Once again I am having to comment on the work of an instructor and find myself knowingly watching my words. So often, I shoot from the hip when writing these entries, but there is the occasional need to type cautiously.
As a PBS documentary I really enjoyed Almost Home. Being that it is a documentary intended for PBS its hard to fault the film for what it ended up being. Attempting to tell the story of a nursing home in the midst of change and the various stories of the people who live and work at this evolving site, filmmaker Brad Lichtenstein tackles a formidable task. It’s never easy to show a comprehensive view in a mere ninety minutes.
Focusing on a few key individuals the film finds most of its structure in their lives and how they have been effected by the nursing and the new changes that are afoot. Taking a more caring and home like approach to assisted living Saint John’s is allowing residents to have more say in how they are cared for and treated. Gone are the days of regimented feeding and bathing times. No longer are patients confined to wheel chairs, strapped to beds, or bound to their rooms. A family like environment is promoted, one that encourages staff to get to know the residents and to bond with them, but for an underpaid and overworked staff this may be asking to much. Many nurses complain and surprisingly so do some of the patients. Afraid that the new lax rules may allow for his wife to sleep her life away and slowly give into the dementia that already has taken away a good portion of her mind, one husband feels that the new policies are a hindrance to his wife’s mental health.
Complain as some might, most are grateful for the new rules. Trips to museums, lunch dates at restaurants, and even an occasional visit to an old family cabin give back a great deal of life to those who may have spent the rest of theirs trapped inside a nursing home. A genuine sense of care and bonding forms between many of the staff and the residents as they learn to live with the new rules and with one another. Throughout the course of the film it does appear that things are getting better, even for some residents who must deal with the harsh realities of old age.
In particular, one distinguished senior citizen must watch as her husband succumbs to Parkison’s disease. As his life comes to a halt she slowly distances herself from him. Still lively and still healthy, she shuns her own husband in favor of new friends she has made at Saint John’s. As heartbreaking as it is to watch a man not only lose his mind, but his heart it is not a wholly sad story. By the film’s end he has moved on and has found another woman, someone equally as incapacitated as himself, but just as sweet. The image of them in their wheelchairs holding hands is enough to make your cry. That is unless you consider the fact that he’s still a married man. However, this concern does come up amongst the staff, but do to the state of these two beings and the man’s wife wanting nothing to do with him, no one sees much fault in their youthful romance.
Told in a style quite similar to three various forms of documentary, Almost Home promotes itself as a cinema verte, but truth be told it can not rightfully claim this title. And, here is where I may find myself in hot water. The French filmmaker Jean Rouch coined the term Cinema Verte when he attempted to get to the truth through cinema. Through the probing use of questions, Jean Rouch would interview his subjects on camera, asking them question after question, always attempting to get to a deeper truth. Later, he would have his subjects look at the film he shot and comment on whether or not they thought it was truthful. Almost Home does include interviews, but you never hear the filmmaker asking the questions. Nor will you find the subjects looking at themselves and commenting on the honesty captured or not captured by the camera. Yes, there is a handheld, shaky, in-the-thick-of-it camera style in Almost Home and this same camera style was often used in cinema verte films. It gives the viewer a sense of watching life unravel before the camera. However, this same camera style is also found in the Americanized version of cinema verte, a style known as direct method. However, there are too many titles and too many stylized edits to make Almost Home a version of the very pure and very minimalist technique that is indicative of direct method cinema. Lastly, there is free cinema, a movement from England that emphasized films about non-glamorous, working class individuals and activities. In subject matter, Almost Home compares slightly with this branch of documentary. The worker’s at Saint John’s are certainly working class. The residents who can afford such luxury are probably not.
I do not want this to be a semantic argument. I merely bring up these terms because I feel that Almost Home lacks a distinct style. Floating somewhere between these three various styles of documentary I feel it borrows plenty from each, but does not lean far enough into any one style to give the film an overall aesthetic. For PBS this is probably not an issue as the blending of style s culminates into a highly emotional and informed piece that will surely spark debate and discussion. Speaking from the point of view of an artist, I feel the film is lacking a unique vision that would make this a Brad Lichtenstein piece and not just a PBS piece. Perhaps I need to see more of the filmmaker’s work, but unlike a Werner Herzog or Fredrick Wiseman or Errol Morris who’s personal style is so singular that you can not mistake them for someone else, Lichtenstein seems to have not found a personal touch.
I would like to cite one specific moment in the film before closing. Left alone, at a rather fancy dining table the film’s heartbreaking hero battles with Parkinson’s as he attempts to return his half-filled water glass from his lips to the table. With shaking hands he gets the glass to the table only to find that the clutter of napkins, utensils, plates, and additional drinking vessels has left him little room to place his glass down. While the nursing home has diligently attempted to recreate a fine dining experience in their food hall they have over looked the simple fact that for some, the difficulty of eating is only compounded by the overdressed tables. In this rather long shot, perhaps the longest shot in the film, we watch this man struggle to retain his dignity while enjoying some fine dining. Due to the length of the shot one is able to contemplate whether all this decoration is a service or dis-service to the individual. In essence, you have the gist of the film in this one shot. I only wish there had been more images like this- poetic and paused, giving room for thought.