Waxing [Cinematically]: Gleason

Steve-gleasonI’ve seen some really good movies lately. I finally saw Philomena which was great. I saw The Verdict, Sidney Lumet’s 1980s courtroom drama with a drunk Bostonian Paul Newman. Pleasure, for sure. Rewatched Seven Psychopaths for what must be the 20th time now.

I’ve been wanting to take a few minutes to write a blogpost for a few weeks now, as well. It’s always nice to get the fingers moving and watch the words splay out on the white WordPress screen. Makes it all the more pleasurable to write from my very, very makeshift standing writing desk that I’ve carved out of a large, standing bookcase.

None of those movies deserve a blogpost as much as the documentary Gleason does, which I saw yesterday.

Gleason explores the journey of former NFL start Steve Gleason as he gets diagnosed with, and later lives with the physical impact of, ALS disease. Nearly simultaneously, his wife gets pregnant with their first child and his (Steve’s) deterioration seems to coincide as the baby’s due date gets closer.

By the time their children (a baby boy) is walking, Steve is not. His condition worsens drastically through the film, which puts the strain of living with such an unkindly illness puts on his psyche, his body (most obviously), and especially his wife (who, though she denies wanting to be a saint, one walks away with the very idea).

Gleason, the man, did a very wise thing and kept a video diary (he seemed predisposed to the camera even before his diagnosis) of himself. Once he learns he’ll be a father, the theme shifts to keeping a video diary for his son to view as he grows up. The documentary shows some of these, but obviously not all (Gleason says there are over 400).

Gleason, again the man, is a happy-go-lucky, former bro, former athlete. He’s as goofy as he is aloof. He’s an explorer, a question asker (and he asks very, very good questions of others, and especially of himself). One gets the impression he would have been a great father, physically. Teaching his son about strength, throwing him in a pool. He says that the hardest thing for him is not being able to hug his son. You can get a sense of his personality in this guest column he wrote for Peter King in 2013. Or you can watch some videos of his. Even through his speaking technology, his boyish humor shines through.

His wife is much the same. Or was. She, herself, laments at the loss of her personality as she tackles/d the double duty of caretaker; for Rivers and for Steve. Her life revolves around them. The movie, rightfully, foreshadows on their wedding day with their officiant talking about a marriage being tested not in the good times, but in the bad. Well there were some really, really bad times and Gleason doesn’t shy from them.

But, okay, that’s the film. It’s been reviewed and talked about over and over again. The real experience is the viewers. The scenes that come through are a story of a man and a couple and a foundation and it’s vital to remember it is REAL life. What do we make of that? What does a viewer do when confronted with such non-fictional drama?

It’s hard to say. The movie induced more than a few tears in me, and I suspect it will to anyone but the coldest of hearts. To recognize that level of pain and discomfort and change in people that we learn to love in the first 10 minutes, well it’s crushing in so many ways.

What interests me is that we know this is happening. It’s an eye-opening documentary that reveals things intimately, in a small micro example. It’s not, for instance, a deep dive into the Chinese recycling industry that might blow the lid off of something we had no idea was happening. It’s investigative to the level that Gleason allows and no more.

Does this change the director? Does it change that in which it documents?

These are the perplexing questions I am left with when I choose to, momentarily, abandon the wrecking-ball sadness that the doc provides and ask the intellectual side of it. The criticism that is due of “art”.

But is it “art”? Is it important without being art. Of course, it is. It is human and I am and you are. And, in that, we share in the visuals the screen provides. We are close to the subject until we aren’t (and this includes after the movie since Gleason, the man one last time, is alive and active and wanting to make a difference).

Those are my waxing thoughts. None are necessary. Gleason, the movie, teaches us to love, live, and give, no matter the context. Because the content of our character and the story of our lives do not need to be derailed as they are supremely challenged.