What Makes a Movie Hard to Watch

This year, we saw just two movies during Sundance, like we have done the last few years to avoid insane crowds: the winners on the last day of the festival.  This year, we saw the grand jury winners for documentary and dramatic competitions.  And it was frankly a relief that the two movies this year were both watchable, good and well made.

The documentary winner was “How to Die in Oregon” and (primarily) deals with the practical application of Oregon’s 1994 Death with Dignity Act.  This film I will talk about in much more detail.  The dramatic competition winner was “Like Crazy” a charming and very human look at a long-distance relationship complicated by immigration issues.  I can’t express how much nicer it was than the last three years (2010, Winter’s Bone; 2009, Precious; 2008, Frozen River) that I didn’t walk out of the dramatic winner feeling absolutely crushed, depressed and angry at all of society.  These are films that seemed to not only present poverty and discrimination but to revel in them, a celebration of misery where nothing ever really improves.  Well, fuck that.

I have heard each of these three movies described in glowing terms for their social awareness, etc.  Again, fuck that.  I have no problem with challenging worldviews and showing upsetting realities but there is difference between a good film with these elements and a soul-crushing romp through misery.  I was beginning to wonder if a dramatic film was allowed to win if it didn’t have all the following boxes checked off: single women, mothers incapable of raising their children, extreme poverty, physical abuse (bonus for rape and incest), under/unemployment, drug issues, hopelessness.  I was pleasantly surprised this year.

The documentary winner this year is definitely a tear-jerker and no mistake, but I’m flabbergasted by what I’ve seen said about it, particularly when I contrast it with what has been said about the previous years’ dramatic winners.  It’s supposedly “hard to watch.”  I’ve seen this repeatedly and I don’t understand it at all.  I didn’t walk out of this movie depressed or upset, and didn’t need to leave early.  I walked out of this movie grateful, honestly.  I walked out of a movie that I identified with in lots of important ways, and which made me remember childhood loss, and was glad.

The New York Times reports, by contrast, that some of those involved in approvals/screenings refused to watch the film.  I have seen some who saw “How to Die in Oregon” describe it in terms of being “brutal” or “harsh.”  Man, what?

This is ultimately not a movie just about loss, or dying and certainly not about suicide.  It’s a film about living, and compassion.  Most of all, autonomy.  What director Peter Richardson has crafted is a very touching movie about treating other people with kindness and respect.  I don’t understand those who say that it is hard to watch because no one wants to be confronted with death, but perhaps that’s because these people never have been.

I have lost someone very close to me, and though it has been many, many years now, perhaps it has shaped how I currently view ideas of living, suffering, remembrance and loss more than I had thought.  I had the good fortune to effectively have three parents when I was young (starting around age 4), as we lived with my maternal grandfather until he died from cancer.

I was a pretty fucked up adolescent from a combination of angry grief and a fairly antisocial-loner predisposition, but I still count myself very lucky.  He was a good and kind man, despite having some predictable generational shortcomings (I didn’t see any actions, but he was highly uncomfortable around minorities, and African-Americans in particular.  Not unusual for a Mormon WWII vet in Utah, sadly.  However, I will say that I had to be told when I was older because he never used any racist speech in my presence.)  He also was a very creative and passionate musician, inspiring my deep love of jazz and some classical music.  I had a closer relationship than any of my cousins and I count myself lucky for having shared in his life.

When grandpa was diagnosed as terminal, I was shielded from a great deal of the early issues and suffering and time has dulled some of these recollections, but as I have gotten older, I’ve also come to understand more of what I didn’t quite understand at the time as I talk to parents, aunts and uncles.  I wasn’t able to understand, for example the emotions behind his decision to have the largest tumor removed or his reasons for it, only the decline afterward.  He was told that he would live longer if he opted to leave it in place, as if you don’t get everything in surgery, it’s like whacking a beehive with a stick.  Since he was going to die anyway, he wanted some measure of control, wanted the tumor out of his body.  I didn’t have to be told that it was humiliating to be unable to clothe yourself, to control your bodily functions, to have to have wounds cleaned, and dressed and debrided for you as you lay helpless, though.  To feel a useless burden, no longer yourself, simply declining as you ask more and more of others and wait to die.  While I couldn’t have articulated this at the time, I think I picked up a sense of it, and I understand it.

One thing I didn’t see was the pain.  And what was necessary to keep the pain in check in ever-escalating doses.  My understanding of that has come only with adulthood.  I think that everyone wanted to keep this part of the horror of cancer from me.  I’ve been told since, however, that when they had to put grandpa on morphine, his whole attitude changed.  Before this, he had been in surprisingly good spirits; family members have said they went to comfort him and found he was the one comforting them.  Whether it was just the side effects of the drugs or the level of pain continuing to erode his ability to continue as a full human being, it marked a turning point.  I think this is when he decided to stop fighting anymore.

He asked my parents to mark off the days on the calendar with a marker.  Grandpa died the same date his wife had years before, by choice.  He allowed himself to drift away, and that was the day that he let go of life.

“How to Die in Oregon” follows a number of individuals, some of whom are dying and exercise their rights under the 1994 law, but it primarily follows one brave and generous woman who allowed us to share in her decisions and last 10 months of life.  Her struggle with liver cancer resonated with me in a profound way.  The parallels between the experience of Cody Curtis and her family and my family’s meant there was no way for me to see this film and not feel a part of their story.  This movie is crafted to be very personal, but for anyone who has been through this kind of loss, it is something more than merely personal.

I watched this movie and wished that as my grandfather died, he had had the option to say what amount of suffering was enough.  He may not ever have used the lethal medication if it was available, but even having some measure of control over horrific and helpless circumstances could have eased him and I wish others outside of Oregon & Washington had that choice.

This may sound terribly heavy emotionally and may push others away from seeing the movie (if and when it is released), but I hope not.  Stan Curtis, Cody’s husband, is right when he describes this movie as ultimately uplifting: “It seems like a story about dying, but actually it is very much a story about living.”


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