Adapted from a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Margaret Edson and directed by Mike Nichols in 2001, Wit stars Emma Thompson as an unmarried English literature scholar diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer who realizes that all she can count on are her sharp intellect and the metaphysical poems of John Donne.

The film begins in medias res as oncologist Kelekian draws an indelible dividing line between a "before" and an "after" in Vivian Bearing's life with a single, devastating sentence: "You have cancer". (You might notice, as I did, echoes of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly's opening scene in the abrupt way Christopher Lloyd enters the frame from the left side. Am I exaggerating here?...) Vivian's reaction  a caustic, imperturbable irony with just a slight hint of fear in her eyes  is no less shocking. In fact, this exchange doesn't resemble any of the situations that most movies about diseases have accustomed us to: she doesn't panic, is perfectly aware of her health condition, and seemingly in full control of her emotions. Kelekian has barely finished explaining the details of the imminent chemotherapy when Vivian glibly shifts the conversation to more pleasant subjects; she talks about her students and complains about their deficient preparation, as if by now she had absorbed the bad news and could nonchalantly engage in smart talk.

This scene is rendered with an alternation of close-ups that are all the more powerful since they are not preceded by any establishing shot. Note that few scriptwriters would put such a scene in the first page; more commonly, the diagnosis scene is delayed until we have familiarized enough with the characters, with the obvious purpose of maximizing the dramatic impact of the revelation. But here we still don't have made ourselves comfortable on the couch that this fatal boundary has already been crossed. Draining out every drop of sentimentalism from what could have been the film's most poignant scene is just the first step of a strategy aimed at taking viewers out of comfort zone. Nichols doesn't want to jerk tears from us. He wants us to face the possibility that one day we might find ourselves in the same situation as Vivian's, and what better way than to throw the word "cancer" in our face even before we get to see the main character?

Which brings us to the next anomaly. What generally makes the chronicle of a degenerative and possibly terminal disease tolerable to an average viewer is the presence of an affective bond of some sort between protagonist and family, lovers, friends. For instance, in Alexander Payne's Nebraska old Woody's progressive dementia has also repercussions on his son and wife, who understandably struggle to accept and cope with the situation. Adam Lerner, the young radio producer protagonist of Jonathan Levine's 50/50, is forced to take stock of his relationship and friendships as he is diagnosed with a malignant spine tumor. In Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, Rémy's terminal cancer leads to an animated reunion of pretty much all his relatives, friends and colleagues, who do their best to make his departure as gentle as possible. In an older post I also analyzed Felix Van Groeningen's heartbreaking but by no means schmaltzy The Broken Circle Breakdown, about the disintegration of a family as its youngest member is found to have cancer. All these instances present the disease progression from two standpoints, that of the patient and that of the people around him or her, so that the prospect of death is somewhat softened by the presence of other characters reinforcing our belief that "life goes on". By contrast, our Vivian has no spouse, relatives, friends or whoever to sustain her, nor are we allowed to empathize with the relatively comfortable sorrow of the survivors. The film is merciless in its insistence on those things we are most reluctant to think about, namely that death is ineluctable and, worst of all, that we might not be given the luxury of passing away while asleep. In this case saying to ourselves "it's just a movie" is a small consolation, because deep down we know that reality is far worse.

Which partly explains why the movie can also be seen as a kind of warning, although not in the purgatorial sense some critics have proposed. In fact, a movie telling the story of an aloof and arrogant person whose defenses and beliefs are finally put to a test, is irresistibly read as a cautionary from-riches-to-rags tale, and the possibly tragic outcome as a well-deserved punishment. Here are some examples:
"Words, logic, and rational observation take the place of attachment, warmth, and love. But this trade-off comes at a sizable cost [emphasis mine]: one is forced to become an island." [Chad Perman, Bright Wall/Dark Room
 "[Staging] draws viewers into the sterile, enclosing whiteness of the hospital where this brilliant scholar's redemption [emphasis mine] takes place as her plume of life steadily shrinks." [Howard Rosenberg, Los Angeles Times] 
"Vivian finds her formidable intellect counts for nothing in an environment that regards her merely as a research tool. Too late [emphasis mine] perhaps, Vivian realises a little kindness goes a long way." [Neil Smith, BBC]
I disagree with such stances for two reasons. First, to deny that Vivian's wit is essential to her survival inside the hospital environment would mean missing the whole point of the movie. Even if Vivian feels remorse for how she used to treat people in the past and gratitude for those who now take care of her health, intellectual ferocity comforts and sustains her throughout all her medical odyssey. After all she's a woman who, after having profusely vomited in a plastic basin, finds the strength to say, "God, I'm gonna barf my brains out. If I did actually barf my brains out... it would be a great loss to my discipline." And second, the film tells a story  it doesn't deliver a homily. Vivian's cancer is no divine punishment, and does not imply a judgment. I think that Nichols' intention is to show how Vivian's attitude towards life, far from being a conglomerate of abstract philosophical principles, has made her exactly how she is now  isolated and lonely, and wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers. But cancer is just something that happens: poetic justice has nothing to do with it. Thus if one was to draw a lesson out of this, that would be that our convictions and beliefs, no matter how metaphysical or abstruse, shape our lives in unthinkable ways  and certainly not that love is all that counts.

I realize now that the description I've just given might suggest that Wit is at best a bore and at worst a torture, but that's not the case. Although you'll probably have more invigorating experiences in your cinematic life, Nichols nevertheless finds a way to keep things lively despite the tough subject matter by preserving much of the original theatrical form. Thompson breaks the fourth wall constantly, making the viewer an active part of the narrative; she often describes the unpleasant details of the examinations, as well as the progression of therapy and its devastating effects on her body. Were it not for the fact that only we the audience can hear what she says, the film could be viewed as a sort of disturbing documentary feel, as if Vivian was being interviewed by an off-screen crew (well, actually there IS an off-screen crew).

Another common technique throughout the film involves selective focus on Vivian's face talking to us, while hospital personnel perform medical tasks in the out-of-focus background. These scenes considerably strengthen our intimacy with Vivian, and make us feel like we were at her bedside. Shot composition often emphasizes the patient's powerlessness in the face of the hospital system. In the shot below, Vivian's mortification is effectively conveyed by framing the soon-to-be-opened door right between her legs  a powerful reminder that she and her dignity are at the complete mercy of doctors.

Waiting for the pelvic examination.
We gradually begin to understand how Vivian's proud intellectualism has erected over the years a wall between her and the people around, eventually making her an esteemed but deeply lonely person. She will probably not be remembered by anyone, except as a name in a critical edition of John Donne's sonnets or as a case study in the fight against ovarian cancer. At some points we are given flashbacks that both fill in some gaps about Vivian's past and give us a little relief from the hospital routine. One of these flashbacks takes us back to the day of her childhood her passion for words and literature presumably originated, when her father (played by Harold Pinter, the famous playwright) explained to her the meaning of the term "soporific"; another introduces us to Donne's sonnet "Death, Be Not Proud" which is an important motif of the film. Reality often insinuates itself into remembrances, bringing her back to the hospital room where she is confined to most of the time. In the image atop this post, past glory and present suffering coexist as Vivian lectures on Metaphysical Poetry wearing only a hospital gown.

Mainstream cinema has recently shown an increasing appetite for stories about disease (aside from the above mentioned 50/50, other examples are Dallas Buyers Club, The Fault In Our Stars, The Theory Of Everything, Still Alice, to name just a few) but it definitely has some problems with stories not involving romance nor assuaging the audience's need for edifying messages. This largely accounts, I think, for the fact that Wit didn't get theatrical distribution (it aired on the private network HBO in March 2001). In fact, the movies cited between parentheses conform to one of cinema's most profitable story template, that of the hero overcoming personal difficulties and triumphing over unfavorable circumstances thanks to his resourcefulness, tenacity and courage  in short, the American Dream adjusted for the hospital ward. It must also be observed that the success of medical drama tv series like ER, House and Scrubs  a success that Marshall McLuhan prefigured in his 1964 book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man  has considerably contributed to the audiences' desensitization to health-related matters. In a sense, Wit at least partially fits the mold: the heroin has to come to terms with her own weaknesses and limitations relying on her brilliant intelligence. But the lack of a broader family context, I suspect, in conjunction with the main character's fierce intellectualism, must have seriously put producers off.

Unsurprisingly, Wit elicits contrasting reactions more than any other film, depending on one's taste for black humor and above all on one's familiarity with health problems. (By the way, instead of reading my insipid review you'd better off reading Roger Ebert's moving 2008 blog post about him being unable to re-watch the film.) Whatever one's reaction, after the viewing we might be asking ourselves what a "realistic" film actually is. For if we think that realism involves the illusion of reality, then it doesn't fit the definition  unless we consider realistic a cancer-stricken patient talking to an imaginary audience without anyone in the room noticing it. But if with the term we mean a film that stays in our minds long after it's over, and with the uncanny power to go deep into our consciousness, then realistic it definitely is.

Note (*Sterile Polemic Alert*). Italian audiences, whom I happen to belong, might wonder what the heck a DNR is. Don't be too hard on them; after all we are talking about a country where the dominant cultural authority pretty much equates euthanasia and murder, and where the legislative void on advance health care directives is well away from being filled.

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