A Short History of Decay

Bryan Greenberg and Harris Yulin in Michael Maren's film "A Short History of Decay."
Bryan Greenberg and Harris Yulin in Michael Maren’s film “A Short History of Decay.”

By Annette Hinkle

End of life issues are never easy to address… and are topics of discussion that families often push off for another day, despite the fact they are as inevitable as tomorrow’s sunrise.

Among the films screening as part of the Hamptons International Film Festival is “A Short History of Decay,” directed by Michael Maren and starring Bridgehampton’s own Harris Yulin.

The film tells the story of aspiring Brooklyn writer Nathan Fisher (Bryan Greenberg) and his brother, Jack (Benjamin King), who travel to Florida to deal with their aging parents. Their mother (Linda Lavin), is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s while their father (played by Yulin) has recently suffered a stroke, raising serious questions about what’s next.

This is a story that will likely hit home for many young adults and baby boomers who now find themselves in the position of dealing with ailing parents. It’s certainly a case of art imitating life for Maren, whose own situation was the inspiration for the script.

“It is very personal,” concedes Maren who wrote scripts for a variety of studios before deciding in 2010 to write and direct his own film, though at the time he wasn’t sure what it would be about.

“I went to Sarasota to visit my parents — my mom has Alzheimer’s,” explains Maren. “She was in the early stages and it’s the only moment in the film that really happened. My parents had gone to bed and mom got up and said she was going to turn up the heat — this is Florida — three minutes later she forgot she had done it and walked back out of the bedroom and did it again.”

“That was one of the first times I realized what was happening in a visceral way,” he adds. “You can be crushed by this or laugh at it. When I sat back and watched her do this, it was funny. But it’s very personal.”

In fact, it’s the personal nature of the film that Yulin finds so appealing as an actor.

“It becomes about the family,” says Yulin. “You can look at the story and say in one sense, nothing much happens. It’s not like ‘Gravity’ where things constantly happen. But it’s the way this film is done.”

“The writing is alive and breathing,” adds Yulin. “You slip into the role and it’s like a suit of clothes that is really well made. The suit makes you walk in a different way, but it fits perfectly.”

There are, of course, many issues the sons must address in this situation, including their mother’s inevitable decline from Alzheimer’s — a one way disease — compounded by their father’s stroke (and the likelihood that he has suffered another during their visit). One of the many unspoken complications is the physical distance that separates parents from off-spring — common in modern society.

“It’s implicit in the film — you feel a scene of isolation in the parents, but they don’t talk about it,” says Yulin. “One son is from New York, the other from Washington. They don’t have that family enclave. The boys do talk about what’s going to happen, what are they going to do, get their parents back to New Jersey?”

“My character says he won’t go back unless it’s in an urn,” adds Yulin.

This is tough material and Maren gives Yulin credit for pulling off a difficult character facing a difficult time in his life.

“I think it was a demanding role to play,” says Maren. “On the exterior he’s kind of gruff and slightly vulgar. He says the kinds of things that would get other people in trouble, but he gets away with it.”

“He also exudes a kind of charm and elfishness,” adds Maren. “ That’s what was demanded of that role — in terms of what he says he’s not gentle or understanding of his sons, yet he manages to save words while giving off a different kind of vibe. That’s the character I was trying to create when writing it.”

And of course, the elephant in the room is Alzheimer’s and the eventuality that it brings.

“It becomes an important part of the dynamic and in some cases, it’s easy not to talk about it,” says Maren. “One of my favorite scenes is with Harris and Bryan, and Bryan gets around to asking his father how he’s doing with all this. It’s something that’s not talked about. I think it’s very realistic.”

“I really believe the whole world is contained in family stories – that dynamic captured my imagination,” he adds. “The film is a slice of life, a moment in time kind of film. The kind of film I like to watch.”

“A Short History of Decay” screens October 12 at 11 a.m. at Southampton 1. Visit hamptonsfilmfest.org for details and full film festival schedule.