Thank You and Good Night!
1992 Directed by Jan Oxenberg. Starring Mae Joffe, Jan Oxenberg, Helen Oxenberg, Richard Oxenberg.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 17, 1992
Life and death and laughs in Brooklyn. Thank You and Good Night! is like a home-made greeting card, sent to the far reaches of the universe where the dead still receive mail and the living suffer few regrets. When Jan Oxenberg began this film in 1978, her grandmother, Mae Joffe, was already wasting away from terminal cancer complicated by diabetes. With no intentions of making a feature-length movie, Oxenberg (whose previous credits include the humorous short, "A Comedy in Six Unnatural Acts," a film called Home Movie, and various stints at comedic writing, directing and stand-up), began filming her grandmother during the latter's last months of life. What began a a personal record grew over the course of 12 years, into a remarkable exploration of the meaning of life and death, the nature of loss and the tangled stuff that is a Jewish family. Yet where most explorations of such weighty material would turn somber and mawkish, Thank You and Good Night! remains funny and improvisational. It's a guide for people who feel compelled toward the rumored white light at the end of the tunnel of life but who are too neurotic to even feel comfortable crossing through the Holland Tunnel during their lives. Thank You and Good Night! is constructed like a collage or photo album accompanied by lots of personal commentary. Oxenberg uses herself, her family and her grandmother's friends as her narrators. And in a low-budget stroke of serendipity, Oxenberg uses cardboard cut-outs of herself as a child and her formerly healthy and robust grandmother to create two-dimensional tableaux in which Oxenberg in the present can observe Oxenberg in the past. Also, she uses all the tzatchkes and bric-a-brac in her grandmother's apartment to create a somewhat surreal and magical environment that takes leave of reality and deposits us nearer to the land of wish fulfillment and imagination. It's been likened to a faux-naive style and when it works, it's truly inspired. Sometimes, however, it fails to connect because it's either too personally specific or redundant but these moments pass quickly and to some extent they're a given when working with this type of collage. Meanwhile, you can almost smell the steam rising off the matzoh ball soup and taste the marble cake. Thank You and Good Night! humorously probes the nagging questions that remain for the living, things like: “Was Her Life Really Rotten Or Did She Make Herself Miserable?,” or “Why Didn't She Teach My Mother How To Cook?” or “Why Do People Have To Die Anyway?” What Oxenberg has created with her careful hodge-podge of documentary, fantasy and confession is an extraordinary tribute to a cherished individual and a revealing diorama of family life.