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In a Nutshell: A Portrait of Elizabeth Tashjian (2005)

Some three years in the making, In a Nutshell is a documentary on Elizabeth Yegsa Tashjian -- a one-time concert violinist, heralded artist, Christian Science healer, late TV celebrity and ... See full summary »


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Credited cast:
Barbara Beeching ...
Mundy Hepburn ...
Liddy Karter ...
Doug Kirby ...
Maureen McCabe ...
Marty Ostrow ...
Tom Risom ...
Mervin Roberts ...
Christopher B. Steiner ...
Elizabeth Tashjian ...
Christine Woodside ...


Some three years in the making, In a Nutshell is a documentary on Elizabeth Yegsa Tashjian -- a one-time concert violinist, heralded artist, Christian Science healer, late TV celebrity and founder of the Nut Museum in Old Lyme, Connecticut. In her 90s, she became a ward of the state and confined to a nursing home against her will. This feature-length film focuses on her fight to preserve her identity and regain her life. Written by Anonymous

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violinist | art | aging disorder | See All (3) »





Release Date:

22 January 2005 (USA)  »

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Aging artist living alone struggles to sustain her independence
7 December 2005 | by (Portland, Oregon, United States) – See all my reviews

Documentary about an aging single woman, someone without family or resources, a woman who has led a life notable for both her considerable accomplishments and her eccentricities, whose imagination, artistic sensibility, and desire for autonomy have tragically outstripped her capacity to care for herself.

Born into an aristocratic Armenian émigré family on Manhattan's upper west side in 1912, she performed violin recitals at age 9 and won awards for classical paintings at age 21 while studying at the National Academy of Design. She lived in a close bond with her mother, a Christian Science practitioner, until her mother died when Elizabeth was 47. She then took up her mother's practice for a while but says that over time this work tired her too much, so she "retired."

Several years before her mother's death, the two had moved to a Gothic Revival mansion in Old Lyme, Connecticut. There Elizabeth established the "Nut Museum" – a place devoted to the display of various species of nuts. More important, the nuts became a vehicle for conveying her ideas about people, about human evolution and habits. She came to refer to herself as a "nut culturist." Whether she used the nut to concretize some personal judgment about the human condition is not certain. But her love of ideas and the mind sustained her. "I don't live alone," she says at one point, "I have my ideas."

Eking out a living from a few sales of her paintings (Kathryn Hepburn, whose family lived nearby, bought one), museum admission fees and honoraria for occasional appearances on TV shows in the early 80s, she struggled along in her later years, gradually losing her ability to manage money and keep her house in order. At age 90, she was found upstairs in a coma by a neighbor.

Ms. Tashjian defied medical prognosis and recovered. Against her most strenuously expressed, clearly articulated wishes, however, she was made a ward of the court, and a court-appointed conservator arranged for the sale of her house, while insisting that she live in a nursing home.

Fortunately, Christopher Steiner, who teaches museum studies at Connecticut College, discovered Ms. Tashjian's situation just in time to save much of her nut collection and her paintings. Near the end we see her aiding Steiner in the mounting of a very recent exhibition of her work at the college. Another strong supporter has been Christine Woodside, a journalist.

Steiner, Woodside and a neighbor appear often as respectful advocates, though Ms. Tashjian herself takes center stage in much of the footage. And she is beguiling. Thoughtful, well spoken, impish, and a bit of a ham, she commands the screen whenever she appears.

The film is deftly made. Editing is especially effective. Often we hear talking heads while viewing some other scene related to their verbal content. It is a distinct relief not to focus visually all that much on the interviewees themselves. The pleasantly non-intrusive soundtrack features swing music from the 20s among other themes, and even a few of Ms. Tashjian's own compositions.

The aging issues raised in this film are important and tough ones. Ms. Tashjian shows disproportionate difficulty in looking after herself, when compared to the relative preservation of her intellect and her capacity to formulate and articulate clear goals for her own future. It is more her "executive functions" – the capacity to accomplish the little things one sets out to do each day – that appear to be diminished, rather than a more global dementia, as best I can tell through observing her conduct in the film.

If Elizabeth Tashjian had been fortunate enough to have supportive family nearby and adequate resources, she could have continued to live in her house with the assurance of adequate in-home care and other safeguards for her wellbeing. This is the case for many elderly persons who have these supports available to them.

There is good news. Besides the recent exhibition of her work, Ms. Tashjian has recently moved to a cheery private room in her assisted living facility, and she is currently planning to sue the State of Connecticut to reclaim her freedom. My rating: 8/10 (B+). (Seen on 9/30/05 at the Idaho International Film Festival). If you'd like to read more of my reviews, send me a message for directions to my websites.

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Where can I get to see this? It sounds fascinating. the sphynx

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