Thank You and Good Night
A lost-and-found revelation from indie film and TV maverick Jan Oxenberg is a docu-fantasy narrative focused on the filmmaker’s hilarious, messy, Jewish family as they prepare to say goodbye to someone they love. Narrated by a cardboard cutout of Oxenberg’s scowling child self, Thank You and Good Night takes us on a journey through the proceedings, attempting to defeat death and never say goodbye. An early Sundance hit but virtually unseen for decades, the film reemerges as a singular, uncategorizable exploration of the meaning of life, death, and the tangled stuff that is a family. In this poignant, hilarious, and complex reflection on letting go, Oxenberg innovatively transforms personal tragedy into universally resonant art that is now claiming its rightful place as a classic of independent cinema.
Thank You & Goodnight (1991) film notes by Tova Gannana for Faraway Entertainment
Life is linear. Birth, death and everything that happens in between. How we live and with whom is the question. Why are we here in this time? Death is not a secret; death is a certainty, relentless. Death knocks at every door. We go through death alone though we may not want to be alone when experiencing death. Death is a studied subject. Some laugh in the face of death. Some are terrified. Pearls are the death of an oyster and can be worn around one’s neck. Death is personal. From your grief of losing a loved one there is no coming back. No explanation as to why this person had to die or reassurance that one day you will be reunited. Death requires faith. Grief requires love. Life requires caution and fearlessness. Look both ways before, measure twice, cut once. You can’t empty the ocean with a spoon. Like a play, there are stages to life. Acts we must learn. We wait for applause. We improvise. We cut into one another’s lines. We listen to songs about the meaning we may be missing in the lives we may be blindly living. We think like the eggs that we are smarter than the chickens. Death visits us all.
Jan Oxenberg set out to make a film about her grandmother Mae Joffe’s passing because making a film made it easier for her to get closer to what her grandmother was going through. The film camera became her microscope. Mae Joffe of Troy, New York was born in 1900 and died in 1979. She was a woman of her generation, a daughter, wife, and mother. This is how Oxenberg saw her. Grandmothers are always of their generations, removed from us and from our mothers. They are missed more with each passing year. Grandparents are like a bridge, with us and part of our collective past. If we were among the lucky, we had grandparents who loved, taught and scolded us. Our memories stay, live within us. My grandmother made yoghurt in glass jars. I buy yoghurt at the store in plastic containers. As a child she wore Victorian style lace up boots. I wore Doc Martens. At home her family spoke Yiddish. I use Yiddish syntax.
Oxenberg took twelve years to complete Thank You and Goodnight (1991). Her search for the meaning of her grandmother’s life and death intensified. For Oxenberg time does not heal. Oxenberg films her grandmother and her mother, brothers, and sister. She tells the story of her grandmother’s life in relation to her own life. Mae Joffe’s childhood home is not shown. The names of Mae Joffe’s siblings and parents are not spoken, where she went to school, her profession, her own ideas for herself, none of this is explored. Mae Joffe is questioned by her granddaughter, but she reveals little. “I’ve had a happy life and at times a bad life,” Mae Joffe says into the camera. She is happy she has grandchildren and great grandchildren. “This is why you are happy?” Oxenberg asks. It is a film impossible to watch without thinking of your own family. Death is final.
There are always questions one wishes they had asked. The film is straightforward, opening with the lines, “My grandmother died a couple of years ago and I find myself still looking for her.” Oxenberg wrote the script and narrates. What she put down on paper she did not share with the rest of her family. Oxenberg’s mother Helen was not close to her mother Mae. Helen, a modern woman, became a social worker. She went through a divorce. Helen didn’t learn from her mother how to cook. While Mae is sick with cancer, Oxenberg and her mother make gefilte fish. All three generations crack eggs into a bowl. Mae speaks to her granddaughter in English with Yiddish syntax, “I should tell you what’s wrong so everyone knows?” Mae has an idea of death, “I believe I’m going someplace. But nobody can tell what’s it going to be.” Thank You and Goodnight is a circular film, a before and after film. Oxenberg is with her grandmother as she is dying and searching for her grandmother after she is gone.
Mae Joffe’s apartment is filled with Jewish symbols. A Magen David on top of the TV. Mae wears a large chai on a gold chain. At the hospital Mae is afraid to go under when the doctors offer her gas. Oxenberg believes this is because of the Holocaust. Oxenberg can say what Mae doesn’t say. The film is about Mae who is dying at an acceptable age and also about Oxenberg’s sister Judy who was killed on the street outside her house by a car when she was a small child. Mae’s death gets the attention her granddaughter Judy’s death never got. Mae dies of old age. Judy’s death is a tragedy her family has no words for, only private grief. Oxenberg says, “I took refuge in my memories. Most of them have to do with food.”
Mae’s cholent, tzimmes, chicken soup with farfel, mandel bread, marble cake, I never had any of that. My Jewish grandmother assimilated. Her dishes we still talk about are chicken wings, blackbeans and salsa, jarlsberg sandwiches with romaine lettuce and mayonnaise. My grandmother made sourdough bread. She curated the art department at the Minneapolis Public Library. She lost two sons and her husband before the age of 55. She was kind and brave, curious and stern. She had a hard life. I miss her the way Oxenberg misses her grandmother Mae. These women are related. We learned from them. The time we spent with them was too short. They leave with us their recipes and our memories. One never knows when death will strike. We have words to live by yet no words to explain death. We say we miss, we grieve, we long for, we regret. One of my grandmothers was surrounded by family when she died. The other passed away alone at night in a nursing home. My father has never forgiven himself for this. We plan for death, yet death arrives unplanned. No one knows the moment they will expire.
Tova Gannana is a film curator and critic.