J.B. Spins

Jazz, film, and improvised culture.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Archaeology of a Woman: Guilt and Dementia Upstate

Typically, the media presents Alzheimer’s and age-related dementia in black-and-white terms of victimhood, but what happens when it strikes a woman who has perhaps committed some dark crimes in her past? It is a somewhat provocative question, but it is buried like Pompeii by the lava flow of melodrama in Sharon Greytak’s Archaeology of a Woman (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Greytak is the sort of filmmaker who is blessed and cursed to be highly regarded by her artistic and academic peers, but largely unknown to the general movie-going public. It is therefore tempting to just say Archaeology does not work and leave it at that. However, admirers of the primary cast-members—Oscar nominee Sally Kirkland (for Yurek Bogayevicz’s Anna) and Tony Award winner Victoria Clark (for Light in the Piazza)—will probably need stronger dissuasion.

Margaret is going through a rough patch—rough enough to force her grown daughter Kate to run interference with the local cops and take control of her finances. As an up-and-coming chef poised to finally open her own Manhattan restaurant, spending so much time upstate is a major inconvenience for Kate, but she is the only family Margaret has left. In fact, there are hints the death of her husband a few years back was not such a bad thing.

When the discovery of a series of body parts dominates the news, Margaret’s grip on reality grows more tenuous. Clearly, the audience is supposed to wonder if the grisly reports are jogging her own guilty memories of past crimes or whether they are simply the fantasies of her fevered mind. The way old Sgt. Calder keeps lurking about, perhaps it is hoped viewers will also start to suspect she is somehow involved in the current investigation. However, the only real crime committed here is the film itself.

Frankly, this film is an unwieldy mess. When it strives to be an issue-oriented family drama, Archaeology is far too showy and self-conscious, featuring some of the most overwrought interior monologue voice-overs you will ever come across. Likewise, the awkward attempts to trespass into thriller territory fall thuddingly flat.

In their own ways, both Kirkland and Clark deserve credit for the way they remain so fully committed throughout. In fact, Clark’s smart, earthy portrayal of Kate is one aspect of the film that wears well over time, while her mounting frustration with her difficult mother feels quite genuine (maybe because we share it). In contrast, Kirkland goes all in and then some as Margaret, reveling in her behavioral extremes. As a commentary on the ravages of age, it is hard to resist comparing the film and Kirkland’s role to her career-defining performance in Anna, which casts quite a long shadow over both.

A lot of good intentions and artistic courage went into Archaeology, but they never come together in a coherent whole. It is likely to attract the attention of many film studies professors and curators, but they will be disappointed. Regretfully, not recommended, Archaeology of a Woman opens this Friday (9/12) in New York at the Village East.

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