Film Review: “The Genius of Marian” — A Deeply Moving Look at the Devastation of Alzheimer’s Disease

“The Genius of Marian,” the new documentary from directors Banker White and Anita Fitch, depicts the bitter process of absorbing disaster, with White’s mother as the subject.

The Genius of Marian, directed by Banker White and Anna Fitch. Screening at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA, January 22 through 30. White will be present for a Q&A after the screening on the 22nd.

A painting by

A painting by Marian Williams Steele, one of the subjects of “The Genius of Marian.”

By Robert Ribera

Watching a film about the terrible effects of Alzheimer’s disease is an emotionally exhausting experience. There really is no other way to put it. We know where the story is going. We know that an individual’s years of memories will begin to slip away before our very eyes. There is no need for a grand cinematic metaphor, one that will artistically make the disease more palpable. All we need to do to understand the damage is watch as a woman sits in her doctor’s office, staring blankly at a series of drawings, unable to conjure up the name of everyday objects: “I know I know that one. It’s right on the tip of my tongue.” But the words never come.

This is a significant part of the devastation, the day-to-day forgetfulness of a failing mind. There is also, of course, the terrible toll it takes on someone’s family, who can only watch as its loved one drifts away. Where can hope and joy can be found? In the time that is left, and perhaps in a passionate remembrance of things past. The Genius of Marian, the new documentary from directors Banker White and Anna Fitch, depicts this bitter process of absorbing disaster, with White’s mother as the subject.

Pam White, the daughter of the eponymous Marian, set out to write a book exploring both her mother’s art (the renowned painter Marian Williams Steele, who died of Alzheimer’s in 2001) and her unfortunate descent into the disease. The project was called The Genius of Marian. Only a few short months into the work, however, Pam, at the age of 61, developed the disease herself, and the manuscript began collecting dust. “I forgot about The Genius of Marian, didn’t I?” she asks at one point in the film, hinting at the sadness to come.

The film changes its focus, turning its attention to the unfinished book. Pam’s son, Banker, trains the camera on his mother, attempting to revive his mother’s memories and follow their disintegration, as if attempting to pin them down like butterflies for display. Two generations try to piece together a full picture of the family’s matriarchs, switching roles as they go along. The grandmother becomes a lens through which to view the present circumstances. The son documents his father as he becomes Pan’s primary caregiver, though all the family members end up battling the unseen enemy.

A scene from "The Genius of Marian."

A scene from “The Genius of Marian.”

The film looks for moments in which gaps between a mother and her son, a mother and her daughter, are bridged. These incidents of connection are usually facilitated by way of discussions of Marian’s paintings, which often depicted her family and explored psychological issues. Unfortunately, we can never get inside the minds of Marian or Pam; we can only surmise their pain through their outward struggles. This sense of distance is compounded by the fact that both Pam and Marian hesitated to (or perhaps could not) acknowledge, the illness. Banker uses some interesting camera work to convey the emotional attenuation, often focusing on Pam’s face — turning it into a compelling landscape of age and time. Car rides become moments of confession and denial. Once happy sojourns on the family boat morph into hours of isolation.

Throughout the film, I was waiting (guiltily) for the devastating if inevitably cliched moment: when Pam turns to her son, who had been filming her for years as she struggled with the disease, and asks, “Who are you?” The moment never comes. The emotional wallop of the experience is spread throughout the documentary: a friend corrects herself when she talks about Pam in the past tense while she is still alive; at one point Pam can no longer recognize common objects; a husband and father breaks down as he talks about the love of his life.

While the film offers an intimate look at the family’s background, the bonds forged through its struggles, and a fair amount of information about Marian, the documentary does not supply the well-rounded picture of a traditional biographical narrative. Of course, that kind of revelation is not the point of The Genius of Marian. Not every question is answered, and that is understandable. Still, I hoped there would be a little more in the way of detail about the lives of both the mother and daughter. Is this documentary deeply moving? Yes. Groundbreaking? Perhaps not. The film fades away rather than concludes. There is no lofty illumination, no final indelible image. We do not find out if Pam will be crippled by the final stages of the disease. Instead, we are left at the precipice, unsure of how the family will continue, though we are convinced that it will, with love and humility, carry on.

Rob Ribera is a filmmaker and music video director in Boston. He is the co-creator of the music website, and is currently working on his American Studies at Boston University.

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