Jonna's Body, Please Hold was the premiere film of the Breast Fest Film Festival. In many ways it was the perfect start to a lighter-hearted festival with the objective of drawing attention to breast cancer. Notwithstanding concerns that using the sexual attraction of breasts to highlight breast cancer is to exacerbate their loss to women who have lost them, the film, and the festival, attacks cancer with comedy.
Jonna's Body, Please Hold commences with the conceit of the brain as the control centre of the body.
The idea of the comedic controlling superego was premiered in vignette in Woody Allen's Everything You Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask where the ever neurotic Tony Randall was at the helm during a sex act. When supplemented with the secondary conceit of the nervous system being connected by a telephone operator reminiscent of Lily Tomlin's telephone operator schtick, it makes for a classic New York comedic twofer.
This is a calculated comedic risk, but a good one to take if you can carry it off. And you need a lot of chutzpah to pull off comedy about cancer. Jonna Tamases, who plays every role in her body, pulls it together.
The scene is set with Jonna out on a date. All systems are on high alert. Jonna's systems are lighting up the switchboard as she fake laughs at bad jokes made by the loser with whom she is dining. Her back is spasming, and her colon is only holding back on direct orders from her brain. The characterization of Jonna's bowels as a construction site, her breasts as German matrons Ula and Uta, and her hair as Seargent Coif addressing a military inspection line, are all hilarious. That the first stage of cancer is an anonymous sexy French prank caller in a Little Black Dress seems to be a direct comment on the proximity of sex and death in the subconscious.
Jonna is "blessed" with "stupid big boobs" with which she has an ambiguous relationship. They are characterized as argumentative German matrons imprisoned in a lacy brassiere. They are advantageous inasmuch as they are a "homing signals for the fellas" but are unwieldly and uncomfortable. Jonna opts to reduce their size through mammoplasty.
And there lies the rub.
The dramatic conflict of the film, and the reason for it being the opening feature of the Breast Film Festival is, of course, that Jonna has breast cancer. In the x-ray required prior to mammoplasty, a shadow is discovered on Jonna's breast. Soon the crank calling tumour becomes a cocktail party of killer cells. At this point the real world Jonna commences the merry go round of diagnostics and treatment that is dealing with cancer.
One of the best lines in the film comes when Jonna meets a new guy visiting a friend with cancer. She actually has cancer and can finally capitalize on it! But the new man then falls for "some hottie with new bone marrow."
The first radiation treatment is relatively inconsequential. It deals effectively with the Hodgkin's gamines in LBDs. But Round 2 is a Lymphoma, personnified as a fat French pimp. In order to deal with him, the poison pill therapy of chemo must be ingested.
Poison changes everything. Jonna is now a victim of the war on her body that is required to preserve her life. The troops that were Jonna's hair are ordered to "fall out" for actual battle. Her bone marrow inventory is dangerously depleted. Externally Jonna is tormented with the endless pop culture platitudes of her acquaintances. These include the ridiculously facile: "Death is a part of life."
When the system breaks down Jonna's operator stops taking calls. The chemotherapy at this point is portrayed as literal war within her body, which she barely survives.
When she is finally free from cancer, Jonna is able to communicate with her own body, unmediated by the Tomlinesque operator. And Jonna does end up getting "a load off her chest" in the form of the mammoplasty that started the journey. Freed from her artificially imposed expectations of herself by the brush with her own mortality, she becomes a circus clown.
Being a clown is probably a natural state for a comic. She meets a grumpy clown, marries, and presumably lives happily ever after in klezmer comedy remission. This ending is a tiny bit contrived. Prior to getting cancer, Jonna's primary preoccupation was with getting paired up. It seems her newfound insight is still inhibited by the marriage narrative. But to say the denoument is contrived is perhaps a trite critique about a funny film tackling a rather somber topic.
Written and acted by Jonna Tamases, based on her own experience with cancer, Jonna's Body, Please Hold is a remarkable filmic example of the creative, comedic memoir. Tamases attacks all the roles with raucous aplomb in the classic comedy tradition. Jesse Benson's production design is visual proof that imagination can trump budget.
Although I am not a woman, I am a cancer survivor. Jonna's captured for me the emotional truth of the disengagement from your own body that comes with something foreign and lethal is growing within you. Good job Jonna.
Humberto DaSilva is a union activist whose 'Not Rex Murphy' video commentaries are featured on rabble.