Intensely personal documentaries sometimes work best when they eschew notions of reportage and simply become confessions or professions of something. The films are less like dispatches and more like personal essays and memoirs.
That’s one way to think of The Genius of Marian. The documentary centers on Pam White, a woman slowly succumbing to the effects of Alzheimer’s. Her son Banker is one of the co-directors of the film, so the events feel extra personal, the intimate moments more heartbreaking and devastating.
Watching the movie is like seeing a woman slowly fade away while the people around her are forced to do the only thing they can do: love her.
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The Genius of Marian
Directors: Banker White and Anna Fitch
Release Date: TBD
There’s very little that’s guarded about The Genius of Marian. The emotions are laid bare without any kind of embarrassment, which makes the film resonate with a heartrending honesty. I sometimes wonder if writers or filmmakers are being too guarded when it comes to personal stories like this. Full emotional disclosures can lead to accusations of sentimentality, and sometimes there’s nothing worse than being accused of sentimentality. Thankfully Banker and co-director Anna Fitch don’t run away from genuine expressions of joy and grief, whether they come from Pam’s family or friends.
Some of the pull in The Genius of Marian is just watching the day-to-day routine of Pam’s life as she deals with her condition. Her husband Ed tries to keep his good humor about him most of the time. He refuses to hire outside care and decides instead to work from home so he can be with Pam. There’s a tender dignity in simple actions we take for granted, like helping her with her coat or applying deodorant. But even his facade has to break at some point. He loves his wife, and it kills him inside what’s happening, but that doesn’t change the fact that he loves her.
That’s the general sense from everyone in the film: that someone they love is irreversibly slipping away, and yet she’s still there. (She may even be cognizant about her own fate, as a moment toward the end suggests.) At one point in the documentary, one of Pam’s friends talks glowingly about the Pam she’s known — Pam’s wittiness, her funniness — but she slips when she realizes she’s referred to Pam in the past tense. She catches herself but the mistake triggers a paroxysm of guilt. It’s the way that deep affection can turn a single word or a Freudian slip into tears.
The Genius of Marian is actually the title of a book that Pam began to write about her own mother, the artist Marian Steele. Marian’s artwork is seen throughout the film intercut with home movies and old photographs. All of them capture memories in different ways. The works of Marian are mostly landscapes and portraits taken from real life, with the occasional expressive or abstract piece. Pam has kept all of the paintings for safe keeping and for her own sentimental reasons. Marian also developed Alzheimer’s later in life.
The interesting thing about these paintings is the way that they contribute to the larger conversation in the film about memory and identity and the tragedy of losing both. All these paintings are things that Marian cherished and loved, and Pam has stored them all away as a reminder of her own mother for the family to cherish. She starts writing the book as a way to honor her mother’s memory, but soon after that Pam was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
I wonder what Marian felt about her work as she started to succumb to the condition. Would the paintings be triggers for memory, things that would bring her back to places and events? Or were they just paintings that she was no longer attached to? It’s the odd correlative for people suffering from any sort of memory loss, maybe: the painting’s there, but not the life behind the painting. The art is just an artifact or maybe, if there’s no sense of close attachment, just an object stored away.
And as Pam loses her own memory of the past and of simple words, I wondered what she felt about the paintings. They’re placed on the walls of the house and she still keeps them, as if she’s hoarding potential memories. The works capture the sorts of moments that are filled with great love. It’s hard to tell if Pam remembers; if the recreation of an event can trigger something like the event itself. At one point of the film, a memory from Ed and Pam’s life is recreated in the present. Maybe the present is all there is for her, and yet even her short-term memory is a fleeting thing.
Over the course of the movie, I couldn’t help but feel a little more heartbreak over each new disclosure about Pam’s past. She continues to slip away through the film just as the picture of who she was becomes more clear. She smiles a lot, and it’s a bright-eyed and full-toothed smile. Maybe it’s just how I was feeling as the film went on, but I think I read a kind of sadness or fear in her smile as her condition progressed. It’s also something I sense in her words, which were sometimes ironic or and sometimes semi-infantile. There’s a living fire being extinguished, but it’s smoldering and doesn’t go out completely.
It’s hard to not be moved by something as heartfelt as The Genius of Marian. It’s a touching, well-crafted glimpse into an average family that struggles but won’t be broken. Maybe think of it less as a documentary or even a memoir or personal essay. This is a memento in some ways — something to remember two women by, and something that Banker can give his own mother so she won’t forget. But it’s more than just a token toward recollection; it’s a love letter to someone, tragically, unforgettable.
[For tickets and more info on The Genius of Marian, visit tribecafilm.com/festival.]