Filmmaker Henry Corra.
Filmmaker Henry Corra.

"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.