The Many Sad Fates Of Mr. Toledano


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The Many Sad Fates Of Mr Toledano
"Despite his problems, Toledano makes an engaging subject, full of life even when he's thinking about death."

People react to the loss of a parent in different ways. They may spend time crying with friends and family, hit the bottle, reassess their career paths or cut themselves off from the world. New York photographer Phil Toledano developed a desperate fear of his own mortality. To regain control, he commissioned a series of artistic transformations that could help him explore the different 'sad fates' he imagined for himself.

Joshua Seftel's elegantly shot documentary about Toledano's journey mixes observation with interview footage and examples of Toledano's earlier work, the latter of which guarantees him a visually striking end result. Though he waits until the end to reveal the pictures emerging from the bereavement project, giving them the impact they deserve, we see hints of their contents earlier on - the make-up (and prosthetic) process, a bloody bathtub, Toledano being pushed through the park in a wheelchair. This isn't just about the fear of death, but also fear of age and disability, which are bound up so closely with indignity that the film risks entrenching harmful stereotypes. Toledano's discourse on his fear of disability may be touching in light of his experience as a carer when his father suffered from Alzheimer's disease, but it's still disappointing to see his prejudice go unchallenged when there's plenty of criticism of other aspects of the project in this film.

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One of the strongest critics is Toledano's wife, who clearly finds the whole project a strain and is concerned about its impact on their family. He sees it as a healing process, a way of conquering hi fears, though he chooses fortune tellers rather than psychiatrists as his guides. Though she doesn't name it, she seems to realise that he is suffering from a mental illness that could be every bit as debilitating as the various physical ones he fears. A DNA test cautions him that he may face a risk of heart disease but that otherwise his risk factors are low. This is the phenomenon of the worried well taken to an extreme.

For all his problems, Toledano undoubtedly has talent. It's the social observations in his pictures that are ultimately the most telling. A man sits in an office surrounded by shredded paper, his face a mask of resentment and despair. Another, in an elegant suit, looks away as he is bustled down a flight of steps by police officers. Sitting alongside images of suicide and ill health, they suggest that the one situation might be as easy to stumble into as the other. The world of Toledano's fears is not a realistic one: it is as much a product of the media as it is a contribution thereto. The best cure might be for him to stop watching the news.

Despite his problems, Toledano makes an engaging subject, full of life even when he's thinking about death. It's never quite clear how aware he is of the comedic character of the film. Yet for all the exploitation going on both in the photography project and in the documentary, there s never a hint of deliberate cruelty - just an observation of life's cruelties and a grasping for control so futile that it's almost cute.

Reviewed on: 21 Nov 2016
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A bereaved photographer creates images of the ways he imagines his life coming to an end.


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