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Doc Talk

Mortality, variety, immensity, Flaherty

Life’s journeys viewed through diverse lenses

Courtesy of SundanceNow Doc Club

There’s a lot to be said for the never-say-die attitude, but in the case of terminal disease it might be the wrong approach. At a certain point doctors have to acknowledge that their skill and efforts are not enough and may even worsen a patient’s final days.

Dr. Atul Gawande, a surgeon at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and an award-winning writer for The New Yorker, confronts that dilemma in his recent book “Being Mortal,” which Tom Jennings has adapted into a documentary for PBS’s “Frontline” series. In it Gawande consults with other physicians to observe their ways of handling the moment when they must admit that they can do no more, and both doctor and patient must plan how to make the most of what time remains.


Among the cases Gawande considers is that of his own father, himself a surgeon, who regards his imminent mortality with clarity, foresight, and courage. Though the emotions are raw and the subject grim, “Being Mortal” demonstrates how death intensifies rather than diminishes life’s meaning.

“Being Mortal” broadcasts on Tuesday at 10 p.m.

Go to www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/being-mortal .

A scene from “Catnip: Egress to Oblivion?”SundanceNow Doc Club/Courtesy of SundanceNow Doc Club

Brief encounters

Mike Plante, curator of the “Best Sundance Shorts Program” on the live-streaming SundanceNow Doc Club site, points out that “the first films ever made were documentary shorts: someone with a camera filming what was happening right in front of them.” Long after the Lumière brothers dazzled audiences in 1896 with “The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station,” despite a century of cinematic and media innovation, that fascination with glimpses of actuality is what still compels audiences to watch movies.

That’s what viewers can expect on the site, with such selections as Sergio Oksman’s “Notes on the Other” (2009), a look at the life and death of Ernest Hemingway and the subsequent cult of Hemingway impersonators;
Michael Almereyda’s “Skinningrove” (2013), a limpidly simple study of photographer Chris Killip’s photographs of the English fishing village of the title and the threat to its traditional culture. And a film that every cat and cat owner should see, Jason Willis’s “Catnip: Egress to Oblivion?” (2012).


Go to www.docclub.com/programs/best-sundance-shorts .

Quick cuts

A big cetacean deserves a big screen, and Megaptera novaeangliae, Latin for “long-winged New Englander,” gets the biggest screen around when “Humpback Whales” opens on Friday at the Simons IMAX Theatre in the New England Aquarium, Boston.

Go to www.neaq.org/visitplanning

The Harvard Film Archive’s retrospective of documentary pioneer Robert Flaherty’s films continues with “Louisiana Story” (1948), a beautiful, prescient hybrid of documentary and feature filmmaking about a Cajun boy’s adjustment to an oil company invading his pristine bayou. The film is remarkably eco-friendly even though Standard Oil produced it.

It screens Sunday at 5 p.m. at the HFA, in the Carpenter Center,
24 Quincy St., Cambridge.

Go to hcl.harvard.edu/hfa/films/2015janfeb/flaherty.html

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.