The View from Here

October 26, 2012

N.B. This is a difficult, mature film to watch.  I highly suggest that parents of minors preview the film prior to broader viewings.

One of my students asked me a couple weeks ago about the text we’d been reading in class–a memoir of a child soldier in Sierra Leone (A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah).  After we’d discussed a couple pages, she sighed and looked over at me.  “Ms…why are you having us read such a sad book?”  I replied, saying, “The world is a sad place.”  I expected the fifteen-year old to challenge me, but instead she agreed.  “Yeah Ms.–It’s a true story–but I just really wish it wasn’t.”

A couple days later, after watching the 1993 documentary Silverlake Life: The View from Here, I had to remind myself of this conversation.  The world is a sad place, and it’s important that we listen to its stories.  Even when they’re uncomfortable, we must.  Why?  You ask again.  Because they’re true.

My sister and I are both currently living alone, several states away from each other; we decided to embark on a film watching project together this fall, trying to keep ourselves accountable to watch and discuss good films, despite our busy schedules.  After reading several recent articles, we settled on documentaries addressing the outbreak of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.  Besides personal interest (our uncle died of AIDS in 1993), we were interested in the way that this epidemic has affected both our parent’s generation and our own generation.  How has it changed the way we view the homosexual community?  How has it changed the way we view medicine, the body, epidemics, etc.?  What can we learn about the way humans die and deal with death?  These are not light topics, by any means, and each documentary we’ve watched and article we’ve read has been a struggle.  Death is hard, and dying of AIDS is particularly hard.  Watching a nation largely fail to love and care for the dying is hard to come to terms with.  But, each conversation we’ve shared about each film has underscored how important it is to hear and interact with these stories.

Silverlake-Life-DVD-F

Silverlake Life: The View from Here is a self-documentary told by an independent filmmaker and professor, Tom Joslin.When he and his partner, Mark Massi, are diagnosed with AIDS, he decides to begin a daily film diary, to chronicle his last months.  The documentary is obviously a pre-digital documentary project.  It doesn’t have the cleanness of our iPhone drenched, YouTube saturated “self-made video” world.  But, it is always obvious that Joslin knows how to set up a shot.  His footage is all-encompassing.  We see him sitting in the car, too exhausted to walk into the grocery store.  We see several of his doctor’s appointments, tense family moments, arguments with friends, happy outings, and even a counseling appointment.  We see conversations, and we see middle of the night strugglings with insomnia.  The desire for the viewer to see his entire life, as it slowly (and rapidly at times) comes to an end is overwhelming.  It is rare to be invited, with such abandonment, into the intimate process of dying.

As death quickly approaches, Massi takes over the filmmaking, and we watch Joslin’s body waste away.  Even weeks later, it is difficult for me to relate these portions of the film.  There is something uniquely awful about the toll that AIDS takes on the human body.  It forces death in one’s face.  It is uncomfortable, in the way that death should be.  Death, the lasting effect of sin on our world, is not comfortable.

Peter Friedman, who finished the documentary after Joslin and Massi died, wrote that the project was a “… perfectly natural thing for Tom to do because as an artist, his way of dealing with just about anything was to make a film about it” (www.truelives.org).  Besides the ever present questions of how humans deal with death, this film raises questions about the place of art in allowing us to face and comprehend death.  In a startling scene after Joslin’s death, Massi reads a trite book written to “grieving loved ones.”  The pat advice and terrible poetry is set in stark contrast to the film that the viewer has just experienced.  In Silverlake Life, we see instead that emotions are rough, uncut and complicated; death is ugly, and the world does not always make sense.

I hesitate to write more.  This is a film that, more than most, cannot be boiled down to scenes and shots.  It’s a rare glimpse of the most painful part of human existence.  It is a story about the love and commitment required to be present for someone’s last months, days and hours, as you continue battle for your own life.

It raises many questions, some that I’ve already discussed.  But, culturally, it raises, perhaps more uncomfortable questions about society’s past treatment of those with AIDS, how families deal with death, and perhaps, our discomfort with beauty and self-sacrifice obviously displayed  in a homosexual relationship.  In whatever ways this film is uncomfortable for you, as the viewer (and yes, it will be), I strongly urge you to engage with that discomfort.  Why is this hard? is the beginning to many a self-examining conversation.

Massi notes, towards the end of the film, that experiencing Joslin’s last days and death together was transformative for his relationship with Joslin’s mother.  They were united by the common and personal experience of human suffering.  The differences and bitterness that had seemed so large were no longer important.  This kind of transformation is at the heart of each shot, interview, and whispered monologue. Suffering, if we let it, can redeem and transform.

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2 Responses to “The View from Here”

  1. becca said

    Thank you for sharing about this film. As a child my mother cared for people with HIV/AIDS. It was the late 80s/early 90s. There was AZT and not much else, but my mother offered friendship and what other help she could. She also offered a channel to speak out and educate medical professionals. Her patients helped us stuff envelopes with educational materials while we ate pizza. We laughed and took silly photocopies of our faces. A few months later I remember visiting one patient in the hospital to say good-bye. She had wasted away and her skin hung off her frame. Death is ugly. It didn’t make any sense that she or any of my mother’s patients had AIDS. It didn’t make sense that they wasted away and died. They’re all gone now, but I won’t forget what wonderful people they were and the fun we had.

  2. […] as they are about the experience of individuals (non-fiction and fiction respectively).  I wrote about Silverlake Life last fall; it is still forcing me to consider terrifying questions about dying, the human body and what it […]

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