JWR Articles: Film/DVD - Marathon (Director: Biju Viswanath) - March 12, 2010


5 5
90 min.

Life is but a dream

As William Meredith put it so succinctly, “Here I am, brought back, set up, not yet happened away,” nor is his impact likely to wither away in memory thanks to the exceptional visual poetry of director/co-writer/cinematographer Biju Viswanath which fills virtually every frame of this loving homage to the former U.S. Poet Laureate.

The narrative concerns a debilitating stroke to the famed writer (played with great dignity by Alec Dana) following a regular jog with his much younger partner Richard Harteis (Bristol Pomeroy covers the entire spectrum of emotion with compelling honesty—subtle moments such as “I really like Luis” are perfectly delivered, leaving no doubt to the subtext without any need for another syllable). After surviving the life-and-death gamut of stabilization, then surgery, there’s a long road to recovery that will test the mettle of all concerned.

Curiously, happily, despite the years’ long cohabitation of the two men, the queer card seldom gets played—when existence of another is threatened, who really cares about their “blue movie” activities?

Like his protagonists (Harteis is an accomplished poet in his own right), Viswanath aims for balance, multilayers of meaning and a vast array of imagery to give this tale of courage and determination rhythm and themes that sing their way into the hearts and minds of all those who understand that his film is an epic poem etched on celluloid rather than parchment.

The grim reality of the hospital scenes is marvellously intercut with back-story or present-day dialogues that are framed on lawns, streams, the ocean, tunnels, rocky shoreline or treed paths that resonant so wonderfully with Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, right down to a Meredith quote that speaks of a pair of oaks clinging to life together: the ear is filled with desire for a few verses from the creator of “Captain, My Captain”—cross-reference below.

Heavy rains, distant chimes and a one-of-a-kind, wind-loving mobile are carefully brought into the mix, adding welcome aural soundposts of hope and tradition. Similarly, a learned book’s pages magically turn on their own free will even as the recovering writer prepares to—finally—retake pen to paper. Human heartbeats and sharp breath speak volumes to the larger metaphor of Harteis’ training regimen and ultimate running of an actual marathon.

The original score from Pomeroy (especially “Glass Half Full”), David Leisner (notably “Ritual”), Ronny R. Raphael and an excerpt from Alan Hovhaness’ Concerto for Guitar and Orchestra Op. 235, further supports the struggle to cope with an incurable illness and the important notion that through unequivocal love and constant care, an apparently lost life can be rekindled.

In one way or another, millions of boomers will have an unwanted role to play in the unscripted dramas of their own loved ones as the ravages of cancer or worn-out/over-stressed hearts wreak havoc with “settled” lives everywhere. Lurking in the familial weeds here are Meredith’s bad-mannered, jealous-deep-down sister, Elizabeth (Donna Del Bueno is ideally cast as the family’s Wicked Witch of the West) and wily stepmother (Fran Tripp). The former’s threats of a lawyer to assure institutionalization (and perhaps preservation of capital …) soon become game, set and match for the latter. With a stroke of her own pen, the wise senior paves the way for an incredibly expensive rehab that, over time, succeeds in unleashing a further torrent of creativity from the “best put him in a nursing home” poet.

A subliminal love interest comes in the form of Marian (Beth Campbell tempers her desires brilliantly as Harteis’ long-time friend—perhaps more) who stays by her man throughout the trials and tribulations of learning how to become a one-man, 24/7 homecare provider. The late-inning encounter between the drifting-away pair takes place amongst the stacks of Marian’s workplace. Surrounded on all sides by millions of words, the couple’s desperately awkward conversation has, once again, been placed in the perfect setting to make its point.

Film making seldom gets better than this.

Like poetry itself, the painstakingly created cinematic stanzas will mean different things to different people, leaving those who—like their revulsion for over-boiled Brussels sprouts—long ago decided they don’t like poetry out of humanity’s inner loop again. JWR

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