Saturday, November 30, 2013

Cancer, Survivorship, and the Power of Film

Even when life seems incredibly dark, I find refuge in film’s remarkable power of storytelling and revel in sharing movies with a beloved storyteller, my brother, Bart.

Cancer doesn’t discriminate, but it does seem to enjoy being hosted by some families more than others. Three grandparents and my father died with cancer. My brother is terminally ill—his second round with colon cancer, but this time it’s Stage IV. Bart has a remarkable vitality of spirit and a strong faith, and so the upcoming holidays are just another season among many that we’ve shared.

“The cancer is mine, but the tragedy is theirs,” terminally ill James tells the audience of Third Star, the movie a bottle of pinot grigio and I probably shouldn’t have watched on the evening after the phone call to tell me that Bart’s cancer had returned. It doesn’t help that I’m far more of a Miles—who is too busy working to be a caregiver but demolished in his own way by grief—than faithful helper, Davy. I don’t handle tragedy well. I easily deal with the logistics of making appointments or arrangements, managing flights and visits, and, some of the time at least, being a good long distance listener. But I still cringe in fear at facing the prospect of being the lone survivor of my childhood family of four. As the older sibling, I should still be able to protect my little brother.

Bart not only has known me longer than anyone else on the planet, but he knows me best. We share memories of a Hoosier childhood filled with pop culture references. We know what it’s like to house a book in our head and struggle to bring it to life on our laptop.

But Bart is a storyteller, and, around chemo and its side effects, his work schedule, and a loving household made hectic with three generations living together, he still writes. He is impatient to make tangible his latest story, but he also painstakingly returns to early chapters to smooth the rough places and polish the words. One way or another, this novel will be published.

Blessed are the storytellers, for they show us both truth and hope through their talent with words and ideas. Bart is a gifted writer, and fiction is his specialty. By day, his job requires his writing to be factual and technical. Off the clock, however, his creativity comes out to play.

Although writing fiction is not my gift (if you’ve ever read my dialogue, you understand that well), I can illuminate and guide, explain not only what is key to a film or a performance but why it is significant. Unlike Bart, whose health has become a catalyst for further creativity, his cancer ate away at my interest in writing.

In the past few months, people I know well and those who only know me from my writing have asked why I haven’t been publishing online as frequently. It’s nice to know that people read what I’ve written, but my answer has been “I’m not in the mood.” Writing something new seemed rather pointless, when I considered the Meaning of Life and my top-priority relationship with my brother. Nothing much mattered beyond the day-to-day needs of my students and my conversations with Bart. When I should’ve been helping him, he instead helped me to start getting back to myself—by returning me to our mutual love of story, especially those on film.

In October, Bart and I watched Star Trek: Into Darkness together. We’d seen it individually during the summer, of course, and discussed it thoroughly in our Sunday afternoon phone marathons, but we hadn’t seen it together. Curled in our loungers in the living room, we transported onto the Enterprise for a few hours and returned to being just Bart and Lynnette—two long-time Star Trek geeks who have seen every movie together . . . and gone to cons and listened to Nimoy and met Next Gen and classic Trek cast members. When I worked at an Ohio radio station years ago, Bart sometimes drove to visit. Once I knew he was in range, I switched from adult contemporary to Nimoy’s or Shatner’s Greatest Hits, which partly explains why my career in radio was rather short lived. Sharing a movie with Bart, and making plans to see The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug in December, was an important part of our most recent visit.

Since then, films, more than ever, have become a way of coping. When I go to a cinema, I’ve forced myself to leave the house—as if not going out just because Bart often can’t is a reasonable “punishment” for being healthy and free from chemo pumps and 17 daily medications. When I see a movie, I escape from worrying about what might happen tomorrow. And specifically when I watch a film, I know that someday I’ll feel like writing about it again. In October and November, I became notorious for taking notes during multiple screenings of The Fifth Estate or the Doctor Who 50th anniversary special—and someday I’ll incorporate what I noticed, and applauded or questioned, into my ongoing book projects.

Going to a movie also connects me to other people and reminds me that we all face death but what is more important is how we embrace life. I haven’t felt like being around my friends as often as usual, because all that’s on my mind is Cancer. It doesn’t make me the most scintillating companion. Nonetheless, I need to remind myself that life goes on, and all around me are people with their own tragedies and joys. Talking with strangers connected by interest in film helps.

Standing in line outside the Enzian for an early screening of 12 Years a Slave brought me into discussions with fellow film buffs and historians. Seeing Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 from a child’s perspective (and hearing my friend’s daughter giggle next to me) gave me permission to laugh, too. On an afternoon when I couldn’t stand to be at home yet didn’t have the motivation to write, I drove three hours south to see—yet again—the NT Live broadcast of Frankenstein and ended up having a lovely conversation about theatre, Shelley, and Benedict Cumberbatch’s performance with a half dozen women attending the matinee. A few weeks later I drove even farther to watch the NT Live’s 50th anniversary performances and, while waiting out the monsoon so I could go to my car, was pulled into a conversation about favorite scenes. I enjoyed introducing my film class to some of my favorite shorts--Dog Eat Dog, the Guerrier brothers’ The Wizard and Cleaning Up, and Little Favour--and seeing my students' reactions. Next week, for our final class meeting, we’ll “bond” over a movie—this time going to see one together at a local cinema. When I went holiday shopping this week, I picked up the extended edition of The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. My brother and I liked Tolkien first, but our shared admiration of Sherlock adds a new dimension to our enjoyment of Martin Freeman’s Bilbo. Bart and I want to watch the first movie together again before we see the sequel. Given his determination and upbeat attitude, I’m confident that we’ll find a way to see it at the cinema.

Movies are an integral part of my life—and my brother’s. He introduces me to b&w classics from the ‘30s on and shares his research about actors. I forced him to listen to more about LotR than he could possibly ever want to know. We learned from the commentaries of Fritz the Nite Owl and the MST3K 'bots. When I play Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in my film class, I remember three consecutive nights in the mid-‘70s when Bart and I watched it in an art house cinema a few blocks from where our dad grew up. So perhaps it’s natural for me to find a way to express my emotions by finding a corollary to a movie character’s, or to turn to film as often as to a friend.

Writing and film are "immortal," and by feeling connected to storytellers past or current, and to one storyteller in particular, I am reminded that each of our life stories is important--moving, remarkable, unique--even though the stories inevitably come to a conclusion. I wouldn't revise mine, even this autumn, when I begin to see the back cover looming behind pages or sense the credits approaching. I do, however, want more chapters or sequels with my brother.

Unlike Bart, who’ll spend part of this weekend diligently writing a new chapter, I’m still trying to find my way back to the keyboard for long stretches of time. But I am in the mood for a movie, and Philomena has a matinee only a few blocks from home.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Quick Review of Little Favour

Please note that this review contains information about plot and performance. If you want no details about either, CONSIDER THIS REVIEW SPOILERY AND DON’T READ IT. I have not revealed anything that I believe will diminish your enjoyment of Little Favour, but if you prefer having no knowledge of a film before you see it—please wait to read this review until you’ve seen the film.

At 26 and a half minutes, nearly 3 and a half of them credits, Little Favour may be a short, but it’s big on packing action—and symbolism—into a few scenes. A first viewing reveals the violent, shocking plot details, but a second look shows the careful way that plot has been developed, shot by shot, line by line. That “second look” makes the film far more intriguing and proves that writer/director Patrick Victor Monroe not only has a suspenseful story to tell, but, more important, knows how to frame it with specific shots that, on second viewing, unveil a deeper meaning to dialogue or a lingering close-up. This layering makes Little Favour far more than another example of Benedict Cumberbatch’s acting skill or testament to his popularity. (The film received immediate, overwhelming support from Cumberbatch fans, who contributed £86,240 last spring so that it could be made. True to Cumberbatch’s recorded promise to funders, the money was well spent by first-time filmmaker Monroe.)

Like any good short film, Little Favour prompts its audience to ask questions and want to see more. Just what is the “favour” that Wallace, known as Ace (Cumberbatch), owes old friend James (Colin Salmon)? What is the history between them, and why, as so many old friends do, did they become estranged? When James calls in the debt, he surprises Ace with a request--to look after his little girl, Lilah (Paris Winter Monroe, a talented young actor making her film debut). Of course, the cliché is that this job is not as easy as it sounds.

Monroe gets good performances from his actors but also reveals more about these characters from the shots he chooses. Even wardrobe tells part of the story. In the opening scenes, emotionally compressed Ace walks stiffly next to the much looser limbed, more confident James. Ace’s wardrobe--a form-fitting, tightly zipped leather jacket--matches his tense demeanor; he keeps his hands stuffed into pockets as he warily walks into an unknown situation. That James and Ace are opposites is clearly delineated in a silhouetted profile shot of the pair standing in front of a brick wall, separated by the visual line of a girder. Once Ace goes into action, however, the now-famous image of Cumberbatch-as-Ace, stripped to undershirt, shows his apparently natural state as a fighter.

The camera angles ably direct the audience’s attention to important details. Monroe relies on close-ups of expressions (through which James and Ace hold an entire conversation) or frequent rack focus shifts between points of view, for example. In a few places—such as intercut images reminding the audience of Ace’s promise to James—the editing seems a bit heavy handed, but overall the film easily holds audience attention, and its style keeps the story moving briskly.

By the time the lengthy credits roll and the film’s many supporters are duly thanked, viewers are aware that there’s a much deeper story yet to tell (especially for those who have not read the Indiegogo plot synopsis that reveals more backstory). Here’s hoping that SunnyMarch, including the trio of actor/producer Cumberbatch, executive producer Adam Ackland, and writer/director Monroe (who, with Will Hensel, even composes the original music), either turns Little Favour into a full-length feature or gets busy with another transfixing tale.