Along with family gatherings and holiday shopping, the long Thanksgiving weekend is always a good time for checking out new releases in theaters and on home video. A fascinating, must-see documentary for LGBT and straight viewers alike is Alive Inside now available on DVD.Winner of the Audience Award for Best Documentary at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, it explores the powerful effect that music is increasingly proving to have on memory loss and other debilitating symptoms of dementia and Alzheimer’s Disease. There are currently five million people living with dementia in the US, according to the film.
Director Michael Rossato-Bennett spotlights the groundbreaking work undertaken by Dan Cohen. As a nursing home social worker, Cohen was disturbed by the typical over-medication of patients with dementia, which hampered his efforts to communicate with them. I can attest to his observations in this regard, as I regularly deal with nursing home residents in my hospice chaplain ministry. Cohen began to notice that patients tended to become more alert and responsive when music they were familiar with from their younger years was played. With the use of individualized iPods, he then created personal playlists for each patient and was amazed at how dramatically their memory and communication ability improved in the wake of some time spent listening to their favorite songs. Several of these “before and after” moments are featured in the documentary, which was shot over three years as Rossato-Bennett followed Cohen, and they are truly impressive. As Cohen states, “all of a sudden, everything falls into place” in the mind of a usually-confused patient thanks to the strategic use of music. Other recent research studies have also attested to this.
The film poses the vital question, “Who are we without our memory?” Any of us who have had a family member or friend with dementia can easily echo this. Alive Inside offers great hope for anyone living or working with the memory-impaired. It testifies to the power music holds in helping one “re-acquire their identity” and, subsequently, their dignity. Rossato-Bennett and Cohen struck me at times as being perhaps a little too self-congratulatory, yet the significance of this beautifully-composed documentary and the breakthroughs it depicts can’t be denied. For more information, visit the Music & Memory website.
Another interesting but more problematic documentary newly available on DVD,Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason, takes us way back to 1966 and the 12-hour period Clarke and her team spent with a gay man as he recounted his life. Subject Jason Holliday, who reveals his birth name to have been Aaron Payne, is by turns flamboyant, down-to-earth, insecure (“I’m scared of myself ‘cause I’m a pretty frightening cat,” he confesses at one point), highly intelligent, obviously talented and increasingly drunk. This pioneering cinematic examination of a gay man’s triumphs and tragedies in his own words was surprisingly successful upon its theatrical release in 1967. Holliday enjoyed celebrity status and even had a brief recording career. However, both he and the film fell into obscurity eventually. Portrait of Jason was only recently restored and is now seemingly ripe for rediscovery.
Holliday’s experiences and perspective on gay life of the time won’t be surprising to gay viewers of his generation or older, but younger viewers should be warned that he and the verite-influenced Clarke don’t paint a rosy picture (it is also a frequently blurry, out-of-focus picture). The film serves as something of a time capsule, offering an increasingly — and thankfully — rare glimpse into a decidedly less LGBT-friendly era. I became upset watching the doc at how often the filmmakers ply Holliday with alcohol and seem to expect him to perform songs and funny recollections on demand. It is hard not to think of Portrait of Jason as exploitative, certainly by today’s standards. Then again, Holliday himself declares at one point “I go out of my way to unglue people.” The movie at least testifies well to his memory (he died in 1998) in this regard.
Gay viewers may be tempted to consider Snails in the Rain, now available on DVDfrom TLA Releasing, suitable for their post-turkey respite this weekend. Unfortunately, despite the participation of gorgeous Israeli actor Yoav Reuveni, the film is something of a disappointment. Writer-director Yariv Mozer revisits well-traveled territory in this 1989-set tale. Reuveni stars as Boaz, a seemingly straight university student who begins to receive love letters from an unidentified male admirer. He subsequently becomes suspicious of every guy he sees: fellow students, professors, gym mates, librarians. It isn’t long before Boaz’s girlfriend discovers one of the letters and becomes suspicious herself.
Mozer incorporates some awkward flashbacks to Boaz’s time in the Israeli military, when he and his fellow enlisted enjoyed group jack off sessions (!) and Boaz had at least some degree of sexual/romantic interest in another soldier. It ultimately doesn’t amount to much, and the ending of Snails in the Rain is a dud. Go see the inspiring gay history lesson The Imitation Game or Disney’s more mature but thoroughly enjoyable Big Hero 6 instead.
We wish all our Movie Dearest readers a happy Thanksgiving and festive holiday season!
Alive Inside: A-
Portrait of Jason: B
Snails in the Rain: C
Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.