Review: ‘Learning to Swallow’

A frustrating yet compulsively watchable profile of a troubled, self-destructive artist attempting to regain some control over her tragically chaotic life, "Learning to Swallow" goes down with some difficulty. Treading some of the same rocky terrain as Jonathan Caouette's "Tarnation" but with little of his charisma, pic could earn fringe slots on the fest circuit and garner some interest on the tube by virtue of the health care issues it raises in passing.

A frustrating yet compulsively watchable profile of a troubled, self-destructive artist attempting to regain some control over her tragically chaotic life, “Learning to Swallow” goes down with some difficulty. Treading some of the same rocky terrain as Jonathan Caouette’s “Tarnation” but with little of his charisma, pic could earn fringe slots on the fest circuit and garner some interest on the tube by virtue of the health care issues it raises in passing.

Patsy Desmond was a hard-charging scenester and photographer who moved from Indiana to Chicago in the late 1980s, and then on to New York in 1996. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, she destroyed her esophagus and stomach by drinking drain cleaner in an unsuccessful 1998 suicide attempt.

Story picks up in late 2000, as Patsy is living in a Florida nursing home near a brother who refused to participate in the filming. Dependant on a feeding tube for nourishment, she undergoes a disastrous, Medicare-funded offscreen operation to reconstruct her esophagus from a piece of bowel and is subsequently committed to a rehabilitation center where she becomes addicted to painkillers and pours six-packs of beer down her tube.

With the help and support of sisters Mary and Kathleen, as well as various friends, therapists and sponsors, the once perpetually drugged artist finally musters the strength to keep her demons at bay. Pic ends with Patsy curating and participating in a Chicago gallery show, “Coming Clean.”

Pic’s fundamental flaws are twofold: first-time helmer Danielle Beverly offers little information on the path that led Patsy to try killing herself; auds learn only fleetingly that she appeared in a musicvideo with Ozzy Osbourne and apprenticed briefly with photographer William Wegman, with no information about her eventful years in the thick of Chicago’s late ’80s/early ’90s indie music scene.

The portrait Beverly has assembled presents a sad, bitter, selfish waif who’s not very likeable. “I can’t worry about what other people think of me,” Patsy says, and proves it by berating her long-suffering sisters for making too much noise at her Chicago opening — even though one of them flew in from Germany just for the event (she subsequently apologizes, explaining “we’re family.”). Such a cautionary tale may have therapeutic value for its subject and those in crisis who could learn from Patsy’s mistakes, but that’s seemingly the limit of its appeal.

Tech credits are OK, with footage punctuated occasionally by animation created from Patsy’s artwork. Six-year docu vet Beverly has a degree in public health, which could explain her interest in this tough subject.

Learning to Swallow

Production

A Petunia production. Produced, directed by Danielle Beverly.

Crew

Camera (color, Beta SP, DigiBeta), Beverly; editor, Kyle Henry. Reviewed on videocassette, Wheaton, Md., May 17, 2005. (In SilverDocs AFI/Discovery Channel Film Festival.) Running time: 90 MIN.

With

Patsy Desmond.
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