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Moment of Impact

     It took my Russian-Jewish father eight years of tiny strokes to end up as the same enfeebled semi-basket case as Leonid Loktev, a Jewish émigré computer analyst residing in Colorado, who got there instantly in 1989, when hit by a car, flipped through the air, and landed on his head. My father finally crumpled up and died a year ago, but, for me, he's there again on screen in Moment of Impact, filmmaker Julia Loktev's almost unbearably intense, heartbreaking feature documentary about her irreparably injured, still-living dad.

     How well I know "Lenny" Loktev's purgatorial day, as he remains stubbornly among the undead: spooning down mushy food in some atavistic desire to exist (a compulsive Jewish eater?)while his eyes shift between confusion, fear, and apathy, his brain goes off/on like a traffic light spun about by a tornado.

     My father affected a sweet smile and could say, "I'm fine." Poor Lenny can't get his facial muscles to move, so his impassivity registers, to those he's watching, as some kind of judgment. "Are you mad at me? I feel you are angry at me," his daughter asks as he stares her down. Maybe he wishes to say, "Julia, you are the light of my life," but nobody, sadly, can know. Occasionally, Lenny pushes a word out, like a glob of phlegm. But a sentence? A miraculous complete thought? Never. Except for one complicated Pushkin poem, left from Leningrad days, which he whispers in Russian. All of it!

     My Russian-Jewish mother and Julia's mother are both named Larisa/Laura, and both became total slaves to their mentally crippled, infirm husbands. Yet the differences are striking. Mine is an old-fashioned mom without job aspirations who devoted herself to my dad for more than a half century of marriage. She loved him completely, put her tiny little spouse on the highest pedestal. The nicest man on earth. She was worn down taking care of him, bathing him, cleaning up his endlessly soiled underwear, but she was repaying him for being so kind to everyone before his strokes.

     Larisa and Lenny? Larisa, also a computer analyst, does a lot of talking in Moment of Impact, but it's telling that there is not a single nostalgic story from her lips about their life before the catastrophe. What kind of marriage did they have? We do know, on the day of the accident, they were squabbling. Lenny wanted to waste his time at garage sales, even though no-nonsense Larisa informed him that he didn't need anything. Annoyed at his wife, he went off anyway, and was smashed by that auto walking from one garage sale to another.

     And their life years later? Larisa dutifully watches over Lenny night and day. But never once does she say she loves him. And she is repulsed by the idea that she is a hero, as people tell her. She also rejects the virtue of being totally devoted to another person, because that robs you of your identity. What she is is dead tired and totally resentful of being stuck, with no end in sight. Although she doesn't feel that she's a wife, she has no interest in another romance. Washing and cleaning Lenny has robbed her of sexual desire. Never again, she tells her daughter, does she want to see a male member.

     Is there a religious value to her self-sacrifice? Larisa is a non-believer. So what she is doing is, for her, devoid of spiritual meaning, laughably non-transcendant. And Lenny will get the last chuckle because, chances are, he will outlive her. What a black comedy!

     Can the protagonist of a movie be any less sentimental about being a do-gooder? Only once does Larisa slip up and reveal a humanist thought: she admits that she brought him home from a nursing home because she was horrified to think of Lenny caught forever in a tiny room there with a bed, a table, a lamp. But now it's she who is the prisoner.

     Moment of Impact was filmed, in raw, edgy black and white, in two several-week visits to the home of her parents by the New York-based Julia Loktev. She shot, simultaneously took sound, and edited the film herself, and the accomplishments are remarkable in every area. This is the most cinematic of documentaries, a spare, smart, beautifully crafted work.

     I might argue that the film is too long at 117 minutes, almost sadistic in how it rubs our nose in the troubles of the Loktev household. But that's exactly what the filmmaker wants the audience to do, to feel that daily pain. As she has explained in an interview, the two hours of the film are the time it takes her mother each day to give father Lenny a bath.

(April, 2002)


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