Still Alice
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Why I refused to see ‘Still Alice’

by Jay Russell

A couple of years ago, an Austrian picture called Amour won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film. I had read that the story was about an elderly Parisian couple dealing with the aftermath of the wife’s debilitating stroke. I had heard that Emmanuelle Riva was stunning and transformative in the role. Friends and colleagues told me how well directed the film was and even my wife said, “This is a film you must see.”

And yet, I went out of my way to avoid it. Each day I would go to my stack of screeners and sift through the pile to pick one for the evening. Amour would always end up on the bottom. I would stare at the discs and think – I could watch Life of Pi again, or, Silver Linings Playbook was enjoyable, maybe that one was worth another look. I simply wasn’t going to watch that film.

Then one afternoon I was at the Arclight in Hollywood and I had the show time wrong for the movie I wanted to see. It was either – go home, wait in the bar for an hour and a half, or see something else. I looked up at the big board and it was like the lights faded on all the other titles and Amour was glowing.

Of course, the film was brilliant. Its honesty was overwhelming. The scenes between Jean-Louis Trintignant and Riva were heartbreaking. I wept at the pain the characters were experiencing, but it was more than that, and why I had avoided the film for so long. As I was watching, I was reliving the pain of my mother’s decline and eventual death from the previous year. The once vibrant, brilliant woman who had never met a New York Times crossword puzzle she couldn’t solve in minutes had slowly deteriorated into a person I could barely recognize. She had been engulfed by the horror that is Alzheimer’s disease.

And unlike the loving, caring husband played by Trintignant, my father could not be with my mom and help her to the end because the very same sickness had also afflicted him. On the one hand, he was spared the sorrow of having lost his wife of 65 years (to the day – she died on their anniversary), but on the other, he would never know what happened to her as his memory of my mother eventually faded away.

A year ago, on my birthday, my father passed away as a result of the goddamned evil that is this disease. And my first reaction was relief. Sheer relief. That’s the deviousness of Alzheimer’s – it is so unbearably difficult on the sufferer’s loved ones, that one can’t help but feel liberated when the exasperation of the illness’ manifestation ends. It had been almost 8 years of daily grieving, and it was finally over.

I am relating this story, not out of the desire to depress anyone who might take the time to read, but instead to give background. Now, CUT TO:

This year’s stacks of screeners sat on my desk, and go figure, the one that found its way to the bottom of the pile over and over was Still Alice. I had watched Whiplash and The Grand Budapest Hotel six times already and still could not make myself hit the play button on Alice, even though Julianne Moore is one of my favorite actors. It was the subject matter of the film, and I just could not make myself face it.

And then last week, once again, I stood facing the big board at the Arclight, but this time it wasn’t as difficult a decision. I inhaled, marched forward and took my seat in Row C to watch Still Alice.

Like the experience of Amour, I was instantly transported back to my experiences with my parents – the initial lapses of simple memory, the irritableness, the onset of confusion, then the more serious symptoms – being lost in familiar places, transposing people altogether (was I my father’s son or brother?), incontinence, all the fun stuff… In the case of this story, even more tragic because Moore’s character has early onset Alzheimer’s, and there’s nothing worse than this happening to a young person.

But all the while, I was overcome by an odd, comforting feeling, and that was – I am not alone. Other people have experienced what I have. I am actually glad I’m seeing this film and it is helping me come to terms with my own grief.

I left the film not sad, but very happy, on many levels that I’d seen it. Is it an expertly made film with a well-told story? Yes. Is it an “important” movie? Yes it is. Is Julianne Moore bloody brilliant and deserving of her many award nominations? Yes she is. Is this a feel-good movie? No it is not. Should you see it? Yes you should.

The real takeaway for me is this – films have the power to take us on imaginary adventures, romantic journeys, make us laugh till we split our guts, but they can also cause us to reflect on our own emotional and sometimes painful experiences of real life.

And we shouldn’t move those films to the bottom of the stack of screeners, and we should buy the ticket and sit in Row C. These films, such as Amour and Still Alice, can bring great comfort in knowing that there are others out there who understand and empathize; aid and guide us through those tough times; enlighten those with the good fortune to have not experienced such pain – and in the case of Still Alice, I would challenge anyone walking out of the theater and not wanting to immediately contribute to Alzheimer’s research in order to rid our planet of this awful and dreadful killer. There is no villain in any film this year more frightening.

I hope that these films will continue to get made. They are, indeed, important.

Jay Russell

About Jay Russell

Jay Russell is a producer and director of film and television. He is from North Little Rock, Arkansas and graduated from the film school at Columbia University. His feature credits include "My Dog Skip," Tuck Everlasting," "Ladder 49," and "The Water Horse." Please follow on Twitter: @Dogskip and Instagram: dogskip

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