My recent visitor, Jim Stebbings, explained that his son, a junior in college, is of an age to accept fatherly advice about women. So he advised the son that some people are intensely passionate and live their lives directly up against the grinding wheel of experience, but others are more measured and prefer calm reflection. In the movie called “Wit,” Emma Thompson’s character is from the second category. (As is Jim, and probably his son.) To me she was my step-daughter’s story. My step-daughter, who was a year older than myself, died of cancer in May, 1968. She was thirty years old and had four small children.
This movie version of a woman’s cancer death is edited down to a simple line: the life of the mind, thin and sharp as a scalpel, compromised by the life of the body, rather neglected and ignored. Accepting of the intellectual enterprise as defined by male authority figures and hierarchical institutions, she takes as her role model a strong woman, a prestigious professor of poetry, who would object to these alliterations even as she scrutinized the punctuation. Rigor and nuance are what count. Tough-mindedness. Independence to the point of isolation. She accepts the surgeon’s recommendation of eight courses of chemotherapy, the point of which is to push her to near-death in hopes that the cancer dies before she does. But it doesn’t.
When I was a circuit-rider for the Montana Unitarians, one of my groups was in Missoula. Late one snowy night (not so violently stormy as today is -- which keeps knocking off the electricity) I was slowly driving on a residential street when I recognized a figure going along the side of the street because the sidewalks were impassable. It was Kim Williams. If you don’t know or can’t remember Kim, here’s a quick way to catch up: http://lowbagger.org/odetokim.html She was a renegade for sure, but always in the most constructive earth-centered way. (The group never quite recovered from eating her chili with mystery meat that turned out to be earthworms.)
I stopped and offered a ride, but Kim wouldn’t take it. I had just heard she had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer (the same as the movie character) and, as often happens, we did a little reflection session right there through my van window instead of in some office. Kim had decided not to accept treatment: no surgery, no chemo, no hospital. Her husband, also a bit of a pioneer, accepted this. She did die and I don’t know what her arrangements for a funeral were. She really had more allegiance to the Unity Church than the Unitarian group, but she walked to church and we were closer. Her 1986 obituary was in the New York Times. She was 62 and had had many adventures.
Kim was not so different from the character in “Wit” except in terms of the choice she made. The rigor of her integrity and her wry humor in addressing the ridiculousness of “Sister Ass,” as St. Francis called the body was the same but Kim was far more accepting of grounded life. Emma’s character did her soaring in the poetry of John Donne -- you know, that guy who said “do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls -- it tolls for thee.” All about the confrontation with death and what it means to be focused on the search for Salvation. Yet, when the humanly intelligent nurse in the movie (black, of course) asks whether Donne ever reached Salvation, she was told no and was baffled.
This is helluva tough movie but it is not without Salvation. What the Emma character either didn’t “get” in college or suppressed because of relating only to an intellectual father, was the compassion and simplicity of family. It turns out that her strict and rigorous mentor had children, indeed, clear down to the level of great-grandsons. She is quite capable of mothering and comes in time to tell the ultimate bedtime story, about being sought for and brought home.
The doctors, portrayed at several levels, are clearly meant to be targeted, both the senior researcher who sees his patient in terms of her value to research but also respects her for the qualities like his, and the dummy of an intern who has taken the patient’s class and learned nothing real from it, though he earned an A minus. Even as he clumsily administers a pelvic, it’s all about him. A panel of interns comes to do “rounds”, jostling each other jealously in a way that suppresses the woman among them. Since a teaching hospital is an extension of the academy, the professor recognizes the dynamics and wryly claims they make her feel comfortable.
This is a 2001 film in which Emma’s character directly addresses us, though no other actors step through the “fourth wall.” “Wit” began as a stage play which was “opened up” by flashbacks but it mostly remains captive in that stark white hospital room. At Cinematheque we often wonder whether art can change culture. This is a good example of a change agent, though it’s a little over the heads of a lot of folks -- at least the talk about John Donne and Stage 4 cancer might be. But surely plenty of us have experienced enough of this story to get the point. I’m sure it did kick off a series of conferences and papers about how to make the system more human. There is nothing in it about hospital chaplains or ombudsmen or the hospice movement, all of which are meant to protect people from the loss of their personhood and dignity. But make no mistake: the practice of Code Blue still attempts to maintain people as though they were parsnips. There’s money in the strategy. Bringing money into the discussion would have confused the simple impact of this film.
Emma Thompson and Mike Nichols co-wrote this screenplay, drawing on the stage play by Margaret Edson. Reviews go wild over the quality of Thompson’s acting -- which is top notch and exactly matched by Eileen Atkins’ portrayal of her elderly professor. Fewer see that this diamond-hard focus is itself the result of a unique interweaving of intellectual rigor and delicate compassion. This is high art with no hint of sentimentality. But I ended up crying hard.