A Screaming Silence, by Dayne Linford
Henry Corra and Reggie Nicholson’s Farewell to Hollywood is a documentary film, of sorts, about the documentary film Corra and Nicholson worked on during the two years leading up to Nicholson’s death from osteosarcoma, a kind of bone cancer. It follows a relatively straight narrative path, starting with the beginning of the project as Corra begins to insert himself into Nicholson’s life, spending a prodigious amount of time with Nicholson and her parents, with whom she lives as, at the start of the film, she is only 17. It’s important to note that Corra has long since established himself as a filmmaker in a “living cinema” school, a documentarian who seeks less to document events outside himself as himself and the events and characters he interacts with. Farewell is absolutely in this vain, a project kind of about Corra and Nicholson’s relationship, kind of about cancer, kind of about movies, and definitely about death, especially Nicholson’s tragic passing just following her 19th birthday.
Nicholson and Corra met at a film festival, agreeing to work together on this project as Nicholson, hoping for recovery, prepares to become a filmmaker in the vein of her heroes, particularly filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Jonathan Demme, whose Silence of the Lambs was the first film she understood as art and which instilled in her the desire to follow in their footsteps. However, Corra’s place in this movie is strange, unsettling and ill-defined, especially for what he refers to as very personal filmmaking.
In the first place is the relationship between Nicholson and Corra throughout, which begins as co-directors, moves to friendship, takes on a deeply intimate, though probably not physically so, character, and even ends up as Corra being Nicholson’s caretaker and living with her, ostensibly in his home, in her final days. At a Q&A covered by Indie Wire, Corra was careful to announce that he and Nicholson had not, in fact, had sex. I guess that’s comforting in a decriminalizing sort of way, but the fact that he felt the need to address the question, which occurred to me and many others when viewing the film, especially paired with Nicholson’s very young age and his much older age, is deeply troubling. Should I ever be asking that question while watching this movie? I want to engage with Nicholson in her final hours, to feel the liveliness that so drew Corra in, but instead I’m perennially distracted with whether police involvement was ever called for.
This becomes especially troubling when Nicholson’s parents become convinced of a sexual relationship between Nicholson and Corra, precipitating a steep dissolution of their family, to the point that when Nicholson dies her parents remain uninformed until five days later, after Corra has buried her ashes, per her request. Corra dismisses charges of unethical behavior, but works very hard in the film to demonize Reggie’s parents, who never get the chance to really tell their side of the story, nor probably feel particularly inclined to explain themselves to the man who they feel at least pushed Reggie away from them, if not outright used her emotional vulnerability to dupe her into a sexual relationship. Whether or not they actually had sex, Corra’s behavior throughout bears a striking resemblance to that of a sexual predator, which becomes even more disturbing as he appears more and more to be her sole connection to the outside world and the filter through which we view her.
Corra’s careful to insist that Nicholson was co-director, and it appears from interviews with him she had a significant say in what was going on in the film right up to her death. But her death is included in the film, and the final cut is undeniably his. Whether or not she helped with framing, structural considerations, points of interest, etc., the power of the final cut really can’t be overstated, and Corra uses it liberally, especially where the parents are concerned. Nicholson’s mother made some video diaries, ostensibly at Corra’s request, two of which appear early in the finished cut, the first her attempting an explanation for her complicated feelings regarding Nicholson’s cancer, Corra’s presence, and the film, and the second a request that Corra back off for the next round of chemotherapy for the family to have some privacy. In both instances, Corra cuts liberally throughout, skipping portions like a stone over water, missing entirely the depth underneath in order, apparently, to get back to the part that’s more about him. Let us have this! Corra has no right to cut through her diary, which she entrusted him with and which he then used to demonize her. Not only is this highly unethical, it highlights the constructed and self-serving nature of his film. Later, Corra films his own diary, but tellingly places the camera on the dashboard facing the street, speaking over the camera as we watch, without cuts, wherever the hell he’s driving, instead of his face. He saves himself from vulnerability, but brutally uses her in the depths of her own. Similar strange and jarring, even invasive cuts abound, such as when he films Nicholson’s father taunting him with the dead body of a rat, presumably killed while cleaning a shed for Nicholson’s use, then cuts jarringly to Nicholson in the throes of chemo-sickness, coughing violently while her parents argue over the vicissitudes of treatment. The suggestion is clear – her parents play with her body and her health as they play with the rat. At first a strange and striking cut, it soon becomes apparent that Corra means every interpretation to be suggested by it.
The film has an interesting but largely underutilized reliance on the films Nicholson loves, particularly Pulp Fiction and Silence of the Lambs, clips of which among others feature throughout, but only occasionally, to either show what Nicholson is referring to or as a dramatic juxtaposition that apparently largely means nothing, such as when Nicholson uses an inhaler and the film cuts to Uma Thurman doing a line in Pulp Fiction. It doesn’t strike me as daring. It makes me wonder if these are really equivalent, conclude they are not, and then wonder what the hell they’re doing there. Another such cut is when, with Nicholson is feeling most cloistered by her parents, the fan from Capt. Willard’s apartment at the beginning of Apocalypse Now appears on screen, as if to suggest the authorities who’ve left Willard to self-destruct in Saigon and then send him down the river on a suicide mission are in some way equivalent or symbolic of Nicholson’s struggle with her parents. These kinds of false comparisons abound, as well as less useful and frankly flabby clips like Dustin Hoffman driving in The Graduate, paired with Corra and Nicholson… also driving.
All of this builds to an incredibly difficult and painful final act. We watch as Nicholson slowly deteriorates and dies, but all we can think about is what the nature of her and Corra’s relationship is. Were her parents right? Did the making of this film collapse her social network for an unkempt, 50 year old documentarian? I do not want to be thinking these things while watching someone die. I want to be engaging in the eulogy, mourning their loss and finding inspiration in their bravery and determination. A documentarian willing to let Nicholson express herself unfettered but also respected, to understand her delicate and difficult position as a teenager dying before her parents eyes, and to give her the space and treat her with the dignity she deserved, could have created a film that allowed such things. But instead, I have to contend with Corra and the nature of the decisions he’s made throughout this film, on screen and off. He says his filmmaking is honest, is an acknowledgement of subjectivity, and it’s definitely one of those things. What he forgets is subjectivity is never honest, and this film subjectively attempts to defend him against all possible personal criticism. Far better, far more dignified and respectful, documentaries have been made about cancer. Such a one could’ve been made about Reggie, perhaps by Reggie herself, who made several short films about her experiences, one of which is featured in the documentary and makes for its most interesting subject. Why wasn’t she encouraged to make her own film, really? Instead, I have to hack through Corra to get to Reggie, and what’s there is tattered and dishonest. Nominally a film about the last two years of Reggie’s life, this really ends up being a film about the lengths Corra will go to and the sacrifices he’ll demand of others to make a film, and then the self-serving way he’ll edit it to remove all possible culpability, all while Reggie wastes away before our eyes, dying painfully and removed from those who raised her and cared for her in her time of greatest distress.