As I wade through my 15th year as a film reviewer — these years, as they say, they run like rabbits — one question has recently bounced around my brain. How well do my readers know me? How well do they think they know me? What impressions might they have drawn about me through my writing which has, over the years, been colourfully inconsistent: dismissive, embracing, egotistical, self-deprecating…
Conventional film reviewing is an inherently impersonal medium, focused on diagnosing the crowning achievements of other people’s lives and all too often dismissing them with a quick flick of the proverbial wrist and a witty put-me-down. Many films, especially from indie filmmakers, are deeply personal works, and many of them I have sledged over the years.
Is this an attack of the guilts? No. Every opinion no matter how high and mighty the opinion-maker might sound needs to be taken with a grain of salt and plenty of people have lambasted — and hopefully will continue to do so — my writing over the years, sometimes in savage vitriolic sprays. It’s par for the course.
Rarely is the mirror held not to the film being reviewed but to the film reviewer. So, consider this post an experiment of sorts. If you want a straight-up film review, don’t continue reading. In fact if you want a straight-up anything, don’t continue reading.
Late last week, as part of my 60 films in 17 days blog-a-thon, I watched an airy, light-headed, location-centric American indie called Jess + Moss (read my review here). Director Clay Jeter plays on notions of memories lost and found, real and imagined. It took me a fair while — about twenty minutes — to embrace the film’s mood. I eventually found myself mentally meandering along with the characters: identifying, isolating and abandoning fragments of my own memories. The film’s vacuous storyline encouraged me to ask a couple of questions about myself. What would I describe as a seminal moment in my life? What is the memory I most vividly recall?
I realised Jess + Moss did not exist as a playground for its own thoughts and meanings but as a playground for mine. When I realised its purpose was, consciously or otherwise, to provide the context with which to frame my own memories, a series of events immediately occurred for which I have no rational explanation.
The walls of the cinema fell down and crumbled to dust. The ceiling lifted off and floated towards the heavens and the screen omitted a bright blinding light that pierced my eyes. I lifted my hands in front of my face to shield my vision and, 10 or 20 seconds later, when the light had died down, I took my hands away and looked around.
Things gradually came into focus and I looked at the decorum around me and it was bleached, sterile and unfriendly — a cold and clinical place somewhere far removed from Melbourne’s ACMI cinemas.
Uncle Allan, with his podgy friendly face and his cancer-ridden body, was standing next to me. Aunty Val, with her rumpled features and tobacco breath, was next to him. My cousin Celia, with her beautiful and determined eyes, was next to him and my mother, with her exasperated face and well-worn gym shoes, was next to her.
We were forming a half circle around a hospital bed, silent and scared, watching Nanna Elliott, 93 years of age, quietly breathe. It was the year 2000 and I’d spent the previous decade – all of my high school years and then some – living with Nanna, watching that lovable old thing slowly grow more senile, crying out for milk and brandy and sleepin’ tablets for hours and hours every night until she eventually drifted off to sleep, forgetting she’d had them five minutes after they went down her throat.
Despite her age a part of me always viewed her as indestructible — more a force of nature than a person — until the day I came from school and saw an ambulance parked outside our house. When I went inside I saw Nanna sitting on her favourite chair, but things were different and could never be reversed. Half her face sagged; it dribbled down towards the floor while the other half remained the same. It was like looking at the Batman villain Two Face. That’s what a stroke can do to you.
Whisked to the hospital, we were told by a doctor that Nanna didn’t have much left: “hours to days rather than days to weeks.” She spent about three days, comatose in bed, breathing, but not moving an iota, and never opening her eyes.
My strong-willed and soft centered Aunty Bobby, taking a quick walk to clear her head, was the only one of us who felt she really needed to be there when the final moment happened and the only one of us who wasn’t. As our solemn huddle maintained its hallowed silence, and the respirator machine maintained an uncertain melody, an incredible thing happened: Nanna Elliott, for so long dormant and lifeless, opened her eyes and raised herself upwards, her light blue eyes shooting wildly ahead.
It was a death-defying couple of seconds: Lazarus returning to life, Christ removing the stone. But those once bright blue eyes had faded. My mother, understanding more than I did, hurried to her side and clasped her hand. “We love you…we love you….we love you…” she said as Nanna Elliott’s eyes closed and her figure slumped back. Uncle Allan softly said “I think she’s gone.”
But watching Nanna Elliott die was not the last time I saw her alive. Two years later I was living in Tokyo, aimlessly wandering through the drizzly winter arteries of Nishi-Kawaguchi, a lost man in a very bad funk. My head was swollen with grim thoughts. Courtesy of a love interest gone sour, my arrival in the country had not gone smoothly.
The previous evening I was jerked awake by a savage dream. Hundreds of tiny snakes, each no more than half a foot long, frantically slithered up and down my body and I watched them, frozen in shock. I awoke from the dream in mid-air, hurling myself towards the light switch and fumbling against the wall in the dark. I stripped the sheets off my futon in search of those evil little fuckers and, finding none, drifted into the kitchen.
With sweat pouring off me I calmed myself with a swig of sake and collapsed on the couch while a singing head without a neck yapped on the television. Alone and despondent, I wolfed down a plate of salmon sashimi and sweet ginger and was just about to retire to bed when someone knocked on the front door.
“Come in,” I yelled, and then she was sitting next to me, Nanna Elliott, back to life, her old crinkled hands embracing me. I could feel the warmth of her body and smell the scent of tea on her breath. She told me to be strong, that life throws us all curve balls and only the weak never get up after a fall.
“Before I died,” she said, “I told you I loved you, and I meant it. And now I’m dead, I say the same thing.”
And in an instant everything disappeared. The scenery around me swirled into motion. Dust became walls, the ceiling of the cinema slotted back into place, and Jess + Moss continued playing on the big screen. I blinked once, blinked twice, and kept watching.