By any standards, Alma is a nightmare of a mother. A pathological narcissist who experiences frequent psychotic episodes, she has problems with boundaries, and her capacity for denial is limitless. (She refers to the uncle who raped her at age seven as her “first boyfriend.”) Since she sees her daughter, Margie, as nothing more than an extension of herself, she has abused her since infancy—and we’re not just talking about sexual abuse. The relationship between Margie and Alma is the subject of Ruth Leitman’s low-key but compelling documentary Alma, which is never exploitative, prurient, or judgmental. Unlike the mother and daughter in the Maysles brothers’ much lauded Grey Gardens, Alma and Margie never seem like sideshow attractions.
And, in fact, it was Margie, an Atlanta bartender and country singer, who approached Leitman with the idea of making a film about her mother. Leitman, whose first documentary, Wildwood, New Jersey, revealed the vulnerabilities and tender hearts beneath the heavy metal masquerade of a crew of adolescent girls, was intrigued by the stories Margie told about her crazy mother, who hears voices in the ceiling and spends her days douching with herbs so that her sexual organ “will smell sweet in God’s nostrils.” After leaving home, Margie tried to distance herself from Alma and from her passive-aggressive alcoholic father, but she talked to them on the phone every day.
Leitman filmed Alma and Margie over a period of three years. Alma, who still saw herself as the Marilyn Monroe-styled beauty she was in her youth, welcomed the attention. Her husband, clearly less enchanted with the filmmaking process, is glimpsed only in the background. Margie says he used to beat her mother’s head in every Friday night, but age and alcohol seem to have worn him down.
The film threads first-person anecdotes, old home movies, and photographs through the drama of Alma’s deteriorating mental and physical health and Margie’s attempts to do the right thing without being suffocated by her mother’s needs. The camera’s presence draws Alma’s competitiveness with her daughter into the open, but it also allows Margie to get the truth of her own experience on the record. “You only remember what you want,” Margie says accusingly to Alma, who is lounging in the backseat of Margie’s car, swathed in a coat and turban that make her look like a cross between the Easter Bunny and a more corpulent version of Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard. To which Alma, with impeccable logic, replies, “Of course.”
If the filmmaker identifies with Margie, Alma emerges less as a monster than the victim of childhood abuse, religious fundamentalism, sexual repression, misogyny, and whacked-out brain chemistry. And while participating in the film seems to have a therapeutic effect on Margie and Alma, this is in no way an Oprah-like confessional. As fragmented and unresolved as the experiences of mother and daughter, Alma bears witness to a situation for which there are no easy answers.
When Alma has to go to court because she pulled a gun on her neighbors, she carries a piece of frozen lamb with her, explaining that “the Bible says ‘to overcome by the blood of the Lamb the word of your testimony.’ ” Alma might find kindred souls among the soapbox preachers, spiritual seekers, and just plain mad folk who populate Richard Sandler’s The Gods of Times Square. Sandler videotaped the Times Square scene over a period of roughly five years (from Mark Wahlberg looking down upon the lesser-endowed mortals below from his Calvin Klein billboard to Rudy Giuliani policing the millennium celebration). A collage of caught-on-the-fly interviews, The Gods of Times Square is so casually put together it barely counts as a movie, but in these slickster days, that’s almost a relief.