Away From Her (dir. Sarah Polley)
What startles most about Away From Her is not its reserve and subtle grace in treating a subject that could’ve easily gone down the dark road of crassly manipulative Hallmark Hall of Fame emotional pornography. Nor is it the focus on a primarily elderly cast facing tough wrenching questions of encroaching senescence, such a rarity in film these days. Nor is it that Julie Christie, just turned 66, is still more luminous and alluring than actresses a third her age.
No, what startles most about Away From Her, a poetic, poignant and unflinching portrayal of Alzheimer’s Disease and its effect on a marriage, is that it was adapted and directed by a 28-year-old. Sarah Polley has never been a particular favorite of mine (truth be told, I’ve only ever liked her in the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead), but watching her assured and courageous directorial debut, I find myself having to do a whole lot of backpedalling and revising of my previous opinions of her. And whatever one does make of her former work as an actress, if Away from Her is any indication, she will soon be a directorial force to be reckoned with.
Away from Her
I don’t know what inner resources or experiences she was able to draw from to conceive of and realize such a mature and respectful treatment of a subject well beyond her ken, but the proof is on the screen. Assured, confident, and unafraid to wade into a deeply traumatizing arena of seismically emotional catastrophe, she directs with a steady, lyrical hand, weaving the film together with fades to white: the white of snow, the white of the winter sky, the white of the lacunae of memory. Her film treats questions of love and endurance in the face of illness, devotion in the face of the purgatorial oblivion of a disease that destroys the very core of identity.
Of course, a good amount of Away from Her‘s success depends upon the two leads, Gordon Pinsent and Julie Christie, who play the beleaguered couple Grant and Fiona. Heartbreaking without ever becoming cloying or cheesy, their performances complement the grace of the film itself, both choosing understatement when histrionics could easily have been in order. Christie’s exemplary turn as a wife slowly slipping into the haze of Alzheimer’s, of course, is no surprise. But Pinsent, a Canadian actor whom I must confess to being completely unfamiliar with, is the emotional core of the film. His persistence, his unconditional love, his railing against and final acceptance of a situation so utterly beyond any control, is hewn of the very marrow of life.
In still images from the documentary, Editor-in-Chief Jimmy Young looks over the dayâ€™s paper.(Courtesy Prince Spells/Centre Daily Times/MCT)
The Paper (dir. Aaron Matthews)
Aaron Matthews’ The Paper is a fairly straight forward, fly-on-the-wall look at the inner workings of the Daily Collegian, the private, student-run newspaper at Penn State University. Focusing on the daily travails of the newsroom editors and staff as they develop stories and try to bolster flagging circulation, the film illuminates larger issues of an increasingly besieged print media, as well as commenting tangentially on campus wide issues of race, rape and homophobia.
The editorial staff, especially eternally beleaguered editor in chief James Young and managing editor Bridget Smith, wrestle throughout with the sort of Romantic ideals of journalism and its nature (e.g., hardline feature reporting about serious issues) that are fading into obsolescence in a world that favors rapid-fire sensationalism and entertainment. The overarching question of journalistic integrity versus the very real need, business-wise, to appeal to their target audience (18-25-year-olds) yields several attempted solutions, e.g., a regular feature on fluffy relationship and sex advice, and increased sports coverage at the expense of more serious issues. But these attempts to secure readership are merely fingers in the damn.
Circulation only starts to bounce back when the decision to run a virulently homophobic letter to the editor in response to the paper’s front page picture of two gay couples kissing ignites a shitstorm of controversy that explodes across campus and into the world at large. While addressing serious campus-wide / societal issues, this story, godsend though it may be to flagging circulation, is still predicated on exactly the sort of sensationalism the students were hoping to resist.
But it’s hard to resist the initial naïve enthusiasm of the fledgling journalists who have yet to be disillusioned by the rigors and compromises real world reporting entails. And yet, one is also encouraged by their struggle, and coming to terms with the very real exigencies of making it in the media in the 21st century, of achieving the proper balance between popular news and preservation of the traditions of journalism.