November 23, 2020 – This documentary/performance art film by Kirsten Johnson was inspired by her experiences with her father, Dick Johnson, and her late mother, both afflicted with dementia. The film consists of various staged accidental death scenes, starring her father, along with family videos and a lot of narration by Kirsten Johnson herself.
Johnson narrates a video of her mother at a point in her life where her mother no longer knew her daughter, Kirsten's name. Kirsten said she has no video of “ ... the warm and brilliant person she once was.” She does not make the same mistake with her father. This film captures her father in the early stages of dementia, a smart, insightful man who is quite willing to take part in this movie and to enact his own death scenes, over and over, as well as witness his own funeral and take part in scenes depicting his afterlife.
This all makes for a unique film of a man whose daughter just happens to be an acclaimed documentary filmmaker (Kirsten Johnson also directed “Cameraperson” and “Deadline”). Johnson himself is a psychiatrist. We see him cleaning out his office and home in Seattle before moving in with his daughter in New York. He laments losing his car, which is being repaired after an accident caused by his dementia.
Johnson, in his mid-80s, has a lively sense of humor about himself and his condition. The nature of his dementia is such that he is not acutely aware of his loss of memory, and he certainly doesn't feel sorry for himself. He cheerfully takes part in the making of the film and he makes the best of his handicap. His only regret seems to be the extent to which he is a burden on his family.
Kirsten's own reaction to this situation is less cheerful. She sees her father going through the same stages of decline that she saw her mother go through years before. She knows where this is going, but she, like her father, is determine to make the best of the time they have left.
Various death scenes are staged with Johnson. An air conditioner falls from a window and lands on his head, a construction worker accidentally hits him with a large length of lumber, he falls off a curb and falls down the stairs, duplicating a fall down the same stairs where his wife once fell, breaking her hip.
These scenes are all intentionally de-mystified by Kirsten, who shows interviews with one of the stunt men involved in the accidental death scenes, shows Johnson being rigged to spout fake blood after being hit by the lumber, and shows how Johnson is replaced by a stuntman in the falling air conditioner scene.
Dementia is a kind of living death, for what is a person if they no longer have their memories, their personality, their knowledge of self? Religion, such as Johnson's Seventh Day Adventist faith, gives one answer, that on the day of resurrection, the faithful will be restored to full life, presumably with all memories intact.
While the film does touch on the subject of life after death, it is grounded in this life, the here and now of Johnson's existence. It also provides a way for father and daughter to connect in a project with universal meanings for all who witness this film.
Movie stars of the past, like Katherine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart and Clark Gable have a kind of immortality based in the movies they made. Dick Johnson and his daughter now share a bit of that immortality, at least as long as people still watch this movie, and remember them. May that last for a long, long time. This film rates a B.
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