A Death Well Lived
Existing also under other but similar titles and at varying lengths for festival requirements, Jon Imber’s Left Hand is writer-director-cinematographer-editor-coproducer Richard Kane’s (with wife Melody Lewis-Kane and son Jacob) inspired, and inspiring, documentary. The eighty-minute version restores some cut footage, such as that when twenty-year-old Bates undergraduate Gabe Imber is the only one with the openness of youth to say, “I don’t love” his dad’s recent work.
The Pride of the Yankees, The Stratton Story, The Men, Fear Strikes Out, The Miracle Worker, Wait Until Dark, Mask, Children of a Lesser God, The Whales of August, My Left Foot (of course), Passion Fish, The Mighty, The Theory of Everything and Still Alice (whose writer-director died of ALS last week) are austere considerations that, in whatever sense “based-on,” are narratives -- some adapted from stageplays -- of high quality but nonetheless scripted and acted. Today they are not rare, isolated orphans: presented by JCC Manhattan, the now 7th Annual ReelAbilities NY Disabilities Film Festival “is dedicated to promoting awareness and appreciation” of the difficulties and accomplishments of people with disabilities. At thirty-seven venues throughout the greater Metropolitan Area, with conversations and/or Q&As and special events with filmmakers and others concerned, the twelve award-winning features and thirteen shorts are screened several times each.
Seated next to his subject’s widow, also-painter Jill Hoy, Kane indicated that the documentary was at first no more than another possibility in the Maine Masters Project (of which he is Director) among dozens of others showcasing visual artists who at one time or another -- usually in summer -- pack easels and paintpots and head to the Pine Tree State for peace and quiet, inspiration and artistic companionship.
The writer-director’s introduction came about at the time that Boston- and Maine-based Imber was given a ”death sentence” diagnosis. Four months later, December 2012, interviewing and shooting began with Jon’s “I might look normal, but I feel it, a tingle.”
Print clearly titling and dating all, the subject’s works, those of Hoy and of other artists seen or mentioned, trace the career, Picasso-like in its protean stops in many modern movements and then moving on. Abstract Expressionist Willem de Kooning is a looming figure, though Imber evolved back into “painting what you see” even in Abstractionism. Earlier had come a period of thickly layered human or humanoid figures, not infrequently one on another’s back, arguably indicating a coming to loving terms with, and celebrating, his first-generation Ukrainian Jewish parents.
About painting, yes, as with increasing physical deterioration, the artist-teacher evolved and completed amazing works in amazing numbers and some hundred portraits of friends and associates. But, more, about the capacity of men to confront the most horrific of adversaries and grow larger and stronger in that battle. That so little is publically -- and medically-scientifically, as well -- known about still-incurable amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or even its more recognizable aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, was patent in a question from the audience: “What is ALS?”
Imber first switched to the left hand, discovering a different perspective and talent there, and, when despite hand massages that shoulder and side grew too feeble, he resorted to both hands at once, at the waist, taping on a hook to hold the brush. The portraits of self and others, land- and seascapes, flowers and abstractions are striking, filled with the colors he and Hoy comment on, even turning canvases or foam boards upside down or sideways.
Aside from an homage to the art, the spirit of the film is the spirit of Jon and, in his wife’s words, “that purity [that] came out of him, so much love.” Ironic but not nasty or angry, humorous, dark, carefully obscene, he deals with, not simply his mortality -- “Everybody dies!” says Charlie Davis -- but also with watching himself go, and with anxiety and fear. Jill walks alongside.
“Inspiration” becomes corny in predictable fictions, reduced to athletic triumph in spite of adverse odds. In JILH, on the other hand, the word translates as “love.” Compassionate Care ALS founder Ron Hoffman marvels at such steadfastness, but when the camera contemplates Jon and Jill -- at one time considered as a title for the film -- and their union in life and art, we understand.