It’s easy to consider Henry Corra and Regina Nicholson’s Farewell to Hollywood, as some critics have, a piece of exploitative cinema at its most perverse. Corra captures Nicholson, a 17-year-old cinephile he met at a film festival, as she dies of cancer right before our eyes. We’re spared nothing. Nicholson writhes in pain, gets blood drawn from her feeble arms a hundred times, engages in nasty arguments with her parents, and pulls hair out of her scalp on her hospital bed (“Oh, I should have pulled it out into a mohawk,” she says). And Corra films it all with the pleasure of an artist so blinded by the greatness of the material he’s come upon that integrity is no longer an option.
Most disturbingly, the closer Nicholson gets to death proper, the more she gravitates toward Corra and away from her parents. By the time she’s 18 and can make her own legal decisions, her family relations are completely severed because of Corra and the film they’re making together. Even if, at times, it feels as if Nicholson is no more than a vulnerable muse being duped into thinking she shares some kind of authorship in the project. Which is too bad, not only for ethical reasons, but diegetic ones. The film is much more interesting and cliché-free in the brief moments where Nicholson takes over the image—with echoes of Sadie Benning’s tour de force of teenage loss, It Wasn’t Love. In Benning’s film, the camera is like a helpful witness to a queer girl’s negotiating the romantic hopes and disappointments of youth. The recording device has no agenda; it serves Benning’s essayistic purposes like a journal too lifeless to distort the words committed to its pages. It listens to her, and it sees her. Conversely, there’s a sense of ulterior motives haunting Farewell to Hollywood from beginning to end. We’re very aware of the older man manipulating the way we look at Nicholson, and he’s a man who, no matter his benevolent intentions, cannot make up for the great asymmetry of power between himself and his subject-cum-co-author.
While Nicholson is too vulnerable for co-authorship claims not to feel disingenuous, Farewell to Hollywood is a bold spectacle of making disease—cancer specifically—visible and articulable. For every excessive slow-motion sequence set to obnoxious music, there’s a moment of rare uncanniness. As when Make-A-Wish Foundation rewards Nicholson with a visit to the set of a Kevin Smith movie so she can be an extra in a funeral scene. Or at times when the dialogue is so sharp it feels like fiction, like when the mother tries to explain that Nicholson isn’t a “normal” 17-year-old, that she’s just “starting from a different place,” and Nicholson immediately replies, “So don’t stick me in there more!” Despite the suspicious relationship between its maker(s) and subject, the film’s ultimate contribution is quite priceless. Born out of its very invasiveness, Farewell to Hollywood suggests that a disease isn’t a product of one single person’s body, but the eruption of an entire family history of unarticulated desire. And that, even before impending death, people (mothers and benevolent filmmakers alike) will take from the soon-to-be-corpse what they can get: As Nicholson’s mother says, her daughter’s cancer provided her with a pleasurable opportunity to have “a purpose again.”