Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Nov 20, 2013 1:45 pm 
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Kindness, good humor and material comfort in the portrait of a mother with Alzheimer's

Banker White, a filmmaker based in San Francisco, and his girlfriend, then wife, Anna Fitch, have made a very personal, familial documentary about his mother's Alzheimer's that may serve as a softer, warmer, more intimate and feminine appendix to Alan Berliner's searching, detailed study of the long mental decline of his relative, the brilliant writer and intellectual Edwin Honig, First Cousin, Once Removed. This is about three years, from 2009 to 2012, in the life of Pam Steele White, Banker White's mother. In 2008 Pam began to write a memoir, "The Genius of Marian," about her mother Marian Steele, an accomplished painter, especially of family portraits and scenes of the Massachusetts coast where she lived. But in 2009, at 61, Pam's writing project was put in serious jeopardy when she was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's, a disease that had also afflicted her mother. Banker comes to stay in his parents' big house, to assist in caring for Pam, if possible to help her complete the book; he has been close to his grandmother, and identified with her as a fellow artist. He began filming his talks with his mother. Eventually this documentary developed.

Banker White uses Marian's paintings, of which he had been compiling a digital file, and of family home movie footage, to evoke Pam's own early life. The intercutting between them at times may be a bit too fancy, but they also let the film breathe and save it from being just conversations and a record of daily chores becoming more difficult. This is a portrait of two women and of a family. It's a soft picture -- it doesn't take us to the grim, incapacitated end -- which may be some years off -- but Pam's good cheer and relative clarity when not befuddled seen genuine, as does the White family's connectedness. The film shows how, at least for a family with both love and material comfort, this disease can be mitigated by family togetherness and cooperation.

Genius of Marian is a picture of slow devolution, if less dramatic than Alan Berliner's. But it also seems to show consistency. Pam of course becomes increasingly befuddled, though she rejects that word. On a visit to a Boston neurologist with her husband Ed (they have been married 40 years), she can't come up with the word "comb" or identify a drawing of a bench; she has no idea what year it is. But she still has the warmth, the smile, and the humor she always had; she can use them to hide the growing blanks. We learn more of her active, accomplished life. She grew up living in a hotel owned by her father, a strange life, she says, but a good one. She was pretty. One of her closest female friends says when she first saw her she said, "This is a movie star." When young Pam had a period as an actress and model, but she went on to become a Boston University-trained counselor and social worker, and carried on full time with her job while raising her three children. Family has been everything for her, she says. A friend says she was always the brightest, most cheerful, most supportive in their circle. Even though she goes through denial and depression about Alzheimer's and goes through a stage of being disturbed, hostile, and combative, for which she's given medication for anxiety that she at first resists taking, she also never stops smiling.

The family is well off. The New England-style house, wherever it is (Gloucester is mentioned) is big and beautiful, with three floors of rooms and a generous sweep of lawn all around it, a striking sight whether amid summer greenery or framed by snow. The family is close. Banker and Anna have comfortably moved in. For quite a while as her ability to function on her own fades Pam's husband is the one who gets her up and dresses her and is with her every minute of the day. Banker's younger brother, Luke White, is a resident in psychiatry at Columbia, who is also sometimes present. Luke has since worked toward using this film to open dialogues about Alzheimer's and lessen its stigma.

Pam's "Genius of Marian" memoir, which Banker hoped to enable, is a project that can't be completed, but it plays a part throughout the film. By the end of the three years Pam can no longer read anything. But Banker keeps on questioning his mother about Marian. Their conversations suggest the memoir project may have partly come from a need to come to terms with a mother whose parenting was not her long suit. Pam says that "Nana," as they all call Marian, was too involved in her art to be a good mother. Pam may have determined early on not to repeat that mistake. Later we learn that "Nana" also did some strange, sexy, and abstract work not on view in the family house, work Pam doesn't like. Banker finds it interesting, a relief from the slick conventionality of most of his grandmother's paintings. We keep getting glimpses of Marian's art and of Marian herself throughout the film.

Eventually Claire, a stylish young (Caribbean?) caregiver, comes on the scene and begins being the one who gets Pam up, dresses her, and serves her breakfast in the mornings. Ed's long dedication has been extraordinarily patient and loving, but there were rough patches (not actually shown in detail). Pam's daughter says giving up the rest of his life to care for Pam has taken a toll on him. After the arrival of Claire, Ed can work upstairs in his office on the third floor again some days.

Pam no longer knows where that office is; what the third floor is. Yet her speech still makes perfect sense, despite the many lacunae in her knowledge. Ed tries to take Pam out in a boat several times, and it doesn't go very well, a motor breakdown and high winds spoiling the fishing outings, Ed growing angry at Pam's resistance to boarding the boat, saying, "Okay, we can just go back and sit on our asses!" And he weeps when he thinks of Pam's situation, but his patience and undying affection are what mostly emerge, his recognition of the wonderful long life together he owes to her.

By September 2012 (more such timelines might have helped) Pam's confusion is plangently illustrated by her question: "Is Nana here too?" In the summer of 2013, Pam and Ed are still living in their house, and Ed is shown watching Pam in a video -- no date given, but doubtless post-diagnosis -- that gives a sharp and honest, but typically upbeat, description of her situation. She has said that she fought it at first, but now accepts it, and that everything is really the same. And when Banker and Anna have a baby girl, Pam can follow the pregnancy and still come to the hospital in Boston and hold the baby. In fact Ed and Pam came for this film's debut at Tribeca.

Banker White previously made an award-winning documentary about African musicians, Sierra Leone's Refugee All-Stars. This is his first collaboration with producer Anna Fitch.

The Genius of Marian, 86 mins., which has a lot of nice music, including some songs composed specially, debuted at Tribeca. It was screened for this review as a part of the San Francisco Film Society's Cinema by the Bay series, November 22-25, 2013.

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