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The agonizing bite of "Wit"

From John Zulovitz, Columbus, Ohio:

As I was perusing your site, I saw that you’d written an article concerning Mike Nichols’s masterful adaptation of Margaret Edson’s play, "Wit," and, as a result, I felt a synchronous jolt and felt that I should write to you.

Wit is both a play and a film that I admire very much. It also, as you mentioned in your article, features one of Emma Thompson’s greatest performances (in no way negating her equally wonderful and revelatory work as Margaret Schlegel, Miss Kenton, Garteh Pierce, or Elinor).

I had been thinking about the film the day prior to discovering the article on your site. As you wrote that you had done, I too decided to watch the film again. So I slid the disc into the DVD player, pressed “Play,” and sat back to watch. However (also as you did), I found that I could not finish watching the film. Instead, I took down from my bookshelf my copy of Ms. Edson’s play, settled into my favorite chair, and allowed the text – rather than the visual translation of the film – to guide my imagination.

It was a strange, an anxious, sensation for me to not be able to watch the film. Usually, I can watch just about anything, no matter what the subject, provided that it is a film well-made and truthfully told. But something that warm July afternoon had arrested me and left me in a place of stasis; it covered me like a pall, expunging all warmth and light, and made it impossible for me to bear that day Vivian’s journey through celluloid.

Lately, I have been thinking about my father more than usual. “Brooding,” while not completely accurate a word, comes close to describing my current train of thought. He died of cancer just two weeks shy of my ninth birthday. He suffered from not one type of cancer, but two: multiple myeloma and plasmacytoma. The prognosis delivered to him by his doctors was, at best, six months to a year. However, he lived for five years, in no small part because of my mother, who stayed by his side without cease and fought with him his illness, using love, care, and compassion as her allies. When I think now of what she did for him, I cannot help but to feel dumbstruck. It also makes me think of what a wonderful and miraculous thing the human heart can be; it is, as Woody Allen has described, “a very, very resilient little muscle.”

In a way, the reason I am now so passionate about films is because they were the medium – along with books – that saw me through and sustained me during those difficult years following my father’s death. From the time he died, August 13, 1979, to December 1983, I existed in what can only be described as a state of stealth shock.

Outwardly, I functioned well enough. I went to school, procured good grades, behaved myself, and practiced the benevolent constitution and manner of a child who had been raised well and in a loving, normal home. Inwardly, however, all that seemed to exist was a dark chasm. I had no idea how to deal with the pain of such a loss; it plagued me every waking moment and stole from my world all available color; and, from my senses, the very elements of sensation itself. All seemed dull, gray, muddy. I used to sit on the playground and watch my peers at play, envying their innocence, their complete obliviousness to a fact that I had so recently learned: the world comes with teeth, and sometimes those teeth are apt to lash out and bite without warning, leaving in their wake a large, gaping hole where once balance and happiness had occupied, had existed.

For four years, this was my life. I had turned traitorous toward my emotions, smothering them out of fear of what, should I have let them out, would happen. I went about displaying to everyone – my family, my teachers, my peers – a smile that was false; a smile that communicated to others: “See how well I’m doing? I’m doing well. Look at how wonderfully I’m doing this. Do you see? I can handle anything. Anything at all.”

Then, in December 1983, my life changed; the house of cards I had so carefully constructed trembled, began to tilt, and fell in a glossy, fluttering rain. You see, a new film had been released; it had generated much talk, much positive “buzz.” It had been, in fact, reviewed by you and Mr. Siskel on your show. Of course I was interested in seeing the film, as it starred three of my favorite actors; however, the eager and heartfelt approbation expressed by Mr. Siskel and yourself cemented for me my desire – my absolute need – to see it.

So on a snowy evening, shortly before Christmas, I found myself sitting in House Seven of the Continent Cinemas in a suburb north of Columbus. My grandmother and cousin were with me, and soon the house lights dimmed and there before us on an otherwise darkened screen shined a small nightlight in the shape of a clown’s face. Soon there were voices, then a door at right opened and, standing there in silhouette, was a trim, well put together mother voicing every parent’s darkest fear.

The film was, of course, "Terms of Endearment." And though I was enjoying it immensely (so rare is it to see life presented as it truly is in a film), little did I know then that in a little over two hours I would no longer be the person I had been up to that time.

I won’t go over too many details of the film, for I know you’re already aware of them. What I will do – what I feel compelled to do – is to go over a scene that, as it played, changed my life irrevocably, and for the better.

It’s a scene late in the film in which Emma Greenway Horton, having been diagnosed with cancer, sets for herself the final task of telling her children goodbye. The older son, Tommy, was angry, bitter, forcibly nonchalant (much like my sister had been regarding our father’s death); the younger son, Teddy, is doing his best to maintain his emotions, blinking back tears, sucking on his lower lip, staring down abjectly. Emma, as always, is doing her best to be honest, to be nurturing. In just these few moments, she has the unwelcome task of preparing her children for a world in which she will no longer physically be.

And as this scene played, something remarkable happened to me; something so remarkable, in fact, that my eyes fill as I write this. It was as if, as Emma said to Tommy, “I know that you love me,” some lens in my mind clicked adroitly and sharply into focus; and I realized, through Emma’s words to her boys, that death, though a natural part of life’s cycle, is akin to a sickness that infects those of us who outlive the people we love. Or, as Sophie Zawistowska called it, “The guilt.”

But from Emma’s lesson I gleaned also that, if we are afflicted with this sickness, then it is our memory which comforts us and allows us once again to breathe more freely; to be able to laugh without feeling guilt about it; to allow the things we remember to act as a sort of soothing balm.

It is because of this gift given to me by Mr. Brooks’s film that I became a screenwriter. I remember that night, as we left the cinema, saying to my grandmother and cousin, “I want to be able to do that – to give to others what has just been given to me.” It was a kind of salvation, and one delivered by people whom I’d never met; people who had gathered together to make a film that communicated something about the human condition, complete with its joys and tragedies, its attributes and flaws, its many – yes – endearing idiosyncracies and foibles.

All this, at 24 fps, delivered through the power and truth that is film.

Which isn’t to say that losing a loved one isn’t a daily battle. Recently, I looked at a photographic essay by Renée C. Byer printed in The Sacramento Bee, whose subject was a mother, Cyndie French, seeing her son, Derek, through the final months of his life with cancer. In those pictures I saw not only their faces, but the faces too of my own mother, father, sibling, and friends. I felt with them – veritable strangers – a kinship, an understanding, an empathy. Or, too, when I read recently Dave Eggers’s "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," there were moments he captured in his story whose truth I instantly recognized, for they were also moments that I myself had lived through.

Which is all to say that films – and books and photographs – do have a curative power. My feelings are not so much about acceptance as they are about tolerance. You learn to live with tragedy because you must. Or, as Samuel Beckett sees it: “Because there is no other way.”

People deal with tragedy in different ways, hoping to alleviate, if not expunge, their pain. For me, it has been primarily through film. Strange as it may seem, it is the film that deals with cancer in an honest, forthright way that I admire most; a film that neither glosses over, nor extricates, nor trivializes what it is like to have such a disease affect one’s life. "Terms of Endearment" did that for me. As did "Wit," "Cries and Whispers," and "One True Thing." For me, Ms. Streep’s performance in the latter film is the truest cinematic portrayal I have ever seen. I imagine that, while she was making the film, Mr. Cazale must have been much on her mind. There are things she does in that film that are so honest, so spot-on realistic, that I was left stunned, nodding my head, saying to myself, “Yes; that’s it. That’s it exactly.” Kate Gulden is, along with Sophie, Ms. Streep’s best work.

In 1983, as my childhood lay rent and in shreds, it was the combined poetry and cumulative power of images and words flickering across a screen which provided me my salvation, and which allowed me once again to breathe, to taste, and to feel. Some days I am able to go back to those films and experience, again, their wisdom and comfort. Yet other days it is difficult for me to do so. However, no matter what mood I’m experiencing, the possibilities of empathy, tolerance, and compassion remain steadfast. These qualities, once given and once learned, provide a reassurance on which no price may be put.

It is, as best I am able to understand it, a way of living.

Enough? No. Adequate? Perhaps. Yes; perhaps that.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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