NEVER HAS a TV program taken more stamina to watch than does "Joan Robinson: One Woman's Story." That isn't surprising television has spent 30 years avoiding most of the subjects that this 2 1/2-hour film brings up.
PBS insists on calling the documentary a "real-life drama about survival," but the heroine does not survive. She dies of cancer after 22 months of fear, pain, recrimination and struggle. And when the film arrives on public TV stations, including Channel 26 in Washington, tomorrow night at 8, it will do so over and above objections, denuniciations and misgivings, even from some of those who helped finance it.
"It has been said to be the most controversial thing ever on television," says Mary Feldhaus-Weber, who directed the film. "Maybe it is. It's a look into the abyss."
Abysses are not popular on television. The subjects of cancer and death by cancer are usually only dealt with as elements in soap-operatic inspirational melodramas. TV movies such as "Brian's Song," "Eric" and the recent "A Shining Season," while often emotionally affecting, suggest that cancer strikes only the very nice and the very pretty, and that symptoms rarely get more severe than a few raspy gasps and balletic collapses.
Feldhaus-Weber says public TV station managers are "very frightened" of the film, which traces Robinson's story step by step from the discovery of her disease to her death. PBS asked that about 30 minutes be cut out, including explicit scenes of Robinson in agony, and had Feldhaus-Weber and her colleagues produce a half-hour followup discussion that tries to see cancer in more hopeful terms.
PBS also insisted on a prologue in which a doctor warns, "This will not be an easy film to watch" and a viewer advisory that runs three times during the broadcast. The program deals with "emotionally powerful material" that "may be disturbing to some," says the disclaimer, with almost laughable understatement. There is no "may be" about it: "One Woman's Story" will disturb everyone who sees it, and many will likely say it is too disturbing to be shown on TV, that they "don't want to see things like that" in their homes.
After all, for three decades we have looked upon television more as a fantasy machine than a reality machine. "One Woman's Story" breaks some longstanding rules of propriety. It does not try to be delicate (or sensational), but it is urgent and traumatic to a degree perhaps possible only with television, which has been taken into the confidence and sanctuary of millions of American homes.
If TV is going to deal with any realities, it ought to be able to deal with all realities. "One Woman's Story" invades some of the darkest and most private aspects of being alive and of dying, in a detail and with a candor unprecedented on the air. It is not what you'd call an encouraging sort of experience, but is is a rewarding one. And there is a victory involved; the victory is that the program is being shown at all.
Some in what might be called the cancer community -- groups who deal with cancer patients and disseminate information -- would prefer that it not be. The Damon Runyon Cancer Fund of New York contributed production money but now, says Feldhaus-Weber, "they wish their name wasn't on it. They're very negative and very upset about it."
Les Butler, communications director of the Cancer Coordinating Council for Metropolitan Washington, fears that the film will "scare the hell out of a lot of people," especially cancer patients. Channel 26 has agreed to flash the council's phone number on the screen -- and the numbers of other groups offering counsel -- during and after the film's telecast. Butler says lines will be open until midnight so people can learn that "things have changed since 1975," the year Joan Robinson died.
William Cockrell, executive vice president of the American Cancer Society's Washington office, says the society is not officially disapproving of the film but has withdrawn an earlier endorsement because it is "too negative." And Irving Rimer, spokesman for the national society, says from New York that the film goes "in a direction I don't think the public has ever been exposed to. Things are shown that are usually shown only to doctors and not to the public."
"There's been a large percentage of extreme hostile reactions," says Feldhaus-Weber. "Some people have said the film will lead to mass suicides, or that we're taking all hope away from 50 million cancer patients. I've spent 6 1/2 years of my life on this film, and I felt bad when I heard those comments. The reason we made the film and the reason Joan wanted it made, was to be a help to people who had cancer and to their families.
"If people get too wrought up, I can just say, 'I'm sorry.'"
Joan Robinson, a writer and editor in suburban Boston, learned she had terminal ovarian cancer at the age of 41. Later she also developed breast cancer, and at 44 she died. When she realized the severity of her illness and its hopelessness, she asked her friend, Mary Feldhaus-Weber, if she would like to put on film her last months of life, in order to communicate to others what it was really like.
Robinson lived longer than expected, and her doctors believe that the making of the film had a positive and beneficial effect; it gave the suffering and the terror a purpose. Unlike fictional TV movies, Joan Robinson and her husband, Eric, who married her knowing of her illness, went through hell -- and cameras and microphones were there to record it.
The result is a film not necessarily morbid or merely depressing, but dealing with all facets of the experience -- not only of facing death, but of the dehumanizing business of being sick, of being dependent and restricted, of placing impossible burdens on one's friends, and relatives, of being subjected to the indignity that goes with medical treatment. Joan Robinson had not only a colostomy but a uretaostomy as well; early in the film, she worries about how the bags and tubes will look under her "expensive new slacks."
Recordings of Robinson's voice and her husband narrate the film which follows her through cobalt and chemotherapy treatments, moments of remission, visits to a therapist, incredibly painful examinations by her doctors, a cessation of all sexual activity with her husband as the illness worsens, even considerations of suicide and, finally, complete disorientation, her life reduced to sleeping and breathing, and death.
To be sure, topical issues come up along the way, including the process of prolonging life through the use of drugs, in this case antibiotics. At one point Robinson speaks of her illness as part of "a major social problem" and tells a friend, "The cost of keeping a person like me alive is fantastic."
But the human side of this story is what makes the film incomparable important and perhaps the most intimate document possible on television.
Realizing that "it is very common to die in considerable pain" from her type of cancer, Robinson asks her doctor about using heroin as a painkiller, a relatively common practice in England, but not here. The doctor promises her narcotics every 30 minutes if necessary to control pain, and suggests optimistically that she may eventually drift into uremia, which he says is "one of the gentlest ways of dying that I've ever witnessed."
Her therapist asks with plaintive concern, "What do you feel, Joan?" and "Joan, you know what I sense today?" And Joan says, "I feel like I want to make vichysoisse and then I think, what a stupid way to spend the little time I have left."
Over still photographs of Robinson on an examining table in the hospital we hear a doctor say, "I am going to probe . . . and you let me know if it hurts," and we hear Joan cry out, "Oh, yes!" before she breaks down weeping.
On Nov. 23, 1974, after discovering a lump in her breast and being held again at the hospital for further examination, Robinson asks the doctor, "Could I be released for, say, seven hours on Thanksgiving Day?"
After her mastectomy, Robinson is visited by a woman in an outreach program who herself had a mastectomy one month before she was married. The woman cheerfully tells Robinson that her new husband is "a leg man, anyway," and drops off a prosthesis catalogue from which Robinson can select a new, artificial breast.
In one of many moments of anguish and fear, Joan Robinson says she wants a miracle to save her and tells her husband, "Facing death means giving up everything. . . . I don't want to give up everything." Then she begins worrying about the cost of her funeral, and Eric says, "Well that's very nice of you."
In the spring of 1975 Eric, who has been a model of composure throughout the film, comes downstairs at night to talk with the film crew about his own ordeal, how his wife has become obsessed with the subject of cancer, how all sexual relations for them have ended. "I'm not very good with women, anyway," he sobs.
The disease worsens, and we hear Robinson in pain. "Oh please, God, help me.Oh. Oh. Why doesn't the Demerol help?"
And then, debilitated both her illnesses and the treatments, she says, "This is not living. This is not life. This is not worth it."
At 11 p.m. on Aug. 14, 1975, Joan Robinson dies, and a form is filled out at a hospital desk.
"Basically, no one wanted this film," says Feldaus-Weber now, but she wanted it, her friend Joan Robinson wanted it, and so did the other filmmakers involved. To say the least, it was not easy. Even finding crewmembers wasn't easy. "One person who filmed natives dying in the jungle of cholera fainted on us."
Money kept running out, and midway through filming, expensive color film was abondoned for cheaper black-and-white videotape. As irreverent as it may sound, the fact that Joan Robinson lived for 22 months, longer than expected, meant that the filmmakers had problems getting renewed funds.
"There was a black-comedy element to it, and no one appreciated it more than Joan and Eric," says Feldhaus-Weber. "Funders would say things like, 'What if she lives forever?' or, 'What if she dies during the weekend, and you can't get any film stock?' The film was a great blessing to us, and a great curse, because it took over our lives.
"Sometimes we felt we were doing something unnatural, but we knew that Joan wanted it and could see the human value in it. I sometimes cursed myself for getting involved with it. But Joan loved having us there, particularly toward the end, when Eric was away in England and her own doctor was out of town, and we were there. She felt it gave her a reason to live."
The film is one of the few to have a "spiritual adviser" listed in the credits. "That was to keep us on the right path. There was a lot of praying and meditating to keep the film clear, to try to decide what was the humanly correct thing to do. At one point, even though we're not married to each other, some of us working on the film consulted a marriage counselor in order to get the film finished, because we'd become to alienated from one another, just as Joan and Eric had."
To those who would say to her that the film is too realistic, too unfinching, too intimate, Feldhaus-Weber responds, "The film is so much less bad than the experience itself. Eric saw the finished film and he told me it was one one-thousandth as bad as the experience. I feel we have a whole generation now that knows nothing about death. They haven't seen people die. And I feel it's better to know about such things than not to know.
"I think it's a transcendant film. When people ask me what the film is about, I say it's about the strength of the human spirit and transcendence, and that I believe Joan is in heaven now."
Obviously Feldhaus-Weber's involvement in the project was more than the usual movie diretor's. Once when the camera was not rolling, Robinson even asked her friend if she would help her commit suicide. During a more lucid moment, before filming began, she and Robinson signed an "indenture of trust" giving Robinson -- or, after her death, her lawyer -- the right to any deletions she wanted in the finished film. As it turned out, her only major stipulations were that her breasts and pubic hair not be seen. A few people's names and some "raucous, bawdy talk" were also eliminated, Feldhaus-Weber says.
The final defense of the film is Robinson's own. Over shots of her funeral, Eric reads a last statement written by Robinson just before her death. "She wrote that statement at her darkest moment, when she was totally alone, curled up in a fetal position," Feldhaus-Weber says.
In the statement, Robinson deals with her thoughts of suicide and dependency, with the challenges that her illness brought her, and then she says that one compensation will be to have left behind "a film which I hope will be socially useful."
At the beginning of the film, when she first learns of her cancer, Robinson says she turned to the woman in the next bed at the hospital, "and she said, 'Don't talk to me about it. I don't want to hear about it.'"
Television doesn't often talk to us about the things we don't want to hear about. In "One Woman's Story," we are given a rare opportunity to comfront matters of life and death, and to be left limp, and though it is an awesome kind of privilege, no one could be blamed for preferring to look the other way.