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‘Supernova’ – The Act of Forgetting
At a key moment in ‘Supernova’, the new drama from Harry MacQueen, the novelist Tusker (Stanley Tucci) speaks with a friend about his diagnosis of early-onset dementia. “You’re still you, Tusker,” she tells him, reassuringly. He responds, “No. I’m not. I just look like him.” He looks down at his body, destined to become the facsimile that will imprison the ghost dementia will transform him into, and self-deprecatingly adds, “Which is a shame, really.” This exchange is everything you need to know about Tusker. He’s straightforward, clear-eyed, and he has a cosmic sense of humor and self-awareness about his condition. His identity lies in his wit, his writing, and in control, and those things are slipping away. By Kübler-Ross’s model, he’s reached the stage of acceptance.
His partner Sam (Colin Firth), on the other hand, is still hovering around denial. Sam was once a decent concert pianist, but it seems that he gave up his career to focus on supporting Tusker–first as an editor, and now as a nurse. Perhaps as a result of his own deferred dreams, Sam sees no path forward but that of martyrdom. Perhaps there is some resentment towards Tusker, who has kept up his art as Sam has settled into domesticity. Perhaps Sam resents Tusker for abandoning him, as irrational as that may be. Sam wants to see things through, to care for Tusker until there is none of him left. If that means emotional suffering and thanklessly caring for someone who will forget his name, so be it. In Richard Linklater’s ‘Waking Life’, Timothy Levitch remarks, “Remembering is so much more a psychotic activity than forgetting.” There is a determined attempt to create a sense of permanence in Sam; he records interviews with Tusker with a handheld tape recorder to create memories as Tusker loses his.
‘Supernova’ – A Subtle Finale
The Welsh poet Dylan Thomas once wrote, “Do not go gentle into that good night,” and Tusker and Sam follow the maxim by loading up their rickety old RV and touring the English countryside, revisiting old friends and the old campgrounds where they fell in love. Of course, weaving through the picturesque hills and valleys of rural England is not perhaps what Thomas meant when he said to “rage against the dying of the light,” but it does make for some beautiful film, as captured masterfully by ‘The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind’ veteran cinematographer Dick Pope. The morning dew, the forest floor gleaming in golden light, birds singing amongst the ancient trees, and white clouds reflecting in the river–the journey is calming, but perhaps a bit elegiac.
Many of the highlights of the trip seem to pass by with a somber sigh. There is a mature acknowledgment in the film that no cinematic triumphant journey can reverse the inevitable. Even the soundtrack is full of melancholic foreshadowing. In ‘Little Bit of Rain,’ Karen Dalton sings, “If I should leave you, try to remember the good times.” David Bowie, an excellent inclusion considering Tusker’s deep love of the cosmos, sings in ‘Heroes’, “Though nothing will keep us together, we could steal time just for one day.” Dalton and Bowie are both artists taken too soon, burning now like celestial bodies in our collective memory. Hearing these songs from his youth, Tusker wonders how he will be remembered.
‘Supernova’ differentiates itself from other recent end-of-life dramas by focusing tightly on a brief span of time. The recent ‘Our Friend’ deals with a young woman’s cancer diagnosis, showing the gradual progression of the disease through an unflinchingly honest lens, while also showing the increasing emotional impact her care has on her husband and her best friend. Here, there is no prevalent intermediary to soften the blows. ‘Falling’, Viggo Mortensen’s directorial debut, tells the story of a gay man confronting his relationship with his ailing dementia-diagnosed father. In that film, LGBTQ issues come to the forefront due to the father’s bigotry, but here the issue is not given special attention. It’s a refreshing sign of progress to see a film that’s matter-of-fact about a relationship between two men, never once treating it as a controversy.
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Tusker is closer in age to Julianne Moore’s character in ‘Still Alice’, which has the actress playing a linguist diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s in an Oscar-winning performance. That film features Acting with an upper-case ‘A’, a tour-de-force from Moore of gradual shades of mental degradation as her daughter (Kristen Stewart) attempts to hold on. Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth give phenomenal performances here, but the film is much more subtle.
Choosing a Path with Heart
A welcome surprise is just how sweetly funny ‘Supernova’ turns out to be. There’s a winning ‘Odd Couple’ relationship between the two leads, with Tucci playing the sarcastic Oscar to Firth’s fastidious Felix. Moments like Tusker crowding Sam off of a cramped single bed they’re sharing, Tusker insisting that a diner waitress is dying for an autograph from his obscure pianist husband, and Tusker taking his frustration with Sam’s driving by roasting the onboard GPS (which he insists sounds just like Margaret Thatcher) are highlights. There’s a perverse sense of glee in Tusker, a feeling that part of him relishes the immunity granted to him by his condition. A story is going around about how the two actors actually decided to switch roles during the production process, and while one can certainly imagine the film working with the casting flipped, the actors’ instincts paid off. The idea that the two studied each other’s lines before learning their own may be partly to credit for the level of intimacy the two have achieved.
Perhaps it’s the eternal charm of England’s green and golden hills, but there is a bit of ‘Lord of the Rings’ to the narrative here–Tusker is going on a doomed journey, carrying a burden that will gnaw at him until eventually no part of him remains. His Sam (another coincidence) cannot carry his burden, but he can carry Tusker. It’s up to the empath Sam to keep Tusker from giving into his most self-destructive desires, especially as the dementia terrifyingly takes hold. It causes Tusker to vacantly wander off when Sam is grocery shopping. It causes him to lose his grasp of language, like pages being torn out of a book. In what may be the most sinister display of what is to come, it makes Tusker feel alienated at a surprise party in his own honor.
Fortunately, parts of him shine through best in one-on-one moments. Meeting under the stars with the young daughter of his hosts, Tusker shares his awe for the universe, explaining to her that the same stuff that makes those faraway infernos of energy is the stuff that makes human bodies as well. For Tusker, stars are the fundamental directional entity–they can orient you when all else is lost. They are there when all else fails. One may dismiss them as unfeeling, but their light travels a million million miles to arrive at your eye; its path is self-assured. The journey of their light creates an insistent and persistent narrative for the stars themselves, not unlike the journeys we take in our lives, not unlike the journey taken by Tusker and Sam. Perhaps ultimately, as Carlos Castaneda writes, “All paths are the same: they lead nowhere,” and that is why it is so essential to choose one with heart.
‘Supernova’ is currently playing in select theaters.
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