"The Genius of Marian"
"The Genius of Marian"

The Tribeca Film Festival hasn’t exactly been synonymous with documentaries, even if they opened with one the other night -- “Mistaken for Strangers,” Tom Berninger’s off-beat take on his brother’s band, The National.

Still, as has been pointed out everywhere, this year’s festival possesses one heaping humongous motherlode of nonfiction bio pics strewn across the next ten days -- including films on Gore Vidal, Wilt Chamberlain, Muhammad Ali, Richard Pryor, Gore Vidal, and Michael Haneke.

But there’s also a giant, glowing mass of pictures about lesser-known quantities, and many of them are women -- House of Gucci head Frida Giannini (“The Director”); Rutgers basketball coach C. Vivian Stringer (the short “The Coach”); the late comedienne Moms Mabley (“I Got Somethin’ to Tell You”); “Kiss the Water” on fly-fisherwoman extraordinaire Megan Boyd (Scottish angling consultant to (Prince Charles); Pat Summitt, the ex-Tennessee coach who got Alzheimer’s, and “Elaine Stritch: Shoot Me,” which requires no further explanation.

But a special place should be reserved for “The Genius of Marian,” which is about a relatively obscure woman suffering from Alzheimer’s, and a movie that might have been the height of exploitative filmmaking. In fact “Genius,” directed by Banker White (and produced by wife Anna Fitch), is such a starkly intimate and revealing picture of woman at her most vulnerable, that White can only be forgiven because the subject is his mother.

It’s remarkable film, not only for the obvious affection with which it was made, but as art. The downward trajectory of a woman in the grip of ever-worsening dementia provides only so many opportunities for visual storytelling. And while White and Fitch do have wonderful archival material to work with – their subject, Pam White, was a model, and the footage of her as a young woman sparkles in its poignancy. But for a great deal of the film, White is creating something out of imagery that occurs with a seeming randomness, but which ultimately coheres in a way that’s quite moving and singular: As well it should. Pam White isn’t a medical statistic, she’s a person with a history, albeit one that’s slipping away, at least from her.

What would have been predictable, and awful, would have been the camera’s reflecting Pam’s alternating moments of confusion and clarity, but no such crime is perpetuated. The filmmakers know their subject well enough that what they find to photograph is in synch with their subject, and the viewer senses it, whether he or she realizes it consciously or not.

What inspires all these bio-docs? In some cases, the subjects are obvious, crying out for the doc treatment. There’s a much quieter crying out in “The Genius of Marian,” which refers to Pam’s mother, a gifted painter who also succumbed to Alzheimer’s, and about whom Pam still thinks she’s writing a book. The film was obviously motivated by Banker White’s need to come to grips with his family’s multi-generational problem, but also to pay tribute to his very likable mother. This is all very personal, of course. The reason for the rest of us to see the film is not only for the delicacy of the portraiture, but the phenomenon of having one generation looking back on the last, which is looking back on the last. It’s like a mirror facing a mirror, providing an infinity of pictures, and possibilities.