In the Trenches of Life and Death
Both transcendent and troubling, Farewell to Hollywood documents the final days of a remarkable young filmmaker’s struggle with cancer
When we first meet Reggie Nicholson, co-director and central subject of the astonishing and troubling documentary Farewell to Hollywood, she's 19 years old and she's already dead. Her body has already been cremated, in fact, and the film’s opening scene is of her ashes being prepared for what appears to be an impromptu burial. Curiously, the group handling her burial is not her family, who we’re informed via voiceover were not invited to the funeral, as per Nicholson’s last wishes. Due to the slightly confusing nonlinear narrative, we’re not even sure her parents have even been informed their daughter has passed away.
“What can you say about a 25-year-old girl who died?” Ryan O'Neal asked, rhetorically, at the beginning of 1970's Love Story. Co-director Henry Corra, who completed Farewell after Nicholson’s death from osteosarcoma, ostensibly chooses to let Nicholson tell her own story, to the extent that she is able. According to Farewell’s press materials, Corra first met Nicholson, then 17, at a film festival where she showed her remarkable short “Glimpse of Horizon.”
In five-and-a-half harrowing, inspiring minutes, “Horizon” shows brief but heartbreakingly intimate glimpses of Nicholson's ordeal following her initial diagnosis with bone cancer at the age of 16, and the ways in which she was able to remain optimistic. The short film won the national TeenDocs 2010 competition held by American Film Institute and the YMCA. In an interview, Nicholson describes her goal with “Horizon” as “finding peaceful ground in a tough time,” and showing others that “it’s possible to find peace, find happiness, even in the trenches of your life.”
Corra, a documentarian of the Maysles brothers’ school, says he was impressed with Nicholson’s work and offered his assistance with her next goal: to make a feature-length documentary about the same subject. But though Nicholson remains courageous throughout Farewell, the cheerful optimist from the earlier film has been replaced by a sadder, more cynical version, and for very obvious reasons. Her cancer, thought to be heading toward remission at the end of “Horizon,” has returned before she even meets Corra, and it seems to get more aggressive with every passing frame. Asked if she's a glass-half-full kind of person, Nicholson answers, “It's just a glass with water in it.” Later, she explains, “I think people think there's more miracles than there really are.”
Though there is more than enough pain and suffering before the final scene to give significant support to that perspective, the fact that Nicholson can still speak to us from the silver screen is its own kind of minor miracle. It’s a belief Nicholson herself holds on to throughout Farewell, gleefully describing her obsession with films and using clips and quotes to emphasize her feelings. Trying out a blonde wig to cover her chemo-bald head, she apes Buffalo Bill in Silence of the Lambs. Feeling trapped at home and overprotected by her parents following a procedure, she surreptitiously films herself watching Martin Sheen holed up in Saigon, losing his shit between assignments in Apocalypse Now.
While there are many such playful and sometimes poignant references throughout the film, the two above scenes take on a disturbing significance. For instance, the inclusion of the Buffalo Bill quote (“Would you fuck me? I'd fuck me”) in a film collaboration between a teenaged girl and middle-aged man can seem creepy, especially to Nicholson’s parents, who come to believe there’s something untoward in the filmmakers’ blossoming attachment to one another. This leads to what the Apocalypse Now scene foreshadows, as Nicholson’s parents end up alienating their daughter by their very efforts to protect her during what are to be her final months on Earth. Troubled by Corra and annoyed at the constant filming, they forbid Reggie from seeing him, and, by extension, from finishing her film.
Corra and Nicholson
The conflict between Reggie, seeking freedom, and her parents, seeking control, grows to dominate the storyline almost as much as her metastatic lung tumor. Reggie begins talking about moving out and she later tells a counselor that her mother graphically threatened to commit suicide in front of her. In an audio recording that seems to have been obtained surreptitiously, we hear Reggie’s father threaten to take her off his health insurance when she turns 18 if she moves to Pasadena (where Corra resides). This seems to leave Corra (who admits to being “mildly obsessed” with Reggie, who “reminds me of relationships I had in high school”) as her only hope once she turns 18 and both father and daughter make good on their threats. Corra becomes her legal healthcare proxy and assists both with medical expenses and caretaking. Eventually, Reggie and her parents sever all ties, with a devastating scene in which Reggie reads them a letter describing the ways in which she feels they have added to her already tremendous suffering. As far as we know, it's the last time they ever see their daughter alive.
The film that resulted from all of this heartbreak, to the extent that it remains Reggie’s, is an incredibly candid document of the painful end to a brief and luminous life, exposing the darkness of the human heart in the face of death and challenging viewers to approach life with even a fraction of the courage with which this young woman approached dying. Farewell’s most inspiring and inspired moments—the uncomfortably intimate shots of Reggie vomiting, getting poked with needles, undergoing invasive surgery; the dark jokes made lighter by her charming crooked smile—are all Reggie’s, with clear predecessors in both “Glimpse” and the darker, shorter film included within Farewell and credited solely to her.
But Corra’s professional and emotional involvement in this documentary is extremely problematic. Corra is credited first as co-director, and it’s completely unknowable to viewers how much of the narrative framing was purely his, as he finished the film following her death. And for all his participation, in the film (as he’s cut it), he seems mysterious, mostly a comforting hand extended off-camera. His film circuit appearances have not helped. “We didn't have sex, OK?” Corra is quoted as saying, unprovoked, during a screening Q&A. He then explained, “We had a relationship that was better than sex.” What exactly that relationship entailed is left ambiguous (though a particularly damning comment, possibly from Reggie’s mother, on an Indiewire interview with Corra paints him as manipulative, “inappropriate,” and exploiting Reggie’s story for his own professional gain). We’re privy to text messages exchanged between the two, but we get the sense that these have been carefully selected from a larger collection. We see a secretive Skype session with Corra, but the scene cuts out abruptly after Reggie says, “I love you.” Corra quotes from his final conversation with her, but we do not see it. Though her corpse made it into the final cut, her last living moments go undocumented.
Even if these omissions were excused as an attempt to give Reggie some amount of privacy, that doesn’t exactly square with the unflinching portrayal of her terminal illness in many other scenes, which she seemingly ok’d. For all its purported honesty, Farewell flounders as it elides questions about Corra and Nicholson’s emotional involvement, and the full extent of her last wishes toward her family and even the film itself. Perhaps most puzzling is the idea that Corra thought filmgoers would be satisfied with these incomplete answers, and wouldn’t continue to obsess over their real meanings long after the credits roll. He should know better than anyone that you can’t watch Reggie’s films without falling in love.