The Genius of Marian is an intimate, poetic documentary about Pam White and her family as they all struggle to deal with Pam's Alzheimer's disease. As the film opens, Pam is in the midst of writing a book, The Genius of Marian, as a tribute to her mother, painter Marian Williams Steele, who died of Alzheimer's. But then she herself is diagnosed with the illness and the book will never be finished.
We see Pam progress from denial to shame to frustration and then to acceptance. In the beginning she remarks that her mother had Alzheimer's and she doesn't. Ironically, she later can't remember if she has the illness. "I don't have it -- yes I do," she tells her son, Banker White, the film's director. She then repeats that sentence verbatim.
Still later she tells her friends she has Alzheimer's but makes them promise not to tell anyone. By the end of the film she has come to terms with her condition and remarks, in a stunning moment of lucidity -- not unusual in people who have Alzheimer's -- "It doesn't change anything."
Two especially poignant moments stand out in my mind. The first is when Pam is merely trying to put on her coat. But she can't do it. She holds the coat in front of her and looks confused. Then she puts her right arm in the left sleeve. Seeing this won't work she looks even more confused and frustrated until her husband takes the coat from her and helps her put it on. Little do we know that as her illness progresses he will even have to help her get dressed in the morning.
In the other particularly touching scene, Pam and her husband are at a doctor's appointment. They are discussing whether they should find someone to come into the home and help out with Pam. She expresses her desire not to have any outside help.
In this scene Pam bares her soul to the doctor, although she has great difficulty forming the sentence that does so. She tries to explain why she doesn't want any help, saying the following, full of pauses. "I think the problem is that I'm... it's kind of... like my, uh... how do you say it ..." After a long pause she comes up with the final word and proclaims it loudly, "Pride." Then she looks up at the doctor with a tragically forlorn expression. In this one eternally sad moment White achieves something remarkable. He lets us experience what it must feel like to have Alzheimer's.
We feel Pam's sadness and frustration, and realize again how impaired she is, when the doctor shows her sketches and asks what objects they depict. She knows that you comb your hair with a comb, but initially can't come up with the word for that object. She's completely unable to name a bench and a boat.
Produced and co-directed by White's wife, Anna Fitch, this film was an Official Selection of the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival. White says, "My goal [was] to create a film that finds light and beauty in a place often shrouded in shame and confusion." It's easy to see he achieved that goal.
Fitch enunciates an additional objective:
The Genius of Marian is a reminder that we don't often talk about the really important things until we're in the middle of a tragedy, but you don't have to wait. Alzheimer's gives you the unique gift of time with someone you know you are going to lose. I hope our film will inspire people to connect on an intimate level with everyone they love."
The film is set to air on the PBS series, Point of View, on Monday, September 8. (Check local listings.) Put it on your calendar. You won't want to miss it.