Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Wrong Approach To Elder Care

In a recent interview for New York Magazine, Aaron Sorkin was asked what he would like to see appear in the as-yet unwritten pages of the book of his life. His reply was short and sweet: "I hope whatever it is, it contains the words in his sleep."

My father was lucky enough to die during his afternoon nap. As my mother noted, "He even got lunch!" After enjoying nearly 15 good years in an assisted living community, my mother was transferred to the facility's Alzheimer's unit where she spent her remaining time in a mental fog.

My parents, however, were not the kind of people who, like Sarah Palin, worried about death panels. They had long ago laid out plans for their cremation. In fact, when they took a trip to New Zealand and Australia nearly 30 years ago, my father told me that if he died during the trip there was no need to fly his body home.  "Just tell them to burn me up and leave me there," he insisted.

My father and I celebrating my graduation from
Junior High School nearly 50 years ago

Not everyone is that rational or approaches death through such a clinical lens. Just as some people refuse to believe in the value of family planning, others refuse to believe in estate planning. Whether they have been life-long procrastinators or simply don't want to be bothered by having to make so many end-of-life decisions, they often leave their children in a state of anxiety over when to step in, what to do, and whose wishes should be followed.

In recent years, a great deal of attention has been focused on the Mormon practice of trying to baptize dead Jews without anyone's consent. Conservatives who have spent their lives accusing gay men of trying to recruit little children into their lifestyle apparently have no shame about indulging in this appalling form of necrophilic religious vampirism.
  • Religious fervor makes people do really strange things.
  • What about the children who were never involved in their parents' estate planning? 
  • Or those who never knew how their parents (or other relatives) wanted to live out their final days? 
  • What about self-centered children who have talked themselves into believing their own peculiar brand of bullshit about what their geriatric relations "would really want to have done."
  • What about middle-aged children whose personal goals don't mesh with their parents' wishes? 
  • Or whose selfishness could destroy the happiness of their parents in their so-called "golden years"?
Ask any senior citizen where they want to die and they will probably be adamant about not wanting to end up in a nursing home. But for those who are indigent, incompetent, or without family, a nursing home is sometimes the last stop on life's journey.

Two new films examine how families negotiate this tense decision through lenses which will, no doubt, keep them from becoming mainstream hits. Written, adapted, and directed by their original playwrights, each has moments of dramatic clumsiness and awkward character clashes that will limit its appeal to niche markets. Each, however, has a serious message for its audience:

Life's a bitch, and then you die.

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In 1927 George S. Kaufman and Edna Ferber scored a Broadway triumph with their comedy, The Royal Family (which was modeled on the famous Barrymore theatrical family). Set in a wooded part of New Rochelle, Henry Jaglom's stage-to-film adaptation of Just 45 Minutes From Broadway suffers from some severe structural flaws that might not seem so visible onstage.

Scene after heavy-handed scene reinforces the viewer's perception that this film is not so much about a family of actors as it is a film adaptation of a play about a family of actors. Jaglom sees his script as “a love song to the people who give their emotions, who give their art, who just so freely share their feelings and take the risks to stand up in front of audiences." His cast of characters mostly belong to a theatrical family whose roots lie in vaudeville and Yiddish theatre:
  • George Isaacs (Jack Heller) started out in Yiddish theatre but eventually managed a successful transition to the English-speaking stage. Although at the height of his fame he may have had one or two extramital affairs, he is a devoted father and a loving family man.
  • Vivien Cooper Isaacs (Diane Salinger) is George's half-Jewish, half-Italian wife who relies on her Tarot cards for guidance. Equally theatrical, she eventually settled down to raise her children.
  • Betsy Isaacs (Julie Davis) is George & Vivien's oldest daughter, the one they put onstage as a child. Betsy, however, never really enjoyed performing and always resented being turned into a "prop" for the family act. Having always yearned to escape from her overtly histrionic family's craziness, Betsy is about to become engaged to a "civilian" with common sense and a mind for business.
  • Pandora "Pandy" Isaacs (Tanna Frederick) is Betsy's younger sister, an extrovert who has always loved show business because it never hesitates to shine a spotlight on her. Lucky in life, she has been unlucky in love, having been dumped by a former boyfriend who couldn't handle her excessive emotionality.
James (Judd Nelson) and Pandora (Tanna Frederick) in a
scene from Just 45 Minutes From Broadway
  • Larry Cooper (David Proval) is Vivien's brother, an underappreciated actor who is currently staying with his in-laws while performing in a poorly-attended summer theater production of Guys and Dolls.
  • Sharon Cooper (Mary Crosby) is Larry's pleasant wife.
  • Sally Brooks (Harriet Schock) is an actor who is renting a room from the Isaacs family. Sally, however, has a darkly-kept secret.
  • James (Judd Nelson) is the outsider, the financial wizard and potential groom that Betsy hopes will save her parents from debt, save her from their craziness, and help her to live happily ever after. Unbeknownst to Betsy, James also has a deep, dark secret.
Like the award-winning August: Osage County by Tracy Letts, Just 45 Minutes From Broadway is filled with dramedy, dysfunctionality, and boasts a seething sibling rivalry between two egomaniacal daughters. Pandora's discovery of some ancient love letters (which she assumes were written to her father during his affair with another woman) only add fuel to the family's fire.

As the film wears on, James starts to show an increasing fascination with the Isaacs family's emotional comfort with their living situation. Contrary to what Betsy had told him, her parents are far from poor, miserable, emotional misfits doomed to a life of poverty. The Isaacs live in a home they love that is filled with warm memories from their acting careers.

Both George and Vivien are justifiably horrified when Betsy unveils her plan to sell the family house and move them into a rest home for geriatric actors. To Betsy's utter shock and consternation, James feels comfortable enough around her family to finally talk about the accident he suffered as a young man which almost left him crippled for life.

After a self-indulgent temper tantrum, Betsy drives off in a huff. Her younger sister wastes no time moving in on James, who seems equally taken with this beautiful woman whose easy style of self-expression makes acting out seem like the most natural thing in the world.

By the time Just 45 Minutes From Broadway reaches its dénouement, a Friday night family dinner has led to a major reshuffling of relationships. Betsy's big "It's all about me" moment evaporates into thin air, her parents hold onto their property, Pandora and James find new love, and Vivien's old flame emerges from hiding. Here's the trailer:

* * * * * * * * *
At the 1988 Republican National Convention, George W. Bush was asked by a Hartford Courant reporter about what he and his father liked to talk about when they weren’t discussing politics. With a self-satisfied smirk millions would learn to loathe, he replied “Pussy.”

If ever you thought of Dubya as a coward for going absent without leave from the Texas Air National Guard, rest assured he would have been quaking in his boots if confronted by one of the lead characters in CloudburstThom Fitzgerald's raunchy dramedy about two old lesbians who have spent 31 years together.

Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker in Cloudburst

At 80, Stella (Olympia Dukakis) is a man-hating, rowdy old bull dyke who, although hard of hearing, doesn't suffer fools gladly. Even in her tamer moments, Stella's vocabulary could make a sailor blush.

One night, as Stella is tickling her legally blind lover, Dot (Brenda Fricker) falls out of bed and injures herself. Dot's naive but well-intentioned granddaughter, Molly (Kristin Booth), sees this as the perfect excuse to move Dot out of her cozy home in a quiet seaside town in Maine and send her to live in an assisted care facility.

Olympia Dukakis and Brenda Fricker in Cloudburst

Since Stella has always handled the couple's affairs, Molly tries to pull a fast one on her grandmother by convincing Dot to sign a power of attorney (which Molly then uses to access Dot's banking account). When Stella comes home to an empty house, not only does the shit hit the fan, she has a few choice words for her granddaughter's husband, Tommy (Michael McPhee).

Furious at Dot's unexpected transfer to a nursing home, Stella sneaks into the facility late at night. The two lovers decide that their only option is to sneak across the Canadian border and get married in a church in Nova Scotia. As Thom Fitzgerald proudly boasts: "I wrote the first geriatric lesbian roadtrip stageplay that had a teabagging scene for a blind lesbian!"

As Stella and Dot head for the border, they pick up a young hitchhiker (Ryan Doucette) who is hoping to visit his sick mother in Nova Scotia. But when they finally make it to the farm run by Prentice's strict and religious parents, Prentice learns that Ynez (Marlane O'Brien) may not really be dying of cancer and Craig (Randy Boliver) may just be an intolerant bastard who's not used to finding a blind lesbian in his bed.

Olympia Dukakis and Ryan Doucette in Cloudburst

Cloudburst takes lots of unexpected twists and turns which challenge authority, redefine family, and gives seniors an undeniable sexuality. While Fitzgerald's film will often surprise audiences, Dukakis and Fricker make a wonderful team with young Ryan Doucette providing a perfect foil for their antics. Here's the trailer:

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