Eden and Beyond

By Wilcox, Jason | CineAction, Winter 2001 | Go to article overview

Eden and Beyond


Wilcox, Jason, CineAction


"These films are not examinations of social or political issues except in the most superficial sense; they are about extreme states of consciousness and feeling deprived of satisfactory forms of expression."

--Raymond Carney, The Films of John Cassavetes (1994)

Eden is an independent U.S. film which was premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 1996, and soon afterwards released on video in the U.S. and the U.K. and subsequently on DVD in the U.S. According to the Internet movie database, it remains the only credit of its writer-director, Howard Goldberg. I have not seen any press coverage of the film (although it is bound to have received some in the U.S.), and no one to whom I have mentioned it seems to have heard of it. This is a pity, for I would say that it is a film which shows obvious signs of a guiding intelligence and sensitivity and, although not without flaws, deserves a wider audience.

Since few readers may be familiar with it, I will begin with a plot outline. The film is set in mid-60s America, at an expensive, traditional boys' private boarding school, the Mount Eden Academy. The central character, Helen, is the wife of a hard-working teacher, Bill. They have two young children (having married on graduation), and their house also provides accommodation for some of the students. Helen is afflicted with multiple sclerosis, and walks only with difficulty. One day she starts to have vivid dreams whereby she leaves her body. These out-of-the-body experiences increase, and she welcomes them as a respite from the daily round of domestic chores. She gets close to one of the students living under her roof, who is having problems with Bill's very controlled and authoritarian teaching methods. Helen is glad to encourage him in more creative work, and the two enjoy a mutually beneficial working relationship. It inspires Helen to return to her original ambition of teaching like her husband, but beca use of domestic responsibilities this seems to be out of the question. Only in her dream world does she approach the freedom she craves. As her desire for sleep increases, everyday tasks are neglected, and her husband does not understand what is happening.

He is pleased that, when she is awake, her illness seems to be in remission, and at a prom dance she can walk unaided, but the change is only temporary. She is like Sleeping Beauty in the fairy-tale, except there is nobody who can wake her up. She sinks into a coma, the doctor saying there is not much chance of recovery. After an angry altercation with Davy (the student), who has fallen in love with Helen, Bill apologises to his sleeping wife for his past mistakes, and acknowledges her need to be free of him. Shortly afterwards, as if by magic, Helen emerges from the coma and seems to make a full recovery. The final shot of the film reveals her teaching a group of students in the grounds of the school.

In terms of genre, Eden might best be described as a melodrama, centring as it does on a woman's consciousness and on an extreme condition (an illness in which physical and mental factors are closely connected). There have been variants on this theme in mainstream Hollywood cinema too numerous to mention. In the specific nature of the illness portrayed, Eden can perhaps be most closely compared with Carl Dreyer's Ordet (1955), in which the main character, Inger, dies and comes back to life again, her temporary death having caused a (temporary) change in values and vision of those around her. Insofar as the theme of death and resurrection introduces magical or mythic undertones, the film might also be worth exploring in the context of the anthropologist Chris Knight's theory of cultural origins (expounded in his book Blood Relations and outlined in the essay on Cat People in Cineaction 52), especially as the story of Sleeping Beauty is specifically alluded to in the film itself (when Bill tries to explain to the children that their mother is not dead, "just asleep" and the daughter replies: "Like Sleeping Beauty? …

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