From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Media Watch: ‘K-PAX’ lands at theaters; Nichols’ ‘WIT’ released on video

by Father Tom Caswell, for the Inland Register

(From the Nov. 15, 2001 edition of the Inland Register)

One of the great actors of our time is Kevin Spacey. Another very fine American actor is Jeff Bridges. The two of them are in the new Universal production called K-PAX. Sadly I report something went wrong.

K-PAX is an attempt to ask some pretty important questions about human life and the society we live in. However, in a “talking heads” format it rehashes the old ground of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and King of Hearts. We are all familiar with the theme of the patients in the mental institution being wiser and better healers than the doctors who just want to increase their medication.

A man named Prot (Kevin Spacey) is arrested in Grand Central Station in New York City for being in the vicinity of a robbery. He has the misfortune of telling the police that he is an extraterrestrial. Off he is shipped to Bellevue. After a month they send him to the upscale Psychiatric Institute of Manhattan. He becomes a patient of Dr. Mark Powell (Jeff Bridges).

Powell slowly and rationally questions Prot about his homeland on the planet K-PAX. He asks him how he traveled 1,000 light years to Earth. Prot gives clever and convincing answers.

As the story slowly moves we learn that Powell is all consumed in his work. His home life is poor. He is distant from his wife and younger children. He also has no contact with an older son at Dartmouth.

Powell believes there is some kind of trauma in Prot’s early life that is making him delusional.

On one occasion he takes Prot to the beautiful new planetarium at the Rose Center of the Museum of Natural History. Scientists ask serious questions of Prot about his planet K-PAX. They are amazed when he clearly explains with drawings where the planet is located.

Meanwhile, back at the mental hospital, Prot engagingly gives hope to the patients one at a time. The patients become such followers of the patient-healer that they all seek to return to K-PAX with Prot when he is scheduled to leave on July 27.

As the time approaches Dr. Powell uses every resource he can think of to break through to Prot. Here the movie shows us a fairly long period of psychotherapy reminiscent of Ingrid Bergman treating Gregory Peck in Hitchcock’s famous film Spellbound.

The film then moves into a sort of detective story that leads to an ending where the viewer can see what happens in two different ways.

To complicate it even more, another ending has been added after the credits. Obviously most movie-goers won’t stay for it. It is worth staying for, however.

Spacey and Bridges are hard to knock as actors. But their acting just doesn’t click in this film. It may be that the script by Charles Leavitt from a novel by Gene Brewer is often too pedestrian. The director, Iain Softley films the “talking heads” in the fashion of a slow-moving television interview. K-PAX rehashes the old “mental-patient-is-wise” theme in an unsatisfying way.

K-PAX is rated PG-13 — Parents Strongly Cautioned. There is some violence and moderate profanity. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops classify K-PAX as A-II — for adults and adolescents.

*****

Every now and then along comes a movie that asks the hard and elusive questions about death and dying. HBO Films has recently released on video and DVD the Mike Nichols-directed film WIT. Emma Thompson stars in this 1999 Pulitzer Prize-winning off-Broadway drama.

Elementary school teacher Margaret Edson was in her 20s when she wrote this haunting and thought-provoking story. She has said she will never write again.

WIT is the story of Vivian Bearing (Thompson), a 48-year-old professor of the Holy Sonnets of the 17th century author John Donne. She has been a tough and “all-business” teacher of hundreds of college students through the years.

She has thrown her life into the vocation of teaching. She lives alone.

Suddenly, a research scientist tells her, very mechanically, that she has cancer.

Her doctor (Christopher Lloyd) urges her to take an eight-month experimental course of treatment. Vivian’s cancer is very aggressive and generally untreatable.

She agrees. The result is a story of a woman long in control of her life and her world torn apart mentally and physically as she makes an excruciating journey of life.

As Vivian undergoes treatment, she remembers scenes from the classroom, as she tried to impress on students the depth of meaning in the writings of John Donne. Throughout her sickness she remembers various verses that speak to her now and somehow give her hope in a future beyond this world.

Emma Thompson is extraordinary in her “tour de force” as a lonely college professor whose world has centered on even the commas of particular texts of Donne. The closeups of her face show the depth of her portrayal.

Audra McDonald is stunning as the nurse who lets humanity and “heart” break through the scientific rationality that becomes irrational. As the nurse who seeks to make sure Vivian’s wishes are lived up to, she fights against almost incredible odds.

Eileen Atkins as Vivian’s former mentor plays out an incredible scene in which, late in Vivian’s illness, she finally comes to visit. Vivian is not able to verbally respond as her mentor gets in bed with her and reads her a children’s story, stroking her hair.

Yes, we do die alone. But it is wonderful to hope that there will be friends and relatives who hold us and treat us as persons to the end.

In the off-Broadway theatrical production of WIT the ending includes a “resurrection” epilogue. The actress playing Vivian briefly appears naked with bright lights that give the image of a glorified body. This ending is not in the movie version. My guess is that what would work in a theater of 300 just would not work on film with the same powerful effect.

WIT is a serious movie that shakes the soul. Young Margaret Edson as the playwright asks questions many of us keep putting off until much later in life. WIT is not for everyone. It is not for a person going through depression. But for many of us it takes risks most films are unwilling to take for commercial reasons. WIT is a labor of love and a film you will long remember.

WIT is PG-13 because of serious subject matter. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Office for Film and Broadcasting rates WIT A-3 — for adults.

(Father Caswell is pastor of St. Rose of Lima Parish, Cheney, and Ecumenical Relations Officer for the Diocese of Spokane.)


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