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Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Factual Death, Fictional Life, and the Associations That Result When the Two Intersect

Posted by on Tue, May 6, 2014 at 2:53 PM

True Adolescents poster art
  • Flatiron Film Company
I've been writing for The Seattle International Film Festival program guide for 13 years. Some of the notes are written by programmers, some by freelancers like myself. I was watching a film called True Adolescents in 2009 when my Mom called to tell me my Dad was dying. I needed to travel to California right away, since he was fading quickly, so I got there as fast as I could.

My Dad, a heavy smoker, had suffered a massive heart attack. Against all odds, he survived, only to develop pneumonia afterward, the same disease that killed his heavy-smoking mother (seriously people, cut that shit out).

While in the ICU, they had him sedated into unconsciousness. I said my goodbyes, returned home, and hoped for the best. Once again, he beat the odds and recovered, but his cardiologist predicted that he only had a couple of years left at the most. Due to the condition of his lungs—he had acute bronchitis—he wasn't a viable candidate for surgery, so all he could do was to make the most of his remaining time (they had already ruled out angioplasty years before). But he never lost his sense of humor. If Dad was overweight when he went into the hospital, he emerged 50 pounds lighter thanks to the "Kaiser Permanente Diet." So life went on. At least for awhile.

  • Wiig and Hader as twins / Roadside Attractions
In Seattle, I returned to the work I had left behind, including True Adolescents, which I had only had time to watch halfway through. I finished watching the film, wrote my piece, and turned it in.

In no way did it remind me of my Dad, since it has nothing to do with fathers and congestive heart failure. Instead, Craig Johnson depicts a down-on-his-luck Seattle musician (nicely played by former musician Mark Duplass) who learns a few unfortunate truths about himself while on a camping trip with his nephew and a friend. It's a scrappy little indie that probably didn't cost much to make, but Johnson's writing and directing showed real promise.

Almost a year after my Dad's Lazarus-like recovery, I received a call from my Mom informing me that he had died—he didn't survive his second heart attack. I hadn't even responded to the last email he sent. I figured it could wait for a few days. I was wrong (and that will always bother me; closure is a wonderful thing).

Fast-forward four years, and press screenings for SIFF '14 started last week. One of the films I caught was The Skeleton Twins with Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, and it's the best I've seen so far. I didn't check to see who directed it beforehand, so I had no idea that it represented Johnson's assured followup to the locally-shot True Adolescents (this time, he set the action in upstate New York).

The film, which also stars Luke Wilson and Modern Family's Ty Burrell, fulfills the promise of Johnson's first feature and, once again, it didn't remind me of my Dad, but the association remains, and it probably always will—though the long-ago death of a father does has a bearing on the actions of the central characters.

There's no moral to this story, other than that it's hard to forget what you were doing when you received a fateful phone call, however you choose to define that term—the birth of a child, the results of a diagnosis, or even the death (or near death) of a parent. I could've been watching literally anything when my Mom called. If my Dad had a say in the matter, I think he would've preferred that I was watching The Sopranos, his favorite show. For the record, the last film we watched together was The Lost Boys. I'm still not sure how to process that.

The Skeleton Twins plays the Egyptian on May 16 at 9:30pm. More info here.


Comments (7) RSS

Oldest First Unregistered On Registered On Add a comment
Thank you for this. This absolutely reminds me of my dad, who has survived two heart attacks and was recently diagnosed with diabetes, yet continues to smoke.

He's also in California and I had to leave work 5 years ago the last time he had a heart attack to see him in the hospital.

I'm fortunate, because I've been given so much extra time with him; but I definitely take it for granted.

I will call him tonight.
Posted by Bored@School on May 6, 2014 at 3:26 PM · Report this
Kathy Fennessy 2
@1 That sounds familiar, since my Dad had diabetes, too. FWIW, he was thrilled with the staff at Kaiser, so I believe he got the best care possible (and while he was unconscious, his friends played music for him). I didn't get the two years I was expecting, but I was grateful for one. Best to you and your Dad.
Posted by Kathy Fennessy on May 6, 2014 at 4:07 PM · Report this
biffp 3
@1 and 2, I guess I'm lucky my dad's doctor announced he'd had his last cigarette in the hospital after his heart attack. He still hasn't done any exercise, but at least he's stopped smoking. I certainly remember getting the call while getting off the ferry to Orcas.
Posted by biffp on May 6, 2014 at 4:23 PM · Report this
Estey 4
Love this, Kathy. It's sad but it's how we experience the art we care about. In not always ideal, but certainly fascinating and thought-provoking ways. (Your writing is always fiercely clear and heart-provoking too.)
Posted by Estey on May 6, 2014 at 4:27 PM · Report this
Kathy Fennessy 5
@3 I admire that. My Dad tried over the years, but he couldn't do it. Even after they put him on oxygen, he was still smoking. @4 Thanks, Chris! I have a story about a terminally ill cat and Mean Girls, but I think I'll save that one for another day.
Posted by Kathy Fennessy on May 6, 2014 at 5:12 PM · Report this
@5 I've not seen your name in the bylines before and I assume it's because you've posted on Line-Out until the recent merger into Slog.

Anyway, I look forward to reading your old posts and look forward to your future musings. Your non-review-review of these films made me so much more interested in watching them. I like a good story; and reading how these movies make you feel after seeing them, and when thinking about them is far more important that any critical dissection of the film could ever provide.

I talked to my dad for a good hour today, and it was really nice. I'm sorry you aren't able to do the same, but I truly and honestly thank you for reminding me that I still have that option, every day, until I don't anymore.

Thank you.
Posted by Bored@School on May 6, 2014 at 10:53 PM · Report this
Kathy Fennessy 7
@6 You're absolutely correct; I've been writing for Line Out since 2011. Your Dad is lucky to have you. My Dad and I did not always have the best relationship--and that's an understatement--but I'm an only child and he was my only Dad. He was never abusive, but he scared me at times. It took me a long while to realize that he sometimes felt the same way about me.
Posted by Kathy Fennessy on May 7, 2014 at 12:30 PM · Report this

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