I saw "Still Alice" last night. Starring Julianne Moore as a woman living with early-onset Alzheimer's disease, co-directed by Richard Glatzer (who made "Grief," featuring Craig Chester and Jackie Beat), this film stands as an example of a New Queer Cinema that could be called "post-ironic."
Glatzer, along with Todd Haynes, Bruce LaBruce and Tom Kalin, among others, emerged from the generation of art filmmakers growing up during the AIDS crisis, and were very involved in the political activism that responded to AIDS and the attack on gay rights. They employed pastiche, parody, ironic commentary, shock tactics and horror tropes in order to illustrate their themes. Academics called them representatives of the New Queer Cinema of the Nineties. Right-wing politicians condemned them.
One could argue that the zenith of this movement was Todd Haynes's 1995 "Safe," featuring Julianne Moore as a woman transformed by her allergy to...? Regarded by critics as one of the defining films of the era, "Safe" adopted the TV movie "disease of the week" form in an ironic, politically-interrogative manner, by casting the plight of Moore's character in terms of horror as well as domestic melodrama. The tone unsettled, and remained relentless, refusing the moviegoer the satisfaction of catharsis. (I teach "Safe" in my film studies class, and I am always surprised by the range of responses from my students. Some hate it. Many thought they would hate it, and end up loving it, because it made them think, not feel.)
It's been twenty years since "Safe," and everyone associated with the New Queer Cinema has, among other things, grown older. As I watched "Still Alice," I kept thinking that the movie brings Julianne Moore full circle, back to "Safe." This time, however, sincerity replaces irony as a filmic approach. Part of me resents that decision. A sincere account of a woman's decline into illness made it no longer a commentary on the Lifetime "for women" TV movie, but a Lifetime TV movie itself, one that ended up with a theatrical release...and not starring Valerie Bertinelli. (Judith Light? Connie Selleca? Marky Post?) Many critics agree. Over and over again I encountered that damning phrase, "TV Movie," in the reviews.
After a while, however, I reconsidered my position. It's important to remember what John Waters said when critics sneered at "Cry-Baby," because they wanted more of the shocking, "in your face" camp politics of Waters's "Pink Flamingoes." Waters said that he could not make movies like that anymore, because he could not remain so angry at his age. I thought of that John Waters statement when I thought of Richard Glatzer, who was dying from ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) while making "Still Alice." As a middle-aged man facing a very short life, Glatzer (with his partner Wash Westmoreland) directs "Still Alice" without sentimentality, but without irony, either. There's an urgency to "Still Alice" that suggests that Glatzer, facing the end of his life, didn't have time for the distance of parody, pastiche, camp or other ironic devices. He portrays the woman's slow descent with gravity, dignity and a political activism that is straightforward. Rage was the appropriate response to AIDS: it was a death that robbed the young of the future. The world needed to be shocked awake, because millions would not get a chance to have a life to be lived. With the medical situation depicted in "Still Alice," one of its tragedies is the waning effort to remember the life lived long, and well. Elegy, not camp, seems an appropriate tactic for the movie that Glatzer made. I believe that this will remain a controversial standpoint, however.
What remains inarguable is the brilliance of Moore's performance. It's not her "best," but it is her cumulative role. She won the Oscar not only for "Still Alice," but for the body of work that includes "Safe," "Far from Heaven," "Boogie Nights," "Magnolia," "The Big Lebowski," "Short Cuts," which is work made by some of the finest directors of the last fifty years. A Julianne Moore Film Festival would be superior in every way to a Meryl Streep Film Festival, because so many of Moore's films are not really star vehicles, like Streep's, but classics in their own right. Moore is like Barbara Stanwyck in this regard. Davis and Crawford are bigger "divas," but most of their films aren't canonical except as diva showcases.
(Heck...I would even venture to say that Julianne Moore won the Oscar for every movie she ever made, with the possible exception of "The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2.")
I stayed to watch "Still Alice" until the final credits crawled off the screen, and I was surprised to note that Todd Haynes was given "special thanks" along with four or five other people. I don't know Haynes's contribution to Glatzer's film, but it was very heartening to see his name on the screen.