Where nobody knows your name

I've left more than participles dangling lately, skipping out on posting anything of substance here, including a serialized piece about my first marriage. Is that what I do when I get to the hard stuff, cut and run? I don't know about that, sometimes I've stayed too long. Arriving at the hard spot though, where I might have to look a little too deeply into my own contribution to that short-lived but ever-lasting failure, I've been taking a break. I'm still taking a break here but I'm writing daily for my Chapter1-Take1 book-to-movie blog. Here's a piece from that site, a response to the upcoming film Still Alice, that's more me than most. It's for anyone who has ever had to explain to a parent who they were.



I saw the film Still Alice starring Julianne Moore and Kristen Stewart last week having scored a free ticket to a screening at the AFI film festival.  Oh, how I love me some free stuff. It was the last day of the week-long festival, held at the Chinese Theaters at Hollywood & Highland—not to be confused with what was formerly. and famously, known as Grauman's Chinese, where all the stars have their footprints in the cement, just a few doors down.

Hollywood and Highland is more like a big, garish mall, overstuffed with shiny things to buy, and places to eat. For the most part these are the exact same shiny things and places to eat that you'll find in your hometown or the nearest large city. But it's in the heart of Hollywood so there's that. I go there so rarely I always feel like a tourist anyway; it's hard to ignore the studly Superman in costume asking if I want to take a picture with him. No. I don't. Pissed he thinks I'm a tourist or a sucker. Thanks anyway.

It's a bit of a kick seeing a movie at a film festival isn't it? The over-abundance of volunteers standing around in clutches in their AFI Fest T-shirts, the plastic encased credentials hanging on lanyards around their necks. They feel special and frankly there's something about seeing a film before it officially opens that always gives me a little thrill too. Like I'm finally one of the cool kids. I'm not that cool though, otherwise I would have been at one of the other screenings of Still Alice, one where the actors were there for the Q&A. Today's screening is celebrity free, just a bunch of your everyday movie fan types. The guy next to me, young, in yellow jeans and red shoes that look like Converse but I think they're trendier and more expensive, has been every day this week. He says he's exhausted but he's got his ticket for Foxcatcher, the final presentation of the fest, screening tonight. The woman on my right is a talker, she's whispering to another woman she met and made friends with while they were waiting in line as the program director introduces the film, assuring us that we are in for something special, a beautiful movie about a family's struggle with a difficult situation, filled with beautiful performances.

There's something about the tone of his voice — an almost indiscernible catch in the throat, maybe — that makes me wonder if I've made a mistake. Maybe this movie will be too hard to sit through, to see in public; I don't want to break down in wracking sobs in a crowded theater, surrounded by strangers, a boy in yellow pants and red shoes, a woman who talks too much.

When the curtain opens, the first thing I see is a promo for AFI; it's a young Sophia Loren singing and dancing in a clip from an old film I've never seen but I know the song she's singing and I forget my worries. I'm at the movies. Tucked into my purse is a wad of toilet paper I grabbed from the women's room just in case. Naturally I forgot to bring tissues. I almost always do.

I don't know what Still Alice will be like for you, whether it will be as intense and powerful and emotionally moving as I found it to be. I think if you have someone you love who's been affected by the disease, your emotions may be magnified, multiplied to the power of 10. The same probably holds true for readers of Lisa Genova's gut-wrenching book, many of whom will flock to see this film when it's released countrywide in January. Because the performances by Julianne Moore as Alice and Kristen Stewart as her daughter Lydia are both so powerful, SONY is also releasing the film for a brief Academy Award qualifying run in December.


I've shared in this space that my mother died a couple of years ago, that she'd been living with Alzheimer's for years. While my mother had your basic garden variety brand of Alzheimer's, Alice—played to perfection by Julianne Moore—has a much rarer form of the disease, Early Onset Alzheimer's. While my mother was in her seventies when we knew for sure, Alice is only fifty. She's still a vital, attractive, and brilliant woman, working as a professor of linguistics, giving speeches, conducting seminars. Language is her life; watching her lose it is as horrifying to her, as it is to us. Part of the pain comes from Alice's awareness of the problem, her understanding of the disease and how it will progress. She uses her intellect to compensate for her memory loss, just the way many of us use post it notes or our phones to remind us of appointments to keep and things to pick up from the market. But Alzheimer's is progressive and unrelenting in its gobbling up of the brain, and Alice's intellect disappears and with it her ability to have any independent control of herself. You can't use your phone to remind you of a task when you've forgotten what a phone even is. Julianne Moore tracks that decline flawlessly. From the first look of confusion on her face to where she behaves like a docile child —there's a scene where she and her husband (Alec Baldwin) stop for frozen yogurt at Pinkberry's and she orders what he orders because she can no longer remember what she likes — to the phase where we see her, vacant, checked out, living deep inside her own head — Julianne Moore reminded me over and over again of my mother.

How could I not cry, tears just streaming quietly down my face in recognition as Baldwin helps Alice dress, pulling on her pants as she stands there quietly like a good little girl, when I remember doing the same thing for my mother? How could I not cry as Alice doesn't know her own daughter when I remember the first time that happened to me. I was walking with my mother and my ten year old son and my mother turned to him and asked him in all seriousness 'Do I know your mother?' Of course I cried, and instead of trying to dry my tears, attracting attention, I just let them flow. They were quiet tears and it was dark, hardly anyone would know. Maybe my neighbors but it didn't matter. They were equally moved. Throughout the film the woman who talked too much couldn't stop making little quiet outbursts: Oh no! Ohhh! The boy in the yellow pants grabbed his jacket and held it to his face; I think he was crying too.

I'm glad the filmmakers didn't take it further down the line in the progression of Alzheimer's disease, to the last and worst stages, where all the money in the world won't buy you nursing care that takes away the fact that the loving, laughing, vibrant, proud person you knew is gone. They've been reduced to wearing diapers, to muttering incomprehensible nonsense sentences if they can speak at all, that there is no way to keep them looking happy and engaged, that they'll sit alone, silent, and unresponsive and their eyes will close and their heads will nod and the person you knew isn't Still Alice or Still Enid or Still Your Parent. And nothing you can do will change that.

Phew. Sorry for being so maudlin, I know this isn't exactly helpful in terms of being a 'review' but it was a tough one to watch, and it sent me to a pretty sad place. Will it be as tough for you? I don't know. I know some of you avoid going to those sad, dark places, it's not what you look for in entertainment. If that's the case then skip Still Alice. Yes, it's incredibly moving and resonant for those of us who have a personal connection to the disease, but it was so well done, the material is so affecting and the acting so stellar, I think you'd have to have a pretty hard heart not to be deeply, deeply moved. It was, as the program director said, a beautiful film full of beautiful performances. Most notably Julianne Moore's whose face and body changed just as slowly but inexorably as did her mind. She was stunning in what has to be the most important role of her career. Kristen Stewart, who I'm only just discovering having successfully avoided the Twilight films, did a wonderful job as the daughter Lydia. Stewart was understated and believable in the role; her eyes speaking volumes. Her approach felt real to me. I know I always talked to my mother matter of factly, I made sure I kept my emotions in check when I was around her, no histrionics. Alec Baldwin was terrific, as was Kate Bosworth as Alice's older daughter but make no mistake, it's Julianne Moore's movie. Her tour de force. And first in line for an Oscar nomination.

The film comes out January 16th plus there's a short Oscar qualifying run in L.A. and NY beginning December 5th. Don't forget Kleenex.

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