Saturday, February 21, 2015

Still Alice

Through the Looking-Glass
"That Doesn't Make Any Sense"

Alice Howland (Julianne Moore), a professor of linguistics at Columbia University is jogging though New York City when she stops, confused. She's lost, not sure where she is, or how to get back home. Alice does everything right—exercises, eats healthy, but the sensation of being lost goes beyond the simple "what's that word..." "Senior Moment" everyone has.

Besides, she's only 50, barely able to join AARP. She goes to a neurologist, who puts her through a quick battery of memory tests, which she passes with flying colors. The doctor (because he's a doctor) suggests an MRI "just to make sure." The results of the brain scan are not encouraging—she's showing physical signs of early on-set Alzheimer's. It's nothing she's done. It's genetic and there's a good chance she'll pass it on to her kids, Anna (Kate Bosworth) the oldest, Tom (Hunter Parrish) and Lydia (Kristen Stewart). She is crushed, but she's taking the prescribed medicine that might slow the progress, but not halt the disease, and she and her husband (Alec Baldwin) are both showing brave faces. Her brain is slowly dying, and it will be a long spiral, as it takes away memory—first short term, then long-term—then eventually shuts down the autonomic functions of her brain until she can no longer function—she forgets how to swallow, she forgets how to breathe. Death comes like a particularly relentless thief, taking away bits and pieces until there is nothing left.

Full disclosure: my mother died of Alzheimer's in 2001, and I have a fairly intimate knowledge of the disease and it's effects on a human being. My mother went from unexplained behaviors and attitudes that were paranoid and suspicious, to her losing chunks of her past—the home she lived in for thirty years became unfamiliar to her—she remembered her home as being the one where she grew up in Seattle, she no longer recognized her kids as her kids, and she could no longer be trusted to be self-sufficient and her family closed ranks around her with the singular mantra drummed into us by the advisers at the Alzheimer's Association—"you can not make her happy, but you MUST keep her safe." The disease was a wretched digression of self that she never acknowledged but, as her caretakers had to witness, it is a cruel, but perversely fascinating disease that gives one insight into the brain, the self, and the infinity of details that go into being human, and the essentials that make up the concept and burden of living. You learn that there is so much that is only so much distraction that has only been imposed on us by society and has nothing to do with the process of life. All that gets boiled away to a reduction where basic mechanics and personality (astonishingly) remain. Pain centers go away (mercifully) and life becomes "in the moment." What I learned from my mother's experience is that there are far worse ways to die...if one doesn't cling to their individuality so much.

There is no way that the experience of that could not color my view of Still Alice, and my reaction to it was one of annoyance. Alzheimer's affects each individual differently, but there are patterns and similarities in the disease and how it progresses and how it affects. I'm not sure what disease Moore's character is suffering from, but it sure isn't Alzheimer's, despite the advisory of half a dozen experts from the Alzheimer's Association. There is no "sundowner's." There is no bluffing and "playing through." There is no paranoia. There is no resigned "thousand yard stare." There is no "wandering," no mirror dissociation.* There is no caretaker grief. No identity crisis. This "Alzheimer's" is a blunted presentation, where they merely withhold make-up (Moore's hair never looks less than great—never unkempt), the major symptom of what's called "movie star disease." Moore's good, no doubt—she tries. This is not a "best actress" performance, however—"it's" not there. Either the filmmakers didn't know the disease or they sugar-coated it for audiences, which is particularly cowardly because there have been well-done presentations and portrayals of Alzheimer's, specifically by Judi Dench in Iris, and by Julie Christie in Away From Her (both performances were Oscar-nominated—but lost). Still Alice is Oscar-bait material, not going so far as to alienate audiences, but doing little to educate the public about the problem. It is as lily-livered as if the makers of The Theory of Everything had shown Steven Hawking without the withering.
Still Alice is almost worthless as an explanation of Alzheimer's disease, soft-pedaling and shying away from dramatically devastating material.

But it may win Julianne Moore an Oscar. If so, it'll be more of an expression of her excellent work throughout her career.
* There is something that might pass for it if one has any prior knowledge of Alzheimer's—where Alice is brushing her teeth, or attempting to, and instead, puts the toothpaste on her hand and smears it over the mirror, obscuring her face.  With Alzheimer's, the patient will not recognize themselves in the mirror, expecting to see a younger version of themselves.  I'm still haunted about the time my Mom told me there was another woman living in her house—she had a full length mirror just in the entry-way.  Whoever that woman she saw was, she somehow made peace with her.

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