Human Development professor at Plattsburgh State Jacqueline Oertel and several of her students hosted the first local showing of an independent film that documents the life and creativity of Ethan Rice, a local who passed away from cystic fibrosis in 2015 at the age of 28.
“Exit Music” was shown this past Sunday at 3 p.m. in the Ballrooms of the Angell College Center of PSUC. It was directed and produced by a San Francisco-based cinematographer Cameron Mulleneaux.
The Rice family were the only ones to respond to Mulleneaux’s request to a palliative, or end-of-life, care office to document the last days of a terminally-ill patient.
When asked why, Mulleneaux said she wanted to start a conversation about death and normalizing the thought of dying.
Rice and his parents allowed for Mulleneaux to follow him around with a camera to showcase his musical and artistic talents.
“We followed Ethan’s lead,” Rice’s mother Edith Rice said. “He and Cam had already met, and he was all in. I think it was serendipitous.”
Mulleneaux captured uncomfortable and intimate moments in the months leading up to Ethan Rice’s losing battle with cystic fibrosis. Her professional relationship with the family was so intimate that Mulleneaux captured Ethan Rice’s final breath on camera.
“She was a fly on the wall when she needed to be,” Edith Rice said. “She spent a lot of time with us and a lot of time with Ethan.”
The film contained scenes in which Ethan Rice’s health was visibly declining, but also showed what a special and talented person he was.
“As Ethan was getting sicker and sicker, he kept losing his essence a little bit,” Mulleneaux said. “So I thought having the music and animation throughout kind of lifted his spirit and carried his essence through to the end.”
Edith Rice said only a chosen few knew that Ethan Rice was sick with the disease. In the film, the traits that were the most becoming of the Saranac Central School graduate were his creativity and sense of humor.
At times, Ethan Rice could still make everyone in the room watching this film laugh with his humor and jokes.
He was also an artist who made stop-animation films with a number of random objects like toy soldiers or clay. The music he recorded throughout his lifetime, a collection of quirky sounds, guitar riffs and drums, was given to Mulleneaux along with Ethan Rice’s animations on a hard drive.
These pieces broke up the reality of what Ethan Rice and his family was dealing with, as well as represented the constant war and struggle taking place within his body.
“It’s a very insular film, so it’s all happening in the house, and it’s really how everything felt at the time.” Mulleneaux said. “It just needed some breathing room and that came from [Ethan’s] animations and Ed’s footage of him growing up.”
Mulleneaux said that when she was editing the film, she had the choice of making some scenes incredibly sentimental and heartbreaking, but that she could hear Ethan Rice’s voice telling her, “That’s lame!”
“Cam’s got a good eye,” Ethan Rice’s father Ed Rice said.
The impact that Ethan Rice had on those who were a part of his life seemed to be profound as around 100 people gathered to view “Exit Music.”
Old teachers and friends came to celebrate the life of this unique individual. Most of the audience wept during the more emotional parts of the film, like when Ethan Rice becomes so sick and tells his parents that he is ready to finally let go.
“The first time I saw it on a big screen was very raw and difficult to deal with certainly at the time,” Edith Rice said.
Mulleneaux’s film has been screened in different locations about five times. Ed and Edith Rice go to each showing and participate in a panel discussion afterward.
“I’ve been asked if I watch it every time,” Edith Rice said. “And yes I watch it every time. I can never truly be at peace when I’m watching [Ethan] die, but there is a peace that is beginning to percolate. It’s getting to visit with him.”
Ed Rice reflected the same sympathies as his wife.
“I’ve had family that has died, but I’ve never lost a son before,” Ed Rice said. “Each person in the hierarchy of devotion creates a different grief. The grief for my son is very deep and never changes.”
Ed Rice said before Ethan Rice’s passing, he expressed that he did not want to die in a hospital but rather in the comfort of his own home.
“I said to myself, ‘I can’t think of a friendlier ghost that I’d want in my house.’”
Email Sage Lewandowski at firstname.lastname@example.org