On Catharsis And Film

//Note: I unearthed this bit of writing from my laptop and believe that I wrote it sometime late last year in the wee hours of the morning. Be warned that there are spoilers for Me, Earl And The Dying Girl (though with a title like that, there can be no twist endings). Also, Happy Lunar Year!

Watching movies about young people losing other young people is deeply, cathartically painful. I don’t mean the schmaltz of teenagers falling in love with the idea of other teenagers—I’m talking about the horrific, transcendent, and sublime experience of watching realistically unlikeable characters with more neuroses, self-doubt, and unchecked egotism than Woody Allen on Bring Your Daughter To Work Day being rent apart under the unwavering gaze of the doomed beholder, only to ultimately lose their most honest audience and closest friend to some machination of everyday circumstance.

Cancer, car accidents, unexplained but fatal ailments—sure, these are all guaranteed to bring the waterworks, regardless of whether the viewer has yet to experience catastrophic death in his or her own life. But the agony, the agony of enduring the welling up of memory, beyond mere emotion, in the face of cinematic poignance and sensitivity is beyond description. Take, for example, my recent enjoyment of Me And Earl And The Dying Girl. I was first introduced to the film by way of a coworker’s book club selection. Only at the final book club meeting did he confide, in his typically breezy manner belying a keenly observant and intelligent mind, that his older brother was treated for cancer (of what I cannot remember) when my coworker was in high school. Thankfully, the older brother is now in remission, and the confiding of this past experience for my coworker constituted the finest achievement of an office book club—to know each other a little better, and see each other a little more kindly. Our little club’s plans to see the recently released film based on the book never came to fruition, and months later I sorted my internet out at home and downloaded it from iTunes. Good lord, I was not prepared.

The book Me And Earl And The Dying Girl attempted to convey the confusion and pervasive feeling of pointlessness engulfing the teenage dirtbag narrator who watches, at the well-intentioned behest of his mother, a long-time classmate slowly die of leukemia. The friendship is immature and remote, and the narrator seems only to bear witness to his friend’s slow death, without demonstrating any sort of competence, inherent or learned, as an emotionally functional human being. He just sort of exists on the fringes of high school and on the fringes of his friend’s decline, being sweaty, awkward, and self-centeredly apologetic. That’s the whole point of the book, I suppose. The film, on the other hand, adds in the emotional completion that the author of the book purposefully denies the reader. The film protagonist is awkward in an endearing way, and his hobby of making no-budget art-house rip-off movies is actually fuelled by some talent, rather than sheer social incompetence that renders the book protagonist effectively friendless and hopelessly unlikeable. The film protagonist’s own films brings me to my main point—he shoots a surprisingly evocative dialogue-less film and plays it to his friend as she lays in the hospital dying, having rejected further chemotherapy. He does not know that she is dying, only that she has opted out of treatment, and he is tacitly apologizing for his initial selfish, betrayed reaction by turning up to her hospital room on prom night in a tuxedo, corsage in hand.

Don’t be fooled, however; this is no John Hughes movie. The friend does not get out of bed and attend the prom like a “normal” girl. She instead lies side by side with the protagonist, absorbing the images projected on the opposite wall—monochrome images of the protagonist’s face, her face, Earl’s face, her mother’s face, alternately serene, regretful, bashful, joyful. The protagonist’s film then transitions from portraiture to abstract art, with stop-motion geometric figures drifting across the projection, scored sweetly to music reminiscent of a teeny-bopper Neon Bible, in a good way. The girl is so weak that she cannot say anything, and she can only cry slow, wrenching tears as she is transfixed by the projection of shapes on the wall. She begins to choke, prompting the protagonist to call her mother and the night nurse into the room. He stands against the far wall, in his rented tuxedo, lit by the projected colors, and watches the nurse’s attempts to revive his friend. The dying girl never looks away from the film, and it continues to play as the protagonist is shoo-ed out of the hospital room. The voiceover reveals that the girl entered into a coma immediately thereafter and subsequently died.

For me, the movie ended there. There were, of course, scenes of the funeral, of the protagonist’s journey after his friend’s death, but this continued arc may have well played during the end credits for all that it mattered to me. The conclusion of the film, the pinnacle of catharsis, was for me watching that girl lying on the bed with her unlikely friend, processing the increasingly abstract shapes, colour, and music in her otherwise unadorned hospital room. She dies this way, and it is unspeakably beautiful. I can only attempt to describe my reaction to the film by way of explanation—watching that scene launched me directly back into the young woman I was 1 year and 11 months ago, sitting by my boyfriend’s CCU bedside, reading anecdotes to him and playing sound recordings submitted by his friends in recognition of our third anniversary. I had tucked a plush hedgehog (his gift to me that Christmas) into his palm, and covered his lax fist with my own as I stood by him, reading dozens of stories about him, recounted by others, as he stared unblinking at the far wall.

He was in a coma—sometimes his eyes were taped shut to protect them, and other times the nurses left them open to relieve his chafed eyelids from the adhesive. He had had two large bone flaps removed from his skull to relieve the pressure and his broken neck was locked into a halo, but at the time there was still an ever-diminishing chance of a limited recovery, though no one could say for certain. I was so scared to leave him alone, because I did not want him to feel that he was alone, if he was capable of feeling at all. So I read his favourite authors, Terry Pratchett and P.G. Wodehouse foremost, to him every night, and once I had compiled a scrapbook of anecdotes for our anniversary, I read that to him too. I recorded me reading those anecdotes to him, focusing my iPhone camera on our joined hands and the hedgehog to protect his notorious tendency towards vanity, and I sent those recordings to his father, so his father could continue to play them when he was eventually flown in an air ambulance back home to England. It was one of the hardest things I’d ever done, making those recordings, but I was all too happy to do them if it meant that Alex would never feel abandoned or alone.

Perhaps I was too naïve at the time to realize that he would ultimately never recover beyond a persistent vegetative state that allows him to blink, enter sleep cycles, and shift sluggishly. He is still non-verbal and non-responsive, and I am still completely, unashamedly in love with him. A much more experienced woman than me has told me that I probably always will be, and I can believe it. Especially when a movie about a teenager dying of wholly unrelated causes transports me back to that bedside so abruptly, so vividly, that I can feel his hand under mine and hear the beeping of his monitors in my ears. These memories are lonely ones, as I was always alone in that room, reading to him until I felt that he was more relaxed (again, probably wishful thinking) so that I could leave him until the morning, when I would come to read to him again and speak with the nurses about any hope of a prognosis. I will never be able to describe what those months were like, day after day at his bedside, wanting to be nowhere else and wanting above all for him to feel loved, reassured, and cared for. There was no one strong enough to tell me to grieve, or let go; I was the only one who could fill that role, and it was an honor to do it. Isolating as this experience was, and still is, these memories are also deeply comforting, as they are always accompanied by the overwhelming love I felt for my partner at the time—unconditional love regardless of his condition.

That was the unexpected gift I received tonight (a Thursday night) from a streaming movie about an awkward, unlikeable teenager made more palatable by a forgiving director—I felt what it was like to love someone again, and to know love totally and undeniably. That is something I will carry with me forever, but it takes a great film to remind me that I have it in me at all.

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