Monday, March 10, 2014

Memory, for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005)

Memory, for Max, Claire, Ida and Company (2005)

Alan King’s documentary about a Jewish retirement home in Toronto beautifully illustrates the adage that destiny is character. That it does so in the context of a fate shared by most individuals who make it to senescence--to be marginalized in a world in which they serve no purpose--makes that insight almost unbearably poignant.

Character has been accounted for by an array of pre- and quasi-scientific discourses from astrology to the Enneagram, with varying degrees of perspicacity. Yet the sheer variety and recalcitrance of characterological predispositions still occasion wonder. Each perspective resembles a set of unexamined prejudices; pre-reflective interpretive strategies wearing the mask of the self-evident. Each claims singularity, yet collectively the range of individual differences reduces to a cast of repeating characters. King's documentary contains a compendium of those strategies in life's closing days and hours. 

The fulcrum of individuality is an intersection of proclivities, afflictions, and fixations. A single life does not suffice to develop its myriad possibilities, or exorcise all the ghosts that haunt it. Yet each individual, at life's terminal stage, is called to offer summation of this game rigged form the start. Though it's never quite clear what's in, what out of our hands, we all have a play on the ball heading straight toward us like a freight train. 

King's documentary does not solve the mysteries of personality, but it induces us to contemplate them with renewed intensity. What follows is less a review than protocol of impressions.

The room of every Baycrest resident sports a wall of memorabilia--remnants of irreducibly individual lives reduced to a kind of museum display. An afterlife of sorts is already underway. Each guest drags in as much as can fit of the distinctions that accrued to what must now be reckoned the lost cause their lives. Sundry vestiges--portraits, certificates, and trophies--attesting to successful integration into communal life. Their self-substantiation as citizens a fait accompli, each resident now prepares to become the same stranger to their public self as whom they embarked on life's journey--unburdened or bereft, as temperament decrees

Left in the lurch by attenuating memory and family ties, the fabric of once autonomous selves frays to reveal a delicate yet still distinctive weave. A yawning indifference towards the guarantors of identity haunts Baycrest's halls, in which people of not altogether sound mind lounge about awaiting the inevitable.

Max Trachter, a diminutive man-child, shuffles about like an old vaudevillian in suit and fedora, one brow raised in permanent bemusement. His manner broadcasts playful curiosity, bewildered innocence, and a timorous readiness to disarm all comers. Blithely unaware of the magnitude of his situation, he laughs up his sleeve at a joke only he seems in on One of those happily oblivious souls unattached to their own pain, what misfortunes he may have suffered in life seem forgotten. Later we learn he never married. Perhaps bachelorhood was the key to his surreal self-enchantment.

 Claire Mandell, a robust, deep-throated woman and resident voice-of-reason, enjoys a certain authority--in her own eyes and those of her contemporaries. Comfortable in her own skin, she requires no one's permission to be who she is. Overtly infatuated, she affectionately strokes Max's cheeks, showering him with kisses as if he were a new-born baby. “Oy, oy, oy,” they chant dancing about in their second childhood. He is her dearest thing in the world--a blessing reserved for the righteous. 

Ninety-three years old, Fay Silverman periodically breaks into tears as she sits looking out a window like some lost school girl. Everything in her life has diminished except her expectations. “I wish my son would come,” she confides with weary emphasis. “I’m so lonely...I wish I was dead.” Now dejected, now beside herself with glee, she wears her emotions on her sleeve, lamenting, exulting, or railing away as the world looks on.

Waving from across the hall in a game of virtual peekaboo, she makes reference to a new boyfriend downstairs. “I like men!” she exclaims, shrugging in helpless affirmation of her weakness. The next instant she's turned inward, riveted by a sense of abandonment. When her son brings a watch from China her amazement knows no bounds. “I’m so excited!...I can’t help crying!” Maybe she just enjoys shedding tears, her daughter-in-law dryly suggests. With her gentle, maudlin volatility Fay is as out-of-place in the world as her antiquated Christian name.

When not despairing she puts the bravest face she can on her situation. “I'm still here because I said I want to be here. I’m a strong woman. I don’t give up.” In the fullest sense one only gives up once, of course. But Fay means something else: that to live is to look forward and to expect miracles. “I’ve been happy my whole life. As bad as it was, I was happy,” she declares, rendering a final, affirmative judgment. Thereafter she disappears from the documentary, leaving us to wonder not if but under what circumstances she passed from the world of the expectant. Protesting to the end, no doubt. 

Of all the characters in King's documentary Fay--in her credulousness vis-a-vis her own affective 'indications of reality--comes closest to embodying Sartre's nihilistic verdict that man is a "useless passion." Or one that cannot help itself.

Ida Orliff, a retired nurse and doctor’s assistant, had a blessed life and considers herself lucky to have positive memories. Her one regret is not having anything to keep her preoccupied. “Life is funny,” she opines, preternaturally cheerful--"but the last years are not good.” As if asking for permission to be candid and reluctant to draw definitive conclusions, the weight of which has barely registered when she appends words of grateful gladness with a convivial smirk. She knows the world will go on in all its crazy glory and does not presume to speak for the dead. There is only life, even in an ending. Diminished but still ardent. 

Helen is certifiably insane, ranting interminably in toothless, free-associating dementia to the annoyance of sundry cohabitants. “What kind of a home did she come from?” Ida inquires disapprovingly. Helen doesn't recognize her own daughter, who still comes to visit, resigned to being just an acquaintance. At times acutely cognizant of her surroundings, she's not above deflating an unusually up-beat Fay with questions about her son’s whereabouts. Habits of the heart--the malicious no less than life-affirming--appear to defy the infirmities of age.

The day comes when the news of Max’s passing must be broken. Tenants and staff members gather in support. The favorite of fortune, little Max had a fall, was hospitalized, and promptly gave up the ghost. Head in her hands Claire remains incredulous, defeated by the necessity of comprehending the imponderable. “Where was I? Why wasn’t I told.” Try as she might, there's no sense to be found in the sudden exit. Her incredulity channels itself into queries about the circumstances of his death; interrogating the mundane markers of time and place to dissipate the inconceivability of his demise. As if fixing the chain of events leading to his disappearance could refute the remorseless fallacy of natural consequences.

What remains of life will go on, but in a profoundly diminished capacity. “I’ll never get over this,” she prophesies. 

Lingering in the back of her mind may be the sense that death is punishment for the crime of being born. Several more times in the ensuing days she has to be told of the disappearance that keeps slipping her mind. The news is a revelation each time it’s broken. One night she dreams about it.

“I dreamed he passed away. Does that mean anything?” 

“I think it does, Claire. Max has passed away.” 

What? When?”

“Five days ago.”

“Five days ago? I just had that dream last night...So Max is gone? You're the first one that mentioned it to me...Why didn’t you tell me before?”

Claire struggles to make a connection that seems to require a leap of faith. “... I’m not dreaming now,” she insists, as if to reassure herself. So do perception and reality diverge as life approaches in-difference, never having revealed the seam of its unmendable rift. 

“He was the captain of his ship of soul,” the Rabbi announces during a make-shift service in the lounge. He celebrates Max's friendship with Claire, who, exhausted from weeping, sits dabbing a handkerchief in sunken eyes. Ida, her hand comfortingly folded over Clair's, looks on respectfully. The Rabbi concludes with the standard appeal:

“May his soul be bound up in the bond of life.” 

Given the enormity of the change death effects the request seems modest. Fittingly perhaps for a religion that sees pride as the root of sin and salvation as a matter of collective transformation. Yet in bridging the breach opened by death, the plea performs the essential work of all eulogies: affirming continuity for the sake of the discontinued. 

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