Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Apr 17, 2024 7:00 am 
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A son helps his mother with a fatal disease and shares with us what he learns about it

In Little Empty Boxes, filmmaker Max Lugavere, working with his codirector and cameraman, chronicles his effort to help his mother Kathy with her mysterious dementia. He searches for answers behind her illness, finding lifestyle and diet choices from decades earlier are significant factors. Playing the main roles in this documentary are director Lugavere starring as himself ("for the first time"), and his mother, ("as 'Mommy'"). To offset this jokey sound to the opening credits they end by noting that the film was made in cooperation with the Alzheimer's Association of America. And we are going to learn about that in both a personal and scientific way. The value of this documentary is that it has both elements.

Old family footage complete the picture in a film about Max, an adult son investigating the onset of dementia and Parkinson's in his beloved mother Kathy, and his effort to understand her condition and, if possible, do something to slow down its outset or alleviate its symptoms. Diet turns out to be a major factor. We, Americans, or Westerners at large, now seem to be eating our way more and more frequently into early mental decline. Environment and stress are other causes. None of these factors has been improving, and the unfavorable numbers have been increasing rapidly - a familiar story, isn't it? And aren't we making ourselves worse by worrying about such things? - A vicious cycle.

Max Lugavere is a robust and fitness-conscious young man with a deep voice who enjoys cavorting in front of the camera in millennial casual attire, including form-fitting and bicep-revealing T shirts. He actually shot a very promising film of his mother, which we glimpse here, when he was just a boy, a film whose cheer and charm perhaps inevitably outweigh those of the more thought-provoking later footage. He shows us in the first moments, as he gets up and cleans his teeth, his adult reading: works by Carl Sagon, Michio Kaku, and Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers top the bedside book pile. And on top of those, Ayn Rand's dystopian fictional critique of socialism, Anthem.

Taking a little time first off to display its maker's quirks and always from a first person POV throughout, tHis is a documentary in which the director makes himself both the narrator and, in a way, the main character; but this is nonetheless always primarily a loving and personal film about Alzheimer's disease and related illnesses in which it's his mother who is the center of attention. Lugavere is a filmmaker and TV cohost in L.A., but as eldest of three sons, has, at the outset, when he learns of his mother's worsening mental condition, remained perhaps closest to her even while living across the country from her and his two brothers, who along with their father and her ex-husband, all live in New York.

We follow Max in a visit to Kathy that finds her rapidly worsening, at 62, as her caretaker/housekeeper Debra recounts, behaving strangely, unable to finish sentences, dangerous to leave alone in her art-filled Manhattan apartment, whose spectacular city view perhaps reflects that her ex-husband, Bruce, was a garmento, a princeling of the garment district. Max has decided to give up L.A. for now, and resign from his job as a TV host. We see him meet with his cohost to inform her of this decision (though we wonder if this is a performance, since they are both performers), and next he is in a plane to New York.

We meet Max's two brothers and one brother's husband, only briefly, for a spectacular apartment Fourth of July fireworks-watching party. Max, who explains he has always liked helping out with family health issues, takes Kathy for a grueling series of brain scans, including one that requires her to have her head locked in place in for 45 minutes that she very strenuously objects to, up to the last three minutes of the 45. She is already frightened. These tests add to the discomfort. But Max explains they are essential for her to have the best diagnosis and the best treatment.

Kathy sometimes seems overwhelmed and downcast, but she can be very feisty too/ His presence seems to help her in itself. She and Max have great chemistry: she most thrives with her sons and lives for them, and says so. Despite her fear and initial depression, she is a lively person who can still be seen smiling and laughing, to the end of the film. (The film does not invade the privacy of her grim final months and days and merely reports on them in final on screen texts.) Finally when the tests done at Max's instigation are all done, a neurologist, reviewing all of them, explains to her and to him what they mean: that she has a form of Lewy Body disease(or LBD).

These are illnesses caused by deposits of an abnormal protein in the brain and may combine Parkinson's and other forms of dementia. LBD starts with thinking and behavior changes that are followed by problems with movement. This is a sad illness that is perhaps less common, but happens to have been what occurs to Georg Kienzler, the father of Léa Seydoux played by Pascal Greggory in Mia Hansen-Løve's memorable 2022 film [url=""]One Fine Morning/Un beau matin[/url]. Georg's helplessness and the disappearance of his personality and brilliant intelligence, precisely recreated by Greggory, were both touching and hard to watch. Lewy Body disease, Max mentions, leads to worse outcomes than Alzheimer's and Parkinson's - as if they weren't enough! "To me that's scary," he says. Scary indeed. Few experiences can be harder than to have to live through a parent's gradual disappearance while the body is still there before you, week after week, month after month. In the film, Georg is moved to a facility where he can be cared for, a difficult decision. Kathy is lucky that, as far as we can see, most of her last days are spent at home, with Max and sometimes his brothers Ben and Andrew, around to keep her company along with a private caretaker.

The film is finally a portrait of mother and son, with an intense digression about her diagnosis and its causes and treatment. Much is personal here, and Kathy and Max have a warm relationship in every scene. But there is a solid amount of expertise presented through live interviews with scientists and doctors. Much emphasis is on diet, which, with stress, is a major factor in developing dementia. This is a disease that develops over decades.

The long lead-up to an ultimately fatal onset means there is plenty of time to prevent, delay, or reduce dementia. But the problem is that by the time it is usually diagnosed, it has been developing for a long time and there are irreversible changes in the brtain. Still Max, who we've already seen doing yoga and working out seriously with weights on his own, is seen with Kathy while she is working out with a personal trainer, going on walks including her old neighborhood in Washington Heights, Brooklyn, and eating with her foods recommended by neuro-nutritionists: fresh vegetables doused in extra virgin olive oil and generously flavored with Korean kimchi.

Kathy does seem to improve later in the film after this healthy regime has begun - she is probably much helped by Max's warmth and presence. She still appears well able to walk, even though she has become incontinent, and she appears to be more cheerful now and a good sport about the healthy meals, though she says about kimchi, "Gee, what do they put in this stuff?" Online texts spare us but report on the last days when Kathy's cognitive function went into serious decline, she finally developed cancer so her blood became toxic, and she died three months later.

This is an informative and warmly human film about coping and understnding: it tells a lot many don't know about dementia and its lifestyle causes, but it also documents filial affection: a loyal son who drops everything to be with his mother during her last days.

The tech aspects and music here are unexceptional but fine. Some archival family footage, while not unusual, is used particularly tellingly at special moments. There is expert information about Alzheimer's and diet. It's made unusually clear here how long the country was dominated by false dietary information: the belief that fats and cholesterol are harmful, which are now known to be an essential part of diet, and the turn to "low fat" diets and diets free of meat, poultry, diary, and cheese were deficient in essentials.

The film's most memorable parts simply show the warm interactions of a young man and his mother. You may, like me, want to go out and buy some radishes and some kimchi after watching. Lugavere's research led him to co-author with Paul Grewal M.D.Genius Fooods, a book about diet and mental function published in 2018 that was a Times. bestseller.

Little Empty Boxes ,, 100 mins., released by Abramorama in New York Apr. 19, Los Angeles Apr. 26, 2024, Roxie San Francisco May 1.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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