Departing from my usual fare, I had Netflix send me High Art, a 1998 movie set in the drug-addled art-magazine world in New York. The cast had promise, with Ally Sheedy, Patricia Clarkson (struggling and failing to maintain a German accent) and Radha Mitchell. The photo-magazine setting also caught my interest, but the druggy characters and dark settings dampened my mood. Ally Sheedy as Lucy looked dreadfully gaunt as an alienated star photographer in emotional exile — I hope that was just acting, not real life.
What added an odd angle to High Art was Sheedy’s interaction with her mother, an upper-class German-Jew who rails against Sheedy’s German girlfriend and drives a Mercedes. The strained mother-daughter relationship and the explicit Jewish angle (including a scene with Shabbat candles in the background) were so at odds with the blank backgrounds of the other characters that I had to wonder what was going on.
Did Holocaust traumas drive Lucy’s drugging and withdrawal? What’s the backstory on the German girlfriend and the mother’s hectoring? Lucy carries the weight of history as well as addiction in her, and that added a fresh element to a romantic threesome movie set in the late Clinton era of New York. High Art is worth watching, but it’s no feel-good date movie.
I typically scan the New York Times obituary page for lives well lived, but the December 21 edition with the tiny-type paid notices was wrenching with its sketches of too-soon loss. One very long notice was for Suzanne Hart, the advertising executive killed in an elevator accident a week earlier. By contrast, the memorial notice for Melissa Rose Avrin ran only 7 lines, plus a photo. It read,
Dec. 21, 1989-May 6, 2009. Your movie is a reality. It’s changing lives around the world in the battle against Eating Disorders. Missing and loving you forever, Mom. www.somedaymelissa.com.
I followed the link and found that “Someday Melissa” is the name of a documentary made by Melissa’s mother, Judy Avrin, as a response to Melissa’s death at 19 from a heart attack related to her bulimia. It has already accepted at a film festival and screened at medical schools, universities and Jewish community centers. Someday Melissa includes journal entries from Melissa and interviews with family members, friends and medical and mental health professionals.It deserves wide viewing and discussion.
Melissa Avrin’s wrenching and fatal bulimia resonates with me as the extreme expression of body-image issues. In my dating days in the 1980s, I met women with bulimia and the memories of their deep distress over appearance and other psychological issues still haunt me. I tried to be as supportive as possible, but I realized the matter was far beyond my influence, other than saying I accepted them for who and what they were. Whatever self-perceptions led them to behave this way had no basis in reality — they were attractive and fit. But we’re not talking about reality with any of this. I couldn’t save anybody, and it took years before I realized that.
I touch on body image issues, both men’s and women’s, in my book. I don’t know if Jewish women are more prone to eating disorders than any other ethnic group, but they are perhaps more articulate in acknowledging and addressing them. I look at the film’s website and I think of other women and their pain. The film already has had an impact, judging from the hundreds of comments posted on the site’s guestbook about viewers’ responses to it. I can only hope that Judy Avrin’s response to her great loss leads to comfort and support for people who punish themselves when looking in the mirror and not seeing the God-given wonder they truly are.