by Michael Murray for FILMbutton.com
“Leave Them Laughing. It’s a documentary about a stand-up comic who’s dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease.”
I think I sighed.
“But it’s supposed to be absolutely hilarious!” he quickly added.
This, I knew, was a movie I absolutely did not want to see.
Like a lot of people, I’ve had some medical miseries, and the last thing I wanted to do was revisit the terror and trauma of those days. I didn’t want to watch, against a backdrop of impersonal hospital wings, as somebody slowly disintegrated from both their own life and the lives of those around them.
Didn’t want to do it.
And my fears were not even remotely assuaged when my friend told me the movie was “hilarious.” No, in fact, this amplified my dread. I imagined a needy and unknown comic, somebody who never quite made it, now determined to exploit her own demise in a final spasm toward fame. I saw this person in my mind’s eye—up on stage, conspicuous and slightly demented, using the pity garnered from the audience, as the final, much needed and validating ego boost she’d sought her entire career.
Not. For. Me.
I saw the film anyway, and let me tell you, all of those preconceived anxieties of mine were completely blown away.
Leave Them Laughing is a touching, portrait of Carla Zilbersmith, who guides us into her final stages of the fatal disease ALS. Told with wisdom and humour. It’s an admirably restrained document, one that never begs for the love or sympathy of the audience, or descends into cloying sentimentality.
Much of the credit for this must be given to the Academy Award winning director, John Zaritsky. After reading about Zilbersmith in the Globe and Mail, Zaritsky visited her Blog, watched some of her performance pieces on YouTube and then called her to discuss the possibilities of making a movie. Almost immediately, as time was of the essence, they began to shoot the film. (listen to explanation in John’s own words at Hot Docs screening Q&A)
Zilbersmith, who lives in Berkeley, California, is a 46 year-old performer of ballads, comedy and self-parody, and somebody who much more than the rest of us, is completely capable of telling her own story, which she does with surprising wisdom and intelligence.
What I found so refreshing and unexpected about this film is that although the circumstance of her illness is the launching point, its not where we end up. The movie is about her. She’s a mother and a daughter, a singer and a comedienne, a sexually frustrated hedonist who’s pissed-off at her ex-husband, and a billion different other things, and although many of these things are influenced by ALS, they’re not defined by it.
There’s sunlight and joy in this movie, and although it’s a stretch to call it hilarious, it is funny and alive, and watching it feels more like spending time with somebody you wished was one of your good friends, than guiltily absorbing the misery of a stranger.
Maclean, Carla’s son and the love of her life, have an incredible chemistry . Between them exists a darkly jubilant interplay, and it’s touching and inspiring to watch as Carla tries to help her 16 year-old son grow up, and he, in turn, tries, in his way, to help her to leave hers.
The movie, which is stitched together with videos of Carla’s singing performances, comedic observations, interviews and snippets of her life and imagination, eventually forms a cohesive tapestry. We watch as Carla sings in jazz clubs, fully aware that with her diminishing strength, each time could be her last. We see her with her son, releasing helium balloons off the balcony, watching the “brilliant pins of colour vanishing into the sky,” We see the Out Of Order tattoos she got on each one of her feet, and we share in the astonishment of Zilbersmith, as she, so ironic and sophisticated, is touched by the simplest things.
In one such moment, she goes to Holy Land, a Christian theme park, where she plans to give a Valentine’s Day gift to the character that plays Jesus in the park’s daily flogging reenactment. It’s clear that she’s doing this as a satirist, intending to reveal the commercial artifice of the place in the face of her very real suffering. But nothing of the sort happens. As she gives her gifts to a girl clad in a period costume (who will pass it on to the Jesus actor), Carla adds that she’s dying of ALS, as a sort of comedic rim shot. Instead of awkward shock and discomfort, the girl exhibits grace, and with sincere tears trickling down her face, blesses Carla, reassuring her that she would soon be with Jesus. Carla had been expecting to find herself in control of this exchange, but in the face of the authenticity and profound empathy of the moment, found herself also in tears, immensely, profoundly moved by this simple, heartfelt and unexpected compassion.
The entire movie manages to confound expectations throughout. Just when we think we’ve found a safe distance from Carla’s reality, a feeling she might in fact be sharing, we experience her, and our, fleeting humanity with redoubled intensity.
After watching the movie I went to Carla’s Blog with the intention of, well, seeing if she was still alive, and if so, leaving a message to let her know how much I liked the movie. Quickly scanning the site, I saw that her last post was May 1st, and feeling confident that there would be future posts, hurried off to a meeting, thinking I would write her later.
Later, the director John Zaritsky told me that what I had seen was her final post, (listen to son, Mac, give reason for final post at Hot Docs screening Q&A) and that her health was so poor that her death was expected anytime, perhaps even before the premiere of her movie.
I don’t’ know, I don’t want to be too corny about this– as neither Carla nor the director ever got too melodramatic about her circumstance—but this struck me as acutely poignant, serving to remind me how urgent the world and our lives really are, and how essential it is to be present in the lives of those we love, and those who love us. (listen to son, Mac, tell us what Carla thinks of the film at Hot Docs screening Q&A)
Michael Murray feels awkward talking about his genius, which he recently found out does not translate in IQ tests. He usually writes about Pop Culture for places like The Ottawa Citizen, Slant Magazine, Fashion Magazine and Pajiba.com. He also Blogs like an all-star at: http://www.michaelmurray.ca/blog/ .