Michael A. Goorjian
Review by Adam Balz
Posted on 13 April 2007
Source Gaiam DVD
Perhaps our eyes are merely a blank film which is taken from us after our deaths to be developed elsewhere and screened as our life story in some infernal cinema or dispatched as microfilm into the sidereal void.
—Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories
The transitory period between life and death has always been a subjective idea in cinema. Limbo or purgatory is a white, sprawling pampas of ankle-high fog; a desert waiting room marked by the presence of a trailer home and escalator rising to nowhere; a house being “borrowed” for use as an afterlife wayside. It’s as small as the embrace of a stranger’s hand, or as large as an entire world, one that, had it not been for your existence, would have become reality. It is a place where your life—every small decision, cursory thought, or seemingly empty action—can become your instant downfall or eternal salvation.
Donald Baines is dying. Now bedridden, the celebrated but reclusive filmmaker is nothing more than an ailing relic; he has no mantle of awards, no discernible admirers, no great honors. He never married, a choice he dismisses as a necessary “sacrifice,” and his only family is an estranged, illegitimate son named Christopher, a boy he saw only once from the backseat of a distant car. He has a small, aged photograph of him tucked in a tome of literature, but he’s never tried to make contact. He lies in bed under the care of his nurse, watches old films like Rebel Without a Cause and The Hunger, and awaits death.
Awakening one night, Donald finds a curly-haired man at his bedside; clad in dated casual clothes, including a sweater and bow-tie, the man drinks from a cup of coffee and smiles. Minutes pass before Donald recognizes him—he is Stan, Donald’s old film editor, who died in a car accident 30 years ago. It’s a gratifying reunion for both men – Stan is perhaps the only friend Donald ever had – while at the same time stained by an ominous feeling of impending heartbreak. Donald knows that old, dead acquaintances just don’t appear for appearance’s sake, and he asks Stan why he’s come. Stan’s response is, “I came here to tell you, this part of it, what you’re going through in this bed, it gets better. It gets better.” Soon, Stan uses Donald’s television and the flicker of a projector light to usher both of them into a familiar location: a large, tiered movie theatre, where Donald’s king-sized bed rests in a sea of empty chairs.
“Am I dead?” Donald asks. “You’re at the movies,” Stan responds. And at first it seems as though Stan has brought Donald along to screen clips from his life—his Akashic records. But instead of Donald, the figure who dominates the screen is his son. The first of three reels is footage of Christopher as a young man. Dubbed the “Teen Reel,” the film looks and behaves like an actual drama of teenage angst; even the music – Bjorn Means Bear performing the Rocky Horror-esque “Teenage Dream” – is evocative of overdramatized 1980s cinema. Christopher is the star, the disaffected and love-bound outcast. The object of his pursuit is Isabelle, a young girl his age who repeatedly spurns his advances; separated by the wrought-iron gate surrounding her school, Isabelle and her friends constantly mock him from afar. But he is persistent and, in one scene, offers Isabelle a bouquet of flowers and a poem through her classmates; each delivers one flower and a poetic line as she slowly approaches the barrier. She falls for him, even as her boyfriend threatens to come between them, but their newfound affections are crushed after a fated night of theft and violence. The police arrive, the reel ends.
When the second reel begins, Christopher has changed. Years have passed, including a short time spent in juvenile detention, and he’s adopted the Goth lifestyle. His golden hair has been dyed black, and his face sports and assortment of metal rings and studs. He now works for an eccentric, self-obsessed performance artist named Mortimer Malalatete, who sends Christopher on meaningless tasks. Today, on the eve of his latest premier, Mortimer brings with him a threat: Christopher must find a businesswoman he saw walking in downtown San Francisco with a bouquet of flowers and give her an invitation, or he will be fired. As it turns out, the businesswoman is none other than Isabelle, who’s left behind the care-free teenage attitude in favor of the cold, power-driven business world. When Christopher drops off the invitation, he and Isabelle have a fleeting moment of connection. Unfortunately, this reel ends much like the first—jealousy and violence collide into tragedy, landing Christopher in jail.
After the “Goth Reel” ends, Donald is left in emotional peril. We see now that he’s become invested in his son’s life; where he reacted to the Teen Reel as though it were only a novelty, a unique and fun little film with some upsetting yet irreparable content, the Goth Reel has pierced his hardened core. He now feels for his son, recognizing that his absence has left Christopher without guidance. Throughout both segments, Christopher’s actions are dominated by a deep, hostile, belittling voice meant to represent his father, which leaves Donald fuming. “What happened to him?” he asks, furious, grabbing Stan by the neck. Stan promises to show him and, rising, leaves Donald’s side; the final reel begins.
As Donald Baines, Kirk Douglas augments every lifelong swell of sadness, regret, and fear with the constant, acute skill that has carried him through six decades of film. But to ignore the actor’s health is a profane mistake. Eighty-six years old during production, Douglas is noticeably frail, and his voice is still muffled and slurred by the 1995 stroke that left him debilitated; subtitles are sometimes necessary. But he’s not as weak or emotionally confined as Donald Baines, and with the same thundering, unstoppable passion that burned Van Gogh and Charles Tatum and Jonathan Shields into cinema lore he adds weight to an otherwise formulaic character. Likewise, Ron Marasco’s performance as Stan lends simplistic beauty to an otherwise overdone premise – he is a modern-day Clarence the Angel who loves coffee and speaks with friendly ease – while also adding potency to a film that, regrettably, suffers under the larger-than-life aspirations of its co-writer and director.
Michael Goorjian portrays Christopher through all three reels of annotated life, from fair-haired adolescence to contented, reformed thirty-something. But both his acting and filmmaking talents detract from the story, as neither seems completely developed. Relying heavily on close-ups to instill compassion and slow motion to build tension, Goorjian looks to create the next It’s a Wonderful Life or On Borrowed Time, based ostensibly on Pierre Corneille’s 1635 play The Comedy of Illusion, and upon reexamination he comes close. But as a whole the picture is weak; the best scenes are those of Donald and Stan side by side in the theatre, discussing everything from Donald’s son to the projectionist’s untoward demise. They are friends both separated and reunited by death.
The choice of a movie theatre as the setting is clever, both because of Donald Baines’ career and the inherent warmth and plentitude of the location. A movie theatre is somewhere familiar, a place where thousands of souls have lingered but never stayed. The theatre is cordial, comforting, and reliable, especially when the outside world isn’t. No matter the circumstances, there are always a collection of white screens onto which we can project anything and everything—a canvass for what we seek, for a soothing escape. Which makes the current status of Illusion even more ironic. Without an established distributor, Goorjian’s film was picked up by the Spiritual Cinema Network, an independent company that distributes inspirational movies to various locations—that is, whoever wants to screen them. Having awaited the film’s release for two years, I first set eyes on Illusion in the sanctuary of a church in Madison, Wisconsin. A portable screen and DVD projector had been set up at the pulpit; seated around me were less than a half-dozen others, all of whom were members of the congregation. A bizarre experience, to say the least, as well as a sad testimony to the current state of independent film. Kirk Douglas—and, in fact, everyone both associated with the film and sitting in the audience—deserves better.