Watching a truly lovely and spirited teenage girl die of
cancer will not, let’s face it, strike some viewers as a great night at the
movies. But documentary films often find their value in taking us to places
that are challenging, even painful. “Farewell to Hollywood” offers the
rewarding difficulties of that type of filmmaking, along with additional
challenges that stem from questions about its own ethics.
The film’s direction is credited to Henry Corra and Regina
Nicholson, and in that fact lies the key to its origins and unusual nature.
Corra, a veteran nonfiction filmmaker in his late 50s, met 17-year-old aspiring
cineaste Nicholson four years ago at a film festival (where she had an
award-winning short, a fact that is curiously not mentioned in this film).
Diagnosed with terminal cancer, she wants to make a feature film before she
dies, and he agrees to help her. “Farewell to Hollywood” documents the time following
that decision until her death two years later.
Despite their many obvious differences, the two
collaborators are well-matched. Nicholson, who’s known as Reggie, is a major
film buff whose fascination with movies such as “Silence of the Lambs,” “Pulp
Fiction” and “Apocalype Now” drives her filmmaking ambitions and gives this doc
a tinge of the meta-cinematic. For his part, Corra spent several years working
for the Maysles brothers after encountering “Grey Gardens,” yet he sees his
brand of “living cinema” as replacing their intended fly-on-the-wall
objectivity with an immersive emotional involvement with his subjects.
In keeping with Corra’s vérité background, the film follows
Reggie’s accelerating illness in a fluid, matter-of-fact, sometimes almost
impressionistic way, with no interviews, narration or explanatory titles
besides one at the beginning. Therein lies its sensory beauty as a work of art
(the cinematography is limpid and intimate throughout), but also some of its
weaknesses as a narrative account of certain events, subjects and
Of the various people we see in Reggie’s life, the most
important to “Farewell to Hollywood,” besides Corra, are her parents. That in
itself is not surprising, but the way the relationship evolves is very
surprising, and perplexing. When we first meet them, the dad seems somewhat
withdrawn, perhaps due to lingering shock over his daughter’s diagnosis. Mom,
on other hand, comes across as level-headed and determined to support Reggie in
every way she can. Over the ensuing months, though, this family fractures in
ways that are hard on all involved, yet not easily understood.
Some of it, no doubt, comes from stresses common to many
parents and teenagers. Reggie, willful and wanting to be her own person, says
that her mom doesn’t like that she’s not the adoring little girl of childhood.
Cancer adds another big dimension of tension, one that’s surely hard for people who’ve not been there to
fully grasp. And the filmmaking itself becomes a problem. Though her folks are
initially supportive of the project, as if it would be an innocuous bit of
therapy, they eventually grow very hostile to it and to Corra – the father
accuses the filmmaker of having an affair with his daughter, a charge that
seems patently absurd.
Filmmaking stops a while, and its eventual resumption
doesn’t indicate any improvement in relations. On the contrary, after Reggie
turns 18, she’s no longer her folks’ responsibility and they push her out of
their lives (she appears to have no siblings); Corra evidently becomes her
chief caregiver and closest companion.
As if cancer weren’t bad enough, this family meltdown is
painful stuff. That the parents come off badly is undeniable, yet it seems like
there are two basic explanations for their actions: they are really rotten
people, or they’re ordinary people who are so freaked out by their daughter’s
illness—and perhaps by other things we don’t see—that they react
reflexively by banishing her from contact with them. Which is it?
This is an important question, but it’s one that we can’t
easily answer from watching “Farewell to Hollywood.” Did Corra offer the
Nicholsons a chance to tell their side of the story? He doesn’t say. Such
omissions and elisions suggest why the film was controversial on the festival
circuit. Clearly, Reggie wanted Corra in her life and actively helped shape the
film’s depiction of her. But others weren’t so willing or able to exercise
control, which is why some viewers have questioned the film’s ethics.
In this case, ethics are surely bound up with aesthetics, in
a problematic way. One of the drawbacks of vérité comes from a kind of
puritanism that, like much such, pretends to a kind of moral superiority: the
implied sense that filmmaking which uses techniques like interviews and
narration is inherently inferior, more rhetorical and less directly truthful.
But surely vérité’s chief appeal is aesthetic, and rhetorical in a different
way: rather than information, it gives us a seamless dreamlike experience like
those of dramatic films.
Sometimes, though, information is a good thing. Much about
“Farewell to Hollywood” ends up being more opaque than it should be, including
Corra himself. He rarely conveys a sense of who he is and how he feels about
the events he is not only chronicling but actively shaping. If this were set up
as an equal collaboration, why didn’t Reggie turn the camera on him? Another
curiosity is that they are almost never shown talking about film, including the
making of this one, which must have involved thousands of decisions.
Corra has said that Reggie saw a three-hour cut of the film
a few weeks before she died (the final version runs 102 minutes) and gave her
notes. Let’s hope she found the lineaments of the film she intended to make. As
hard as it is to watch her physical deterioration and suffering, she comes
across as an ordinary teenager who’s also a very remarkable person, and that
helps make “Farewell to Hollywood” a powerfully emotional and moving
experience, questions about its methods aside.