Judge Bill Gibron warns this important documentary series on a devastating disease can be very tough to take.
From Hopeless to Hope.
Sometimes, the material hits too close to home. No matter how well intentioned the project, or sympathetic the portrayal, reality and experience trump a work's ability to enlighten or entertain. Over the last 18 months I have been personally dealing with the dementia (and eventual death) of my wife's 97 year old grandmother. From a freak car accident to hip surgery, a bout of pneumonia to the rapid onset of mental decay, her situation soon became the stuff of overriding everyday concern. Between trips to the hospital, visits to potential nursing homes, and the eventual loss of a viable member of the family, it was a strain on everyone—especially emotionally. So when HBO released its highly regarded collection of documentaries about Alzheimer's on DVD, fate seemed to step in and mandate I review the over nine hours of content. While a brilliant dissertation for anyone who has questions or concerns about the degenerative brain disease, for me, it was like living the last year and a half all over again.
It begins with the most devastating portrait of all—The Memory Loss Tapes. Following a group of individuals in various stages of the disease, we see the functional and the lost, individuals learning to cope and loved ones that have lost all hope. This is the kind of material that makes you think, that makes you wonder how you'd react if the medical community mandated you could no longer drive (thus severely limiting your independence) or if you saw the man you loved for over forty years flirting and kissing with a fellow assisted living facility patient. Unlike cancer, which destroys the body before destroying the mind, Alzheimer's is the most horrific of thieves—it steals the person. All throughout this intriguing opening doc, we watch as family and spouses literally crumble under the weight of losing someone important to their life in gradual, heartbreaking steps. One even calls it by a very appropriate name—"the long goodbye." Old photos and vintage film footage drive the disparity home in ways that instill nothing but sorrow and pain.
It's the same with Caregivers, another peak at people dealing with Alzheimer's, this time from the other side of the hospital bed. More a companion piece to The Memory Loss Tapes than its own unique perspective, we watch as an old lesbian couple puts on a brave game face, the sudden onset of the illness shortening what was always a promising and productive life together. We see a heralded TV entertainer from the past falling apart in front of his wife's tear-streaked eyes, a series of lies and fake phone calls keeping his muddled mind quiet. From the singer who recognizes no one but can still warble with the best of them to the mother who must be fenced in to keep from hurting herself, both Memory Loss and Caregivers paint portraits of Alzheimer's that are hard to forget. Even Maria Shriver, herself a professed "child of the disease" (her father, Sargent Shriver, currently suffers), has a hard time removing the stigma. Her child-oriented piece, Grandpa, Do You Know Who I Am? reminds one of the work Marlo Thomas did in the '70s. It's high minded and genial, while trying to teach kids not to fear their failing relatives. Some of the images we see, and the stories connected to them, make said point rather difficult to embrace.
Indeed, once we get to the other two discs in the three DVD set, The Alzheimer's Project becomes a nonstop barrage of medical factoids and scientific hypothesizing. We learn about cutting edge research, possible links to other illnesses and lifestyle choices. We hear about breakthroughs in both tradition and gene therapy, and we hear the heartwarming stories of individuals who've benefited greatly from the studies currently being conducted. It's a nice contrast to the pessimistic pieces presented before. Even better, the final disc offers over four hours of extended coverage, getting deeper into the issues of DNA, stem cells, diet, exercise, aging, and the ever-present promise of miraculous options just around the corner. Of course, it still can't shake the initial images we've seen—especially if you, like myself, has just had a similar set of experiences happen within the recent past. One of the oddest things about The Alzheimer's Project, especially for someone with such a circumstance in their life, is how familiar everything is. Nursing homes are the same all over the country. Families all react and regroup in the very same ways. The horrors are just as devastating, and when death finally comes, the relief is equally, if unceremoniously, sweet.
As a document of the current state of research and development, The Alzheimer's Project is a major effort. As an entertainment, it is enlightening if loaded with dramatic drawbacks. The stories can be so sad, the problems so personally monumental, that we wonder how anyone—patient or part of the family—can survive. Similarly, there is little closure in most of these cases. Memory Loss only wraps-up one of its many portraits, while Caregivers gives endings, but no real sense of completeness. Still, the ambitions here are all that matter, and for that fact alone, HBO deserves recognition. Packing this DVD with almost four additional hours of material means the company truly understands its role as subject standard bearer. Technically, each documentary looks great. Shot on video and presented in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image, the visuals here are colorful and detailed—sometimes, too much so. Alzheimer's takes a physical toll, and some of the deterioration we see is hard to swallow. On the sound side of things, the Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix allows for each individual to be heard and easily understood, no matter their mental condition. Again, this can create moments of significance, as well as deadening moments of grief.
A minor confession—when this series first aired on HBO, I tried to sit down and watch it. I got through a couple of stories in The Memory Loss Tapes before I recognized that familiar feeling of dread taking over. The phone calls in the middle of the night. The depressing trips to the nursing home. The free-flowing tears and worried angst of the rest of the family. The still disconcerting sight of seeing my wife's grandmother, face in a death mask grimace, like every horror film ever come to life. For me, The Alzheimer's Project was a well-meaning if ultimately harrowing experience. Luckily, my loved ones have survived this bout with the disease. For others, the torment continues.
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