Dying to Live
by Jef Burnham
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At some point you have seen at least one of the many television shows or films featuring the actor, Ben Mittleman, but you’re unlikely to recognize his face. Having never quite made it into the starring roles, Mittleman found himself stuck in guest roles in shows such as Remington Steele, Cheers, Frasier, and LA Law. In 1988, he founded Action For Kids (AFK), a production company dedicated to creating value-based programming for children. In 1999, he was diagnosed with a mitral valve prolapse and needed open heart surgery. So he turned the camera back on himself to make this documentary.
Mittleman had been told by a director that “the success of a documentary was simple. Just turn your camera on your subject and hope he dies.” At first, the film focuses on Mittleman’s fears of undergoing the same procedure that nearly killed his father decades before, the ensuing nine hour overhaul of his heart and the painful recovery period. The portrait this paints is of a man supported and shaped by his friends and family. Ultimately, the film is a memorial to all those who fell along the way.
In a sign of good faith, Mittleman sits in front of the camera early in the film to share with the audience a bit of his medical history including his contraction of Hepatitis C as a result of casual drug use in the ’70s. During the scene, he breaks into tears before pulling his pants down to inject himself with Interferon. Mittleman’s candidness creates a trusting atmosphere in which we become completely involved. We see the rage build as he faces his own mortality, as well as that of his closest loved ones, but the film is in no way a cry for pity. He is man enough to admit that even though he has been asking it of himself, everyone asks, “Why me?” And he sings and plays Spider-Man in a desperate attempt to cheer himself.
Films are rarely filled with as much love as Dying to Live. Instead of losing his own life, Mittleman lost everyone around him within the few short years that followed his surgery, including Valerie, his girlfriend of 20 years. Following the loss of Valerie in the film, Mittleman chokes back tears in the voiceover narration, as he eulogizes the woman without whom he could not have survived the recovery of his surgery—the woman who physically carried him into the hospital after he collapsed in the parking lot. The film’s subtitle, The Journey Into a Man’s Open Heart, refers much less to the surgery in question than it does to this. More vital to Mittleman’s heart than the mitral valve are the three women in his life. Had Mittleman been a sculptor or a painter instead of a filmmaker, he could not have created as beautiful a memorial to the people he loved as this film.
Jef Burnham is a writer and film critic living in Chicago.
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