Posted on 10/15/12 04:56 PM
The Problem With Relying on the Family
No one should ever have to put their whole life into taking care of someone else. I need a lot of taking care of myself, and it's me telling you this. I don't think my mother thinks of herself as taking care of my younger sister, but that's just what she's doing. Any life Mom might have been able to make for herself fourteen years ago, when my sister graduated from high school, is lost now, because she's still got a child at home, even if that "child" turned thirty-two last month. In fact, there's no little evidence that putting developmentally disabled people into group homes and letting them be part of the Real World is better for them than keeping them at home alone with their parents. And, as today's film explores, there is the added problem of what will happen when the parents grow old. I can promise you I won't be taking in my sister, should anyone ever ask me to, and she's a lot less work than Philly Wohl.
Philly has been retarded since birth. At the point at which his cousin, Ira, started filming, Philly was fifty-two years old. Aside from two years in an institution when he was a teenager, Philly has lived his whole life with his parents, Pearl and Max. Ira can acknowledge the truth, which is that Pearl and Max are old and Philly is still going strong. (In fact, Philly is still alive so far as I know.) He finally persuades them to have Philly tested, and then he finds a school Philly can attend during the day which will help him better integrate into society. Philly blooms in his new situation. Ira takes Philly to the zoo, the first time he's ever been out without his parents. And all the while, Ira is filming--years of filming. His view of his cousin is straightforward and practical, and he isn't afraid of telling his aunt and uncle that they need to plan for the future. After all, his aunt and uncle are in their eighties.
When you've been doing something for more than fifty years, it's a career. Philly is Pearl's career, and she seems uncertain as to what she'll do without him. When Philly was born, in the 1920s, there were no safety nets for people like Philly. Pearl and Max had no real choice but to keep Philly at home. They tell Ira that they fought to get Philly into the institution, and that it was a huge mistake. They were right both times. Philly was starting to have behavioural issues, and there wasn't anything they could do to make it right. On the other hand, institutions in those days were horrible places, and Philly isn't mentally ill in the way that those institutions were designed for anyway. However, except for those two years, Pearl has been taking care of him. Max gives off the vibe of the typical father of his era--Philly is Pearl's problem, because taking care of the children is always the mother's problem. She gives the impression of not knowing what to do without Philly around.
Perhaps because it is a movie about Ira's own cousin, the movie never comes off as exploitative. Philly is a real person. We don't learn much about his own likes and dislikes, his own hopes and dreams, but I'm not sure how much we can. Philly is so different from Ira that I'm not sure Ira could ever really get inside his cousin's head in the way that you can with a mentally normal subject. Philly can't express himself well; he says "yeah" even when that isn't an appropriate response--to the extent that I'm not at all sure that he understands what's being said to him in most of those situations. However, Ira really tries. The whole family does; Philly is asked what he wants even when he has no way of understanding quite what his options are. He can't understand why he can't go to school when there is heavy snow on the ground; how can he be expected to understand the relative merits of moving into a group home or not? Still, the family tries, and the implication is that it is better for him that they do.
I found this movie so moving, so interesting, that I went to Netflix in search of Diagnosis According to the DSM-IV, a work that does not appear on IMDb but does appear in the DVD's "about the artist." Clearly, the DVD is the thing in need of diagnosis. However, before I glanced at his IMDb page, I went, as I said, to Netflix. It doesn't know what I'm talking about. It suggested that perhaps what I mean was, to give it the full title, Captain America: The First Avenger. Or, as a second choice, a movie starring Tommy Lee Jones. Now, as Gwen points out, it's really The Avengers that is a story of diagnosis according to the DSM-IV. That joke, accurate though it may be, aside, what on Earth is the search program at Netflix thinking? This is a thing it does every once in a while. I routinely search for some pretty obscure movies, some with rather long titles, and when it doesn't know what I'm looking for, and what I'm looking for doesn't have a similar title to something else, it says, "Captain America, maybe?" Because it knows what that is, I guess.