Moving Or Offensive? Henry Corra’s New Cancer Documentary ‘Farewell to Hollywood’ Is Both

Moving Or Offensive? Henry Corra's New Cancer Documentary 'Farewell to Hollywood' Is Both

Some movies push beyond perceived moral boundaries for the sake of being purely transgressive. “Farewell to Hollywood,” documentarian Henry Corra’s collaborative project with Regina Nicholson — who died of cancer last year at the age of 19 — has a blurrier agenda. Corra, whose previous credits include “The Disappearance of McKinley Nolan,” began a peculiar relationship with Nicholson after meeting her at a film festival and learning of her interest in completing a feature before her death. The mission is noble, but the final, scrappy product contains an ethical dubiousness that slips between Nicolson’s apparent intentions and those of the much older man with whom she spent her dying days.

Is it a provocation from beyond the grave or a misconceived paean from the surviving director? Alternately confounding, upsetting and riddled with grief at every turn, “Farewell to Hollywood” is certainly the most paradoxical moviegoing experience I’ve endured this year.

Fortunately, there’s no surprise moment involving Nicholson’s death. Corra establishes that much upfront, explaining his initial interest in Nicholson with an opening title card and including footage where her ashes at buried at one of her favorite outdoor spots. Her parents, Corra explains, have not yet learned of her demise. From there, “Farewell to Hollywood” flashes back to 2010 and quickly establishes the spunky Nicholson as a diehard movie buff whose walls are lined with DVDs. Her ebullient Christian parents, encouraged after her recent surgery to remove a tumor in her leg, seem to encourage her interests and Corra’s investment in helping her explore them.

The filmmakers — taking the project at face value, the dual credits imply that there are always two authors at work here — further emphasize Nicholson’s burgeoning cinephilia with a series of flash cuts that shift between her life and the movies that excite her: A fleeting shot of Nicholson using her inhaling is followed by Uma Thurman (Nicholson’s fashion idol) jerking upward during her infamous heroin-snorting scene in “Pulp Fiction”; the helicopters from “Apocalypse Now” emphasize the increasing gloominess caused by her sickness. The device is immediately over the top and never quiet settles in, although it stands out for the very same reason, by showing the obsessive elements of the dying Nicholson’s burgeoning cinephilia: Movies provide her with a gateway to worlds she’ll never fully explore on her own.

Because “Farewell to Hollywood” aims to represent both directors’ points of view early on, its subjective ingredients are troubling from the start. But Nicholson’s perseverance when faced with her dour prognosis provides a remarkable narrative in spite of the questionable methods used to tell it. Over time, Nicholson endures a heartbreaking series of spats with her beleaguered parents, who eventually reject her when she chooses to move out in a bid to experience young adulthood during the small window of time available to her.

The bumpy road to their ultimate estrangement unfolds with heavily sad component. However, the language of the narrative leads to an invasive, voyeuristic quality enforced by the camera’s presence; while Corra may have felt strongly about helping Nicholson and she embraced his assistance, it’s hard not to wonder if he crossed some line by insisting in remaining a part of the family’s struggle.

“Farewell to Hollywood” frequently leaves too much up for interpretation. As Corra and Nicholson become better friends, the movie includes extreme close-ups of the two of them as they drive around together and share smiles; much of their cheeky communication unfolds through text messages provided onscreen in captions riddled with emoticons. Any preconceived notions about the essential boundaries between non-fiction storytellers and their subjects have clearly been abandoned.

During a Q&A following the world premiere of “Farewell to Hollywood” at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam this week, Corra said he was no stranger to such concerns.

“People have brought up words like ‘unethical’ and ‘too close,'” he said. “I think of this as a very unique style of personal filmmaking.” The project isn’t the first of its kind to engage with the touchy issue of child death in alarmingly intimate detail: The 2009 documentary “Boy Interrupted” explored the factors that led to a 15-year-old’s suicide from the perspective of his filmmaker parents; “Dear Zachary” deals with the murder of an infant and emphasizes the pain surrounding his death by including it as a late second act surprise.

Still, those movies contain fairly traditional documentary ingredients that at least make their intentions readily understandable. “Farewell to Hollywood,” with its messy assemblage of home video footage, lacks the same clarity; as a whole, it’s best approach as a diary film made primarily for the two people who conceived of it.

At his Q&A, Corra referred to this unorthodox approach as “living cinema,” a process mandated by the emotional journey endured by its creators. This isn’t exactly a fresh term: In the 1970s and 1980s, the Collective for Living Cinema provided a haven for New York’s underground avant garde filmmakers, who regularly explored the possibilities of filmmaking that pushed beyond any traditional restrictions on the medium. Viewed in light of that tradition, “Farewell to Hollywood” ostensibly constitutes a work of experimental film art only accessible to audiences open to its goals.

However, it may represent one of the biggest productions from that school of thought: “Farewell to Hollywood” was produced in part by Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong foundation and lists the disgraced biker among its executive producers. Just as that company has been overshadowed by the moral infringements of its founder, the poignant aspects of “Farewell to Hollywood” are at odds with the problematic conditions behind its creation.

Of course, Corra feels differently. “I think the film gave us something to go through with this death in an elegant and graceful way,” he told the IDFA audience. But Nicholson’s own talent may have achieved that much already. “Glimpse of Horizon,” one of the short films uploaded to Nicholson’s YouTube page, provides more emotional lucidity than “Farewell to Hollywood” achieves in two hours.

The very presence of Corra in the movie problematizes it from the outset. Given their decision to reject their daughter, Nicholson’s parents don’t escape unscathed, but their concern over her relationship to Corra doesn’t seem entirely unfounded: Corra never allows himself to become enough of a fully defined character in the story to justify his motives. Naturally, he was ready to face the firing squad at the Q&A. “We did not have sex, OK?” he stated unprompted at the premiere. “That’s what everybody’s thinking right?” Then he added an unusual qualifier: “We had a relationship that was better than sex.”  

Setting aside that troubling dynamic, “Farewell to Hollywood” unquestionably contains a passionate energy as it chronicles Nicholson’s increasingly weak state; her body literally withers away before our eyes, and many of the unsettling details of her chemotherapy treatment remain onscreen. There’s no doubting that the movie’s closeness to Nicholson’s experience has the ability to address anyone with the capacity to relate.

Towards the end of the Q&A, one audience member tearfully recounted how the movie reminded her of an experience last year surviving a brain tumor operation, then asked Corra for a hug. He obliged, while an IDFA cameraman recorded the whole thing nearby, and suddenly it was as though the entire crowd had become a part of Corra’s movie. The scattered, awkward applause that followed this moment was an apt reflection of the conflicting effect that “Farewell to Hollywood” has on its viewers.

Corra concluded the post-screening discussion by telling audiences that Nicholson provided him with a message to anyone who questioned their connection. “I’m your dead virgin bride,” he quoted her as saying, “and the film is our immaculately conceived love child.” It’s the kind of poetic assertion that should have made it to the final edit. “Farewell to Hollywood” contains ample footage to illustrate that Nicholson was an active creative mind cut down just as it was starting to get complicated. The movie succeeds at making the case for her sizable ambition and conveying the tragedy of her fate. But the ultimate documentary is less successful than the document of Nicholson’s talent buried inside of it.

Criticwire Grade: C+

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Sure to divide audiences as it continues to play festivals, “Farewell to Hollywood” is most likely going to have a tough time finding a distributor, though it could manage to stay in the conversation with a self-release strategy that capitalizes on interest from the cancer support community.

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Comments

Shannon Cerda

OK

FTH

Correction to Mr. Kohn’s assumption that Henry Corra and Corra Film’s Living Cinema is a reference to downtown NYC’s Collective For Living Cinema. The term Living Cinema derives from The Center for Living Theater founded in 1949 by Julian Beck in Greenwich Village and was a direct outgrowth of the great French playwright and performer, Antonin Artaud, whose famous essay, "The Theatre and Its Double," about breaking down the boundaries between actor’s and the audience, is considered a direct influence on Corra’s work.

Brian

A paradoxical review for a paradoxical movie.

Geneva L.

I'm thrilled to see such a compelling story on the big screen – it's heartwarming and heartbreaking all at the same time. I wish Reggie had lived to see her name in lights — she would've been proud.

Henry Corra

It's heartwarming to see these last comments and the outpouring of support from the audiences in Amsterdam and around the world. There are no good guys or bad guys in this story. Just humans struggling with a terrible tragedy. Our hope is that Reggie's message of unconditional love at the heart of the film endures. Please read this review.

http://amsterdiary.blogspot.com/2013/11/dangerous-camerawork.html

Amsterdam Diaries

The closeness of Nicholson and Corra – even it is a cot next to the bed of a dying loved one – is precious and rare in the 21st century – and the movie portrays love in an original light I have never seen before.

Brian Winston

We hide from death and fear it; but this genre breaking film take it on. It is warm, fearless, inspiringing and contentious by turns. It's going to be talked about for a long time.

Annette

I'm two years older than Reggie's and I saw the film twice last week. At first I almost walked out because of the terrible suffering she went through and how graphically it's depicted. But then I was taken in by the story and I identified with her struggles with her parents and need for independence and her morbid humour. Now I think it's one of the most beautiful films I've ever seen.

Amsterdam Diaries

Nicholson and Corra have created a new kind of cinema, what Corra calls "living cinema" and where no one may be able to pull it off again "Farewell to Hollywood" succeeds.

http://amsterdiary.blogspot.com/2013/11/dangerous-camerawork.html?m=1

Mary Nicholson (Reggie's Mom)

I have remorse that I ever allowed this man into our lives. I loved my daughter more than life itself and was closer to her than any human being I'd ever known. She was the most loving, giving child. From a very early age, it was important to do things herself. She made her first money doing a Khol's commercial at age 5. She spent all the money I didn't put in the banks for her on Christmas presents for her family. Her allowance she saved up was generally spent on gifts for family and friends. Once she even tried to give money to a homeless man in a grocery store parking lot. I am still amazed by how this man and cancer turned her loyalties to this evil man who manipulated us as a family until we found sexual texts between him and her. We reported him to authorities. The Special Victims unit believed there was a valid case, but because the prosecutor wouldn't take on the case because of her age and her diagnosis. Corra had her turn us into Child protective services because once years before when I tried to take her movies away temporarily as a punishment she said something awful to me in anger. I moved toward her in anger and was going to flip her in the mouth and she tripped over some things on the flooe. He had her twist the story that she was afraid to come home that I might hurt her. That case was totally dismissed, but it shows you Corra's ability to control our daughter into doing anything he wanted to obtain control of her and how desperate she was to have a movie made with her name on it. I can not comment on the movie other than the trailer which was a total dishonor to her life with the little shovel scene and the incantation spoken over her ashes by someone who was suppose to be a youth pastor with the Methodist Church who always seemed to have a young girl with him too! What type of men are these that would rip a struggling family apart in the middle of fighting cancer??? I ask you her audience. This was not Reggie's film, she was long gone when Corra put it together. Her "Glimpse of Horizon" was the true picture of the type of film work she was capable of. That is the film that should be her legacy.

George

Visionary and intimate, Farewell to Hollywood possesses a lyrical power and beauty as close to pure music as film can get.

ANONYMOUS 2

Reggie was my friend. Corra twisted and stole her lasting legacy. This version of her is false and her actual memory has been hidden under this man's vision.

gore

The previous comments show the validity of your review in several levels. Thanks

Anonymous

some of you speak of Love, this was not love. He stole her from her family, denied them access to her. She died and he did not even have the decency to call her parents. This man is a pig and is rubbing salt in the wounds of Reggie's family. May God have mercy on his soul because he wont get any here.

Mary Nicholson - Reggie's mom

Our daughter was never rejected by her family. Corra was rejected. Once his perverted relationship with our daughter came to light. We tried to support her every dream of being a filmmaker. Corra is a prolific lier, thief and demonic soul. HE REFUSED TO LET HER SEE OR SPEAK TO HER FAMILY UNLESS WE WENT THROUGH HIM. He refused to let her see or speak to anyone who knew and loved her family. He torchured us as a family for two years. She is basically a victom of "Stockholm Syndrome" between being a teenager who was being tortured by a disease and having to face death. Her dreams of being a filmmaker were being stripped from her. She saw Corra as her only avenue and she was willing to do anything including being isolated from her family. We never stopped loving her and look forward to seeing her someday. I pray that God has mercy on her soul because of her age and vulnerability. I do not believe she said what he claims. Surely he would have gotten it on film if there was any truth to it.

ernest

I found in this film the same dichotomy that you report in your review. Cancer is a difficult subject and almost everybody touch by it reacts in a unique manner. The film attempts to create a character that reacts as many subjects with the result of inconsistency in developing the characters involved.

rom

I am a 6 year cancer survivor and I agree with your review. The reality is that this illness is present in yuor mind and in the minds of the people you closely associate. This presence generates a stress that colors all your interactions. This is what this film misses. Your review captures some of it.

Theresa

Mr. Scott: Although I do not completely agree with Eric's review I believe that you completely is point. The idea behind this film was LOVE. The realization misses this by introducing forced dialogs and trivialities. I believe Eric's comments address these short-commings. t

scott

regarding eric kohn's review of "farewell to hollywood":
dear sir – you pontificate at length (albeit clumsily and in need of an able proofreader) about this film and its creators, and yet – never once in your review – do you mention the word, "LOVE".
you allow avenue to veiled conjecture of the surviving filmmaker's intentions and to the premiere's follow-up Q&A while ignoring the beautifully documented, sacrificial caring and shared commitment of the artistic vision in a covenant of unconditional love between two human beings.
mr. kohn – you were either napping till the lights came up, or you need lessons in love, because you missed the pulse of this film's heartbeat by a galaxy.

fruma

Sensible review of a difficult film. I went to a cancer scare myself so I feel the emotional pain despicted in the movie

shark

PAULINA GARCIA AMAZING IN GLORIA, HER NAME MUST TO DO IN THE OSCAR BEST ACTRESS LIST OF NOMINATION.

Caroline

The Chilean Paulina Garcia gives the best performance of the year in the amazing film Gloria. The Academy must reward her brilliant act.

eleonor

PAULINA GARCIA HAS TO WIN THE OSCAR FOR HER WONDERFUL PERFORMANCE IN GLORIA!!!

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