Twin Lens Media’s Rare Find of the Week: Dying at Grace – Allan King

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Dying at Grace is a film by Allan King, a preeminent documentary filmmaker celebrated in 2005 by the Criterion Collection with a multi-disc DVD release, “The Actuality Dramas of Allan King” which included not only Dying at Grace, but four others including Warrendale and A Married Couple. Dying at Grace examines the daily life within a palliative care unit, Toronto’s Grace Health facility. It follows the story of five terminally ill patients through their treatments, daily care and death with hopes of demystifying the process to those not previously intimate with the fate that awaits us all.

The opening moments of the film show hospital staffers dealing with a recently deceased patient concluding with depositing the body into a refrigerated drawer. With this, there can be no mistake of the heaviness of subject that follows. We are initially introduced to two elderly female patients, one within the throws of her final descent, the other still coherent and struggling with the drugs, actually the entire system, in place to keep her limping through a muted existence. These two appear somewhat prepared for what will soon befall them and at exude some level of peace with the finality. We journey with them through their last breaths and while trying, it only heightens the life-affirming qualities of this film.

Enter the younger woman with breast cancer, an even younger man with a debilitating muscular disease, and an elderly gentleman with hepatitis C, and you begin to see the variances in living with the specter of death. We see the breast cancer diagnosee in heart-breaking denial of the terminal-sentence leveled against her when she speaks of searching for a new place to live and what she will do when she gets out. The young man who can barely speak only to express his perpetual state of depression and anger at what has befallen the body he is entombed within. The elderly gentleman with hepatitis who continually devolves into a hallucinatory state where his paranoia takes hold and he tries to escape, sometimes violently, to his own detriment.

But, whatever the story, whatever path led them to this hospital and the state they arrive, they all suffer the same fate and we are the hesitant witness to their demise. When they are in the final throws, something happens that any hospital attendee who has dealt with death can attest to, a final death mask descends and they are locked within a process that cannot be reversed. By that time, it appears the life, the character that once animated these very singular souls has faded and their faces all convey the skeletal mask telling of their immediate fate.

This film is heavy, in fact, one of the heaviest films I have ever seen. However, it is necessary. With Dying at Grace, Allan King succeeded in examining what fate we all share, but does so with unflinching realism and a surprisingly delicate touch. These patients are surrounded by loving family and a staff that is caring and attentive as they face something that still remains a great mystery in many aspects. This film presents the reality for these patients and dares us to ask tough questions. What is the dignity (if there is any) in death? What basic conditions should be met for humans at the time of our passing? Do the rich and the forgotten deserve the same treatment? While there is no agenda other than the stark presentation of death, it begs a necessary dialogue on death and the affect it has on those it leaves behind.

4 out of 5 stars.

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Upstream Color (2013): Shane Carruth and the Future of Independent Film Distribution

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Upstream Color is the brainchild and highly anticipated release of Shane Carruth, the director/writer/star of the widely acclaimed sci-fi thriller Primer (2004). While Primer received critical success and the promise of a bright future for its creator Carruth, it was followed by a ten year silence only to be broken this year with this curious release. I was able to preview the film locally and sit in on a Q&A session with Carruth after the viewing.

Upstream Color exists more of a meditation than a straight-forward narrative which proves troublesome in trying to explain its plot. It appears to be a statement on the destructive consequences of certain patterns we adopt that have devastating effects on our psyche. We carry these patterns with us, mostly unaware, as they color our perceptions and compromise any future relationships. We build walls to shelter the pain we carry and it isn’t until we find someone as flawed as ourselves that we recognize the pain in that person’s eyes, connect and begin to heal.

Or at least, that is what I initially took from it.

During the discussion of the film with Carruth, he was pressed about various issues in the film (the aesthetic theme, certain character’s story arcs, the use of pigs as human counterparts) and I found my assumptions were in fact somewhat different than those he was attempting to project. It is not surprising since the film appears to be more of a story template where it becomes easy for a viewer to project his/her own narrative upon it, making the experience personal and obscuring the sometimes skeletal storytelling.

The performances of Amy Seimetz (Tiny Furniture, The Off-Hours) and Carruth are raw, honest and at times, heart-breaking. What the story lacks, the nakedness of these characters more than make up for as they fumble through lives compromised by unfortunate circumstances beyond their control. The world they inhabit is beautiful and cinematography almost suffocating as it violates the intimacy of its characters and reveals their obsessive nature.

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While Carruth wrote, directed and starred in Upstream Color, he also edited, produced, was cinematographer and composed the minimalistic, but effective score. From first frame to last, Carruth had total creative control. This would only happen outside of the Hollywood/studio system and would only be attempted by someone who had a borderline psychopathic commitment to see it through. To do so and have the film be an aesthetic beauty as Upstream Color is, is worthy of our praise and easily the price of admission.

The film aside, the real story here is one of self-distribution. Carruth decided to distribute the film on his own, hiring a specialist in theater booking and taking the film out independently. For someone who enjoys total control of their project, this is a logical step and one that I feel speaks to the future of independent filmmaking.

Self-distribution has been done for quite some time by other directors such as Crispin Glover and Kevin Smith; however, it wasn’t until seeing this film that I realized the freedom this type of distribution afforded. Carruth is a genius in that he was unwilling to compromise anything for this film. Outside the studio system, no one can tell him how to film or edit his work. He presents his film directly to his audience as TRULY his own–a singular and beautiful work of art.

This is the future of cinema and one, we as viewers, must support to see untainted and uncompromised vision for film. With the internet and the emerging popularity of crowdfunding or audience-funded art projects, and the technological advances that put filmmaking technologies into affordable platforms, cinema has never been so accessible. Carruth only verified that the new vision is here and its time for those of us interested to step up.

Inferno (1953): Roy Ward Baker and the 3-D Technicolor Noir

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Warning: Contains Spoilers!

Inferno (1953) was until recently a forgotten gem of the Twentieth Century Fox archives. Directed by Roy Ward Baker, the prolific and highly successful British director of such films as A Night to Remember, Quatermass and the Pit, Asylum, and Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (my previous review here), the film spent decades unavailable to the public until 20th Century Fox opened its archives green-lighting a print-on-demand DVD release in its full 3-D Technicolor glory.

The film is peculiar in that at its core it’s as noir as a film can get despite its presentation. The opening frames detail the execution of a brilliant plan. One where if played out as expected could see the end of Mr. Donald Whitley Carson III, a filthy-rich business giant played by Robert Ryan. The executors of the crime are his wife, Geraldine Carson, played by Rhonda Fleming, and her new lover, Joseph Duncan, played by William Lundigan. They want to dispose of Mr. Carson and do so by leaving him stranded in the Mojave Desert eighty miles from where any rescuer would be thought to look.

Seems straightforward, but again its peculiarity lies in the juxtaposition of strong noir themes contrasted by the brilliant colors of its Technicolor splendor and its hit-or-miss 3-D novelty. What was the last noir film you saw presented in the full sun of the Mojave Desert and not drowned in the darker tones emblematic of all of our “dark nights of the soul”? This film has what would seem to be a touch of schizophrenia, but remarkably, it works.

This is in no small part due to the talent both in front and behind the camera. We meet Donald Carson (Robert Ryan), his leg broken as he is stranded upon a cliff of jagged rocks in the midday desert sun. His food and drink are quickly dwindling. We know his grim fate. His voice is ever-present throughout the film in a persistent, and at times, old fashioned and laughable internal dialogue. However, without the subtle, steady hand Robert Ryan (The Wild Bunch, The Set-Up and The Dirty Dozen) brings to Carson’s character, this film could have easily slid off the cliff of believability. His struggle is the centerpiece of the film and is one we are allowed to share with him because of his necessary restraint. There is no grand emotive gesture, no great show of anger at his fate, he is every man, steady. He is all of us at our best as we tumble down the uncertain and at times, dangerous road of life.

The performances are rounded out by strong showings from Fleming and Lundigan, but suffer briefly due to the limited scope given to Fleming’s character, Geraldine Carson. I had a hard time believing that Geraldine would go to such lengths to attempt to murder her husband and refuse to believe that she was so naive to just blindly follow her new lover, Duncan, played by William Lundigan. There was nothing shown to the audience in her character that would hint to the undercurrent of hate and contempt she must have held for her husband to have him killed. Also, strangely, with the magnificent color palette the costume department used in constructing her fabulous wardrobe, which was flawless with the addition of makeup and hair, it seemed as if they were putting her on beautiful display, cast in almost an angelic spotlight for all to see. This worked against the image of wife-murderer.

Despite that, the story remained strong and consistent throughout. SPOILERS: Ryan’s character must run the gauntlet of dangers within the desert. They lurk beneath any rock and slither from hidden ledges. He deals with adversity calmly, wits intact and grows as a character as a result. But, most impressive for me was where Duncan at last hears what he had been waiting for the entire duration of the film…a plane overhead. He must build a fire, send smoke billowing into the air for signal…wait, not so fast. What should have been his savior ends up being the one thing that would bring him certain death. There are no greater beasts than man.

While 3-D was employed, it was not overwhelming and was used big in only a couple of shots. I found this to be a good thing, again as to not take too much away from what was a pretty straight-forward thriller. Where 3-D did become the cornerstone of a scene it was done so somewhat tastefully. 3-D can be a slippery slope where camera trickery can cheapen the tone of a film. That may work for schlocky science-fiction/horror (which I wholly adore!), but not for the tone of a film such as this. Baker showed amazing restraint and the film benefits as a result.

Now, I must say I was able to see this film in a theater with digital projection. I cannot in any way know how the print-on-demand DVD will present itself to the home viewer, but hope it will retain the beauty of this film as I was able to view it.

Roy Ward Baker was able to complete a daunting task in bringing forth a solid thriller while juggling the grand scope of Technicolor and novely of 3-D. His subtlety and consistency worked well for this film that spent decades forgotten, but now due to its recent 3-D restoration, can be enjoyed by all lovers of noir and the hidden gems of 1950’s Hollywood.