Wit (Nichols, 2001) — 10 Years Later

A lot of things change in ten years.

Your relationship with actors can change as they move on to different roles. Writers and directors can grow or recede in your estimation as you see their work develop. You can change, gaining experience which makes you see the same work of art with new eyes.

My relationship to cancer has changed much in the last ten years. When I first reviewed Mike Nichols’s Wit in 2001, we were largely strangers. I knew the emperor of all maladies by reputation, of course, but one’s relationship to a reputation is by its nature abstract. As 2011 draws to a close, I am coming off a year where someone I’ve loved for longer than I’ve been writing movie reviews died of cancer, and I became aware that two acquaintances were fighting the disease. The latter—coming on the heels of the former—made me realize that I’ve now reached in age in which there will likely not be a calendar year in the rest of my life where I don’t know someone with some form of cancer.

I saw one mediocre film (50/50) about the cancer in 2011, and I screened Season Two of In Treatment, which has a major story line featuring a young woman with cancer. Laura Linney’s The Big C played on Showtime. Although I couldn’t get past the first two episodes on DVD, I kept hearing about Breaking Bad featuring a character that learns he has terminal cancer. None of these were terrible, and yet I found myself hating the fact that cancer is no longer a disease or even a story line. It’s a genre. Ugh.

How, if at all, would my ambivalence about this trend affect me in revisiting the film I had ranked as my second favorite of 2001?

What I Said Then:

Based on Margaret Edson’s play, Wit is admittedly less ambitious in scope than the also heavy In the Bedroom, and it wears its themes more openly on its sleeveless hospital gown. It avoids bombast, however, largely because it is able to convey the way Vivian is able to tap into her own academic curiosity even when she becomes the object of inquiry. She uses words as a shield but never as a cocoon. Thompson proves yet again why she, not Meryl Streep, is our most accomplished actress; Vivian’s intelligence and courage draw you in more than any amount of whimpering could. When Vivian gets her last lesson from a former teacher, the film borders on the preachy, yet it manages to stay just this side of sentimental by earning its emotion honestly and never wringing a scene for more than is there.

What I Say Now:

Reading my words from a decade ago seemed jarring. Nothing I said strikes me as downright stupid, but much of it feels naïve now. Is that a response to the actual words or to the person I was? “Cocoon” vs. “shield.” Huh? What’s the difference? In my 2011 viewing, Vivian’s fight to undergo the full chemotherapy regimen did not strike me as stemming from intellectual curiosity so much as a deep seated need to try make her disease, which she knows from the start is going to kill her, meaningful. Contributing to scientific knowledge? That’s the language of the doctors, but it is also a motivation that parallels her own back story and seems largely repudiated in Vivian’s last conscious exchange with anyone—the former professor who drops in on her and reads a children’s book to the broken and simpering Vivian who no longer finds comfort in the work of John Donne.

A dying Vivian has no friends or family visit her, only a former professor…and she recoils in disgust at hearing a recitation of Donne, the poet she has devoted her life to understanding and teaching.

Did she ever? There is a scene late in the film where a former student describes Dr. Bearing’s class. He speaks of Donne’s poetry as being inaccessible (it is) and, ultimately, pointless (it isn’t). I had always thought of this speech as reflecting the student’s own ignorance, his inability to see beyond his own modes of thinking (the process of interacting with an intellectual puzzle is more interesting than whether or not the answer extracted is meaningful, helpful, or true). This time, I was not so sure. The love of research for research’s sake, the commitment to the endless expansion of “knowledge” in some generic sense that is absent of its support of or contribution to humanist values or projects is certainly consistent with the doctors’ attitudes towards their own practice of medicine. Is it any different, though, to Vivian’s own, pre-cancerous (or even post-cancerous) attitude towards her own discipline? The more I thought about it, the harder it was to not see Vivian’s isolation—she has no family visitors and even the climactic visit from the former professor is said to be a somewhat chance encounter—as an indictment, either of the academic life as a whole or of her mode of approaching it.

The Verdict

I went in expecting that my evolving relationship with cancer would have the greatest impact on how I (re)viewed the film. It turned out that another ten years as a university professor ended up being just as influential. In 2001 I was in my third year of full-time teaching. I had experience, but I was still new. Twenty semesters, dozens of colleagues, and hundreds of students later, being a professor is one of the defining features of my identity, and I had a hard time shaking the feeling that the film was not merely a repudiation of the way some people practice my profession but of my profession itself.

Moaning that films get the details of your profession wrong is cliché. Painting a whole profession with a broad, stereotypical brush is something else entirely. Is that what the film or the play does? As I pondered this film, a key question in my response to it became whether or not director Mike Nichols misunderstood playwright Margaret Edson’s source material or whether some of what I was perceiving as an indictment is there in the source material. The post-death coda, read over the picture of a younger, happier Vivian, struck me as intended to be celebratory of her life, but I couldn’t find anything in the film that indicated why her life was worth celebrating.

According to a study guide created by the Madison Repertory Theater, Edson began a Master’s program in literature but never finished, and was teaching in a public school kindergarten classroom. It calls Edson the “opposite” of Vivian Bearing. Psychological-Biographical criticism is always a risky thing, but it is more than a little tempting to read Dr. Ashford, with her ability to be as conversant in children’s books as in Donne and her insistence that Vivian should enjoy her college years rather than only be an intellectual, as Edson’s true avatar in the play. Or, perhaps, these two characters represent two different sides of Edson, an attempt to communicate an internal conflict and justify the path she chose and that which she rejected.

The path she chose was an honorable one, but so, too, was the one she turned away from. Ten years after a first viewing of Wit blew me away, a revisit left me saddened. Not so much because someone made a different choice from what I did but because someone wrote a play that appears to fail to see the many ways in which living the life of inquiry can be just as ennobling and meaningful as igniting the spark of inquiry in others, that there are college classrooms as well as grade school classrooms where the ideas matter, and that there are people who love Donne’s poetry for what it says and not just how it says it.

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