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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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