Film Review: Look at Us Now, Mother!

The autobiographical documentary about a disturbed mother-daughter relationship and its resolution is not without interest, yet its exhibitionistic elements are a bit unsettling.
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Gayle Kirschenbaum’s autobiographical documentary Look at us Now, Mother!, centering on her troubled relationship with her mom, is engaging in a low-key, voyeuristic vein. In all fairness, she reveals nothing jaw-dropping either about herself, an Emmy Award-winning 60-something documentarian, or her 91-year-old widowed mother Mildred, as they attempt to resolve a lifetime of conflict, with the cameras rolling.

If anything, the troubled middle-class Jewish mother-daughter relationship depicted is overly familiar from various essays and biographies out there, along with the well-worn clichés that have emerged ad-nauseam in fictional forms—novels, plays and films. Perhaps, Tolstoy got it all wrong when he asserted that “every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” The Kirschenbaums were certainly unhappy, but not in any original way.

Lack of originality is both the film’s flaw and, ironically enough, a saving grace of sorts mitigating the exhibitionistic elements. Still, one can’t help wondering what Gayle and Mildred were thinking. What could be more profoundly private than the mother-daughter relationship? Why are they putting it out there for all the world to see? “To help others” is disingenuous and, worse, just plain tired. Talk about clichés!

The film is awash in unspoken conventional wisdom. Gayle is a simpatico woman and admittedly there’s something sweet about her wanting to connect with her mother. At the same time, her desire to “understand” and ultimately “forgive” her before it is too late feels like a Dr. Phil advice segment.

Their journey includes lots of “honest” talk as they re-chew the past and assess the present. In this universe, voicing one’s painful feelings is the first step towards liberating oneself from them; confrontation and confession clear the air; and it is implicitly believed that the big problem in most troubled families is lack of communication among the players. (Useless to argue, they’ve probably communicated far too well).

Moving backwards and forwards in time, Look at Us Now is told through interviews with other family members, friends and neighbors recounting Gayle and Mildred’s relationship; Gayle reading snippets from her childhood diaries; and old home movies (the latter evoking a time and place), in addition to the aforementioned conversations between mother and daughter, often in the presence of a psychotherapist.

Born in 1950 and brought up in Queens, New York, Gayle is the third child (and only daughter) of Gerald Kirschenbaum, a reticent and disappointed man who worked in his family-run funeral business, and Mildred, an attractive and confident woman who was good-humored and charming, at least in public.

In private, she was insensitive and obsessed with appearances, super-critical of her children, especially her daughter’s looks—her hair, her weight, her nose. Throughout the picture, she berates Gayle’s prominent nose, insisting she would have a much better chance landing a husband if she had a nose job.

As Gayle tells it, she was frequently humiliated by her mother (in public and private) and grew up afraid of her. She says the main reason she is unmarried is a lifelong fear of intimacy and a lack of trust engendered by her relationship with Mom, who still takes no responsibility for inflicting any damage.

Responding to the painful events Gayle brings up, Mildred insists she simply does not remember them, though the implication here—thanks in part to the questions pitched by the prodding psychotherapists—is that she is either lying or, more likely, blocking painful memories that cast her in a bad light. Nothing Mildred recalls is taken at face value. There are moments when Mildred emerges as the far more vulnerable figure.

The therapists want Gayle to see her mother as a wounded human being, too. Through the course of the film, it’s revealed that Mildred’s father, a financially impoverished and chronically depressed man, attempted suicide twice and succeeded the second time, around when Mildred was still a child. Mildred also lost her baby sister Shirley to pneumonia when Mildred was a youngster.

To what degree these revelations forge a connection between Gayle and Mildred is up for grabs. Mildred is not quick with tears or expressions of pain in the face of personal loss or disappointment. At one point she admits she would have liked a career as a lawyer, but her family’s financial situation meant she had to work immediately following high school and an early marriage ended her dream of going to college or any professional ambitions she may have had. Asked to reflect on that loss, she is matter-of-fact and clearly does not harbor any deep regrets. It’s what life handed her and she can live with it. It’s equally probable that being a wife and mother was of far greater importance to her.

Undoubtedly, the film captures the generational differences between the pragmatic Mildred and the self-absorbed Gayle, who has had money and time and grew up in a zeitgeist that views shared teary outbursts as cathartic and an opportunity for bonding. In one snippet, she takes her mother to Shirley’s gravesite in the hope, one surmises, that her mother will react emotionally. Instead, Mildred stares at the headstone that includes a framed photograph of baby Shirley, observing with dry eyes how remarkable it is that the photo remains intact.

The film also successfully explores the family history and legacy on both sides. Neither Mildred nor her husband had easy lives, though in some ways they were simpler than Gayle’s. There were fewer choices and self-doubts. Both, for example, took pride in his military service during World War II and, interestingly, Mildred’s most emotionally intense moment is in response to the military honors—with flag-draped coffin—afforded her late husband at his funeral.

It is a moving scene and at the same time it raises questions yet again about the participants’ willingness to be photographed in their most private moments. But at least they’ve consented to it. In the film’s most troubling section, Gerald is photographed on his death bed hooked up to tubes and then moments after his life support has been disconnected. These are disturbing images and all the more so because they’re exploitive. Did Gerald ever give his consent to be photographed on his death bed?

Not surprisingly, the story ends on an optimistic note. Gayle and Mildred have become friends and traveling companions. Mildred has asked Gayle for “forgiveness”—though it’s clear she’s still not entirely sure what she did that was wrong—and she now praises her daughter’s achievements. In her Boca Raton living room, she proudly points to her daughter’s paintings lining the walls. One wonders if she was browbeaten into it. Not that it matters. She has mellowed and is making the right noises. There’s a lot to be said for just that. Still, she was not all that emotionally abusive to begin with.

And perhaps that’s the picture’s biggest stumbling block. The fact is, if Gayle were seriously harmed she wouldn’t have had the career she’s had or, more to the point, even the impulse to extend herself to her mother. The relationship would not have been salvageable with or without the presence of the camera.

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