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Wit (2001)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

In the context of a life and death scenario, Wit intensely explores issues of life before death by juxtaposing the emotional sterility of the typical health care process, the purpose of academic rigor, simple human caring, the power of art, and the value and dignity of a human.

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

Having seen Wit, I want to take life more seriously. What I mean is that I want to take living life fully more seriously. I tend to think that living seriously means Doing Important Things. In Vivian’s case, this meant working as though “being smart enough would take care of it” (“it” being life). But she was “found out.” It is important to do important things, and it is also important to, at the same time, pursue deep and full life from the heart. In my Christianity, I tend to pursue “being smart enough” by trying to have all the answers and doctrine precisely right. Christian answers and doctrine are important, but so is living the simple joy of life to the full that Jesus came to bring — sitting with friends “on the lawn talking about nothing, laughing,” finding joy in my work. After Wit, I more want to get that right, and without lessening my propensity for rigor. Others might have the opposite need, equally present in Wit, but easier to miss: Someone else might need to put more seriousness into life — more rigor, as it were — to pursue the richness and depth we gain by diving deeply into the complex questions of this Christian life, as John Donne did.

Although she comes into the film only a couple of times, I find professor Ashford to be the emotional heart of Wit. In her first appearance in the film, Ashford shows herself to be very rigorous in her academic studies, and she expects no less from Vivian. Even punctuation in a poem’s translation carries significant meaning. Wanting no compromise in academic rigor, she denies Vivian the excuse that the better translation was not available in the library. But at the same time, she tells Vivian to not go back to the library just now and to spend some time with friends. And then we see the film’s embodiment of Vivian’s life choice: She sees other students “sitting on the lawn, talking about nothing, laughing,” and she decides to go back to the library. As she walks, she has no emotion compared to the smiles around her, and the lonely pain present there grew in intensity as the film went on, reaching its height when Vivian admits that “being extremely smart” — spending more time in the library — did not “take care of it…It seems that[she has] been found out.” In her office, discussing Vivian’s paper, Ashford sees clearly enough to bring focus to the core conflict of Vivian’s life.

The scene in Ashford’s office showed something else about Vivian’s approach. It showed a flaw in her rigor. As Ashford explained the heart behind Death Be Not Proud, Vivian described it as a “metaphysical conceit.” In her debunking of the poem, reducing it down to a mere conceit, she was sucking the life out of the poem by treating it merely as an object of academic study, something to be looked at, picked apart, analyzed, and contained, but not something to be looked through, as a lens, to find life. How often that I want to be the smart one, one up, having the answer, rather than humbly being taught. How often I want to drive the conversation rather than letting a work of art drive the conversation on me.

Toward the end of Wit, Ashford returns and again portrays a profound mix of rigor and life. She took time on her way to a 5-year old's birthday party to visit Vivian in her office, then went to the hospital when she learned of Vivian's illness. Ashford is the first person that Vivian tells the truth to about how she feels rather than simply saying, "Fine." Ashford says, "I know you [feel bad]. I can see." It is clear that she cares deeply for Vivian. She climbs on the bed to comfort her and talk to her. She offers to recite something by Donne, not knowing the change in Vivian. It seems that Donne, for Vivian, has become a painful symbol of how she missed life by Doing Important Things — she groans a painful, "No!" So Ashford pulls out the only other thing she has: The copy of The Runaway Bunny that she bought for her great-grandson. Before reading the book, however, she, with the rigor of an academic, reads the book's publishing details. Then, while reading, she inserts her summary academic analysis: "Ah, look at that. A little allegory of the soul. Wherever it hides, God will find it." Ashford's tenderness and care for Vivian is palpable. I wanted to be like her on both accounts, her care and her rigor.

Whereas the film's first interaction between Vivian and Ashford provided the core conflict of Vivian's life, the final interaction between them provided the metaphor for Vivian's life. She had been the runaway bunny. Although I missed it on the first two or three times of seeing Wit, in the scene where she is reading with her father, she is on a large cushioned foot rest, hunched over in exactly the position a child would get into if you told them to make like a bunny, and she is reading Peter Rabbit. Then, she was joyful and full of life, but somewhere between then and Dr. Ashford's office, she started running away from life, and she kept running away as running led to success in her career. Then she kept running further away from life in her heartless dealings with her students, not realizing she needed to model for them both life and rigor. And in her aloneness in being single (not that singleness is lesser in any way, but in the context of the film it reinforces the theme of her running from relationships and life). Even in her running away from life, she was always wrestling with God, albeit at arm's length, indirectly through Donne's poetry, stopping one short of actually wrestling with the truth. But like the bunny's mother, He would not be run away from, and He kept chasing her even through her horrible cancer ordeal. Singer-songwriter David Wilcox has a line: "Where you look is where love finds you. God knows your native tongue." In a sense, Vivian's rigor (where she looked) served to bring her to life (where love found her). Through her ordeal, she turned her rigor onto her own feelings and circumstances and, where many would have railed against the ordeal, finding only bitterness and self-pity, she found the life she had neglected. Her newfound life is shown in a small way by her enjoying a simple popsicle with Susie — laughing with a friend.

Second to Ashford, I feel the heart of the film is in Susie, who from the start gives to Vivian the human dignity and care that the health establishment in general does not. Susie can be tough when she needs to be, as in the confrontation over whether Vivian would go to yet another test procedure, yet she is always caring for Vivian — even when Vivian is past the point of being aware of it. Susie does not have the rigor of academic learning that Vivian or Ashford or Jason have, yet her position is a better one for life than Jason's. He has learning, but no concern for Vivian as a human. Susie has a certain humility toward her lack of learning. It is a weakness in which she can laugh at herself, as she does with Vivian and morphine's soporific effect. I enjoyed Susie's presence in the film, and sensed it would be good to be like her even though she was simple in regard to issues of deep thought. I wanted to know whether she could have grown in that way had she chosen to.

It was painful to watch Jason. I wanted to keep telling myself I'm not like him, but I know that I am. I know that I get hung on tasks and goals and issues and clean miss the people around me. I must watch more to catch myself being as openly mindless and ignorantly heartless as Jason, such as when he left Vivian on the examining table, legs spread, feet in stirrups, almost leaving the door open, and impatient for the hospital rule meant to protect women (that another should be in the room during a pelvic exam). Jason's rigor was good for his medical research, but his rigor was two-faced. In a marvelous and beautiful way, He described why he pursued cancer research, and it showed his wonder and passion and life — he was drawn into it in the same way that Vivian was drawn to Donne's poetry, and it is a beautiful thing. Yet in other areas, his rigor was not pure. He challenged himself to earn an "A" in each of the three hardest classes, but it was born of a personal bet, a prideful bragging right, not born of a love of learning. He had an answer to all of Donne's searching, also born in the pride of Jason-having-the-answer: With Donne it was "salvation anxiety" — a term he uses to diminish what Donne was doing. Jason expounds on Donne in a way that makes it clear that Jason, though confident in his understanding, does not actually understand what Donne was wrestling with.

There is hope for Jason, though: Twice, he went just beyond the edge of his comfort zone, losing his composure. First, at the pelvic exam, he was very nervous, stuttering often. Then, after helping Susie with Vivian's catheter while pontificating (poorly) about Donne, Susie asks Jason if he believes in "the meaning of life garbage" he's been talking about. He ridicules the question, after which he comments, in effect, that it won't be long before Vivian dies ("She's out of it. Shouldn't be too long."). As he turns to go, he gets disoriented, spins around, and runs into the door. At these times of discomfort, we enter a zone where, if we are awake enough, we might notice that something is wrong, and that we need to pay attention and figure out what it is. I see it as the Spirit's small voice talking, whispering, telling us we're missing it, and we need to listen and look and find where true life lies. Perhaps one of these times Jason will wake up. Maybe I will, too.

I felt Wit as being much more about life than about death, and I experienced it as quite unique from other films that deal with death. Other films might foster appreciation of life by helping us realize more what we might lose in death and telling us to shift focus away from work to family (or the like). Wit rang deeper for me in its exploration of how to live, and far beyond simply "love more." It was about both loving more and being more serious at the same time. Vivian's problem was not that she was too serious about her academics, it was that she left out the other side — the two are connected somehow.

The foundation for the heart of Wit is laid in the scene in Ashford's office, just after Vivian has reduced Death Be Not Proud down by saying, "Life, death, I see. It's a metaphysical conceit, it's wit." As she starts saying she'll go back to the library, Ashford interrupts. "It is not wit, Miss Bearing, it is truth. The paper's not the point." Vivian says, "Isn't it?" Ashford, with tenderness, says, "Vivian, you're a bright young woman. Use your intelligence. Don't go back to the library, go out. Enjoy yourself with friends." Jason's approach to Donne was born of Jason's metaphysical conceit. His paper was the point for him, along with his academic labeling of Donne's "salvation anxiety" — which Jason arrived at because he believed the things Donne wrestled with couldn't "stand up to scrutiny," that there was no truth in it. Shortly after the office scene is when Vivian, back in her hospital room, says, "Simple human truth. Uncompromising scholarly standards. They're connected. I just couldn't...I went back to the library." The connection that was driven strongly into my heart is that Truth is the connection between the two. When rigor — about academics, or doctrine, or anything else — is separated from pursuit of Truth, it becomes mere wit. Life, simple human truth, is an integral part of Truth. Vivian needed to go out with friends not as a break from doing the paper, but as part of doing the paper — to see how the questions of the paper mix with the joys and pains and questions of life, to let simple human truth inform her uncompromising scholarly standards, and to see how Death Be Not Proud is as much a poem about life as it is about death. But even more, she needed to go out so she might see that the final point of the paper is not to analyze Donne's writing but to, through uncomprosing analysis of Donne's writing, arrive at truth that enriches, enlivens, and strengthens everyday life.

  • The opening Dr.-Kelekian-in-your-face shot — it sets the perfect tone for the start of the film, cancer being such an in-your-face shock.
  • At the end of the opening conversation about Vivian's diagnosis and treatment, she looks straight into the camera — it is a bit of a startling introduction to the film's style as a video diary. I felt as if I was caught eavesdropping on a very personal conversation.
  • The continued repetition of the phrase, "the full dose," which gains an ominous quality in view of the full on rigor Vivian gives to her academics and demands of her students — I felt it exposing the unquestioned value of a full on approach that ignores rich life.
  • "Vivian" means "alive" or "full of life" — I feel the pain of how she was either afraid to or didn't know how to live fully and so retreated into the "safe" world of rigor and discipline.
  • The film embodied nearly every one of the several definitions of "wit" — it was a thorough exploration of the word.
  • Early in the film, Vivian's statement that it is "a matter of life and death" has the simple meaning of her own physical life and death, but by the end of the film, it echoes much deeper with questions of whether, before death, one achieves life or not.
  • During Jason's medical interview, there is more than one time where Vivian had already answered a question before it was asked, yet still Jason asks the question — it strongly set the perfunctory and impersonal nature that health care, and human relationships more generally, can take.
  • The interplay between Vivian and her father in the reading sequence wonderfully emobdied love, rigor, and relationship — although one might see her father as a bit aloof, reading his paper, he is really only modeling serious pursuit. He is rigorous in his way of teaching her the meaning of "soporific" while tender in his manner and in his shared smiles.
  • Remembering the time of shared reading with her father is when we first see Vivian's tears — I could feel her longing for what she had then but had since lost.
  • Vivian’s musing, at one point in the film, about how "simple human truth" and "uncompromising scholarly standards" are somehow connected, but she doesn't know how — I could feel her confusion and her searching and her knowing this is an important question (and an interpretive key for the film).
  • The picture on the wall in Ashford's office of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian, which shows up again on the stand beside Vivian's hospital bedside. Sebastian was a wealthy Roman soldier and a kind person who visited Christians in prison, through which he himself became a Christian. He is a patron saint of healing and of those afflicted with plague. (It is very much like this one by Perugino, which is on this list of Sebastian paintings, courtesy L’Università di Cagliari in Italy.)
  • The intermixing of hospital room and flashback scenes, wherein someone from the flashback would be in Vivian's hospital room or Vivian would be in the flashback in her hospital gown — I felt more deeply how she was in the here and now, reliving the past, feeling and wishing she had understood more at the time.
  • Early in the film, talking of the way hospital staff ask "How are you?" without really meaning it, Vivian says she is "waiting for moment when I'm asked this question and I am dead." Later, Jason does exactly that, but not only that, when she is silent, he writes on her chart as he remarks, "Highly unresponsive" — what depth of unawareness of another human.
  • The periodic times of focusing on the blank TV, especially around the time of the long hours of boredom sequence — it embodied well the strength of Vivian's attitude of rigor. It is admirable that Vivian is not a TV junkie, but is it not sometimes good to spend time in a light and drifting way?
  • After lying on Vivian's bed reading to her, Ashford gets up to leave, but she must free her shawl from Vivian's hand — I could feel how Vivian, having finally realized what Ashford wanted her to grasp, did not want to let it go.

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2001 by the filmmakers.


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