documentary

Is Dick Johnson Is Dead the Best Movie of All Time?

This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.

Cinema is not important. Not really, at least. 2020 and 2021 have been strange for reasons that outpace even the craziest movie fan’s ability to suggest that the movies are what we’ve lost the most. It has been weird to not go to the movies, but it’s been weird for a billion other reasons that matter more.

That said, this is the first year in ten that I haven’t gone to the theater a dozen times in January to see all the Oscar contenders. It’s felt a little rudderless to not have to go see American Sniper or 1917 or whatever other brown-and-tan war movie is nominated this year that you wouldn’t otherwise see. The Oscars are ridiculous for a million reasons, but they are a useful tool to guide us into seeing movies. I once saw 45 Years at 11 a.m. by myself solely because it was the one movie nominated for a major award that I hadn’t seen. It was worth it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.

I don’t think most people think of movies this way, but I appreciate the guidelines. I queued up Dick Johnson Is Dead for a similar reason, to approximate the same experience. It’s on the lists and it probably won’t be on the final lists, but why not roll the dice on something, anyway? Every week is a month and every month is a year, so it’s time to get to the things you always say you’ll get to but you won’t.

It’s a documentary by a documentarian who is finally turning the camera inward, which is a genre that seems to be on the rise. I couldn’t stop thinking of HBO’s How To with John Wilson, which was one of my favorite shows of the year. Kirsten Johnson tells the story of her father, Dick Johnson, who is nearing the end of his life and suffering from memory loss with dementia. The movie is aggressively about death in a way that may put off some viewers. I don’t know what kind of trigger warning needs to be put here, but we are going to talk about death, exclusively, so if that is not your particular brand of coffee, you may want to leave.

The reviews are universally positive. I have not found anyone who said anything negative about this movie. This isn’t uncommon for a release like this, but it makes me feel stranger for asking a question that seemingly doesn’t need to be asked. Is this exploitative? Dick Johnson is clearly up for the premise, but the entire movie is about him not necessarily knowing what is appropriate and the loss of quality of life that accompanies that. It feels wild to say this because no one else seems to be bothered by it, but several times I felt genuinely sad for the premise of the film. On one long shot of him saying that an experience felt worse than the worst moment of his life, I had to wonder, do we really need to do this?

It’s a hard movie to talk about. The premise folds outward several times, with Kirsten telling a story about death through the lens of her still-living father. She films herself asking Dick if she can make a movie about him dying with him dying on camera, but not for real, and then films herself talking to people who can help simulate the experience. This folds out several times, with her filming her creating the documentary about her creating the film of an experience that will happen, but not exactly. Dick falls down stairs and is crushed by falling objects and so much more, but all of it happens interspersed with film about film.

This isn’t elder abuse, Dick clearly finds Kirsten’s premise funny and eats chocolate cake to simulate his life-changing heart attack and shakes his arm on command to make his fake corpse funnier. He’s along for the ride, but the documentary premise lets us see that he isn’t always super clear on what’s happening or why it would be interesting. This offers a small look at a much larger life, as we can imagine this is a version of a conversation that’s happened hundreds of times. The two are only on camera together a few times, but every moment is a story that we only see the slightest part of but fill in the gaps easily. It’s a love letter, which everyone says about everything, but this one really is.

The premise cannot be overstated. I think the best movie about the topic is Still Alice, which is the only movie I’ve ever sworn to never rewatch. I was haunted by it and still can’t really process it fully, it’s too close and too terrifying. It feels like Jaws and the ocean to me, with fears realized too perfectly and a validation of exactly what seems to be an irrationally large fear. You’re worried and then you see it and you realize you were right all along. Dick Johnson Is Dead stares at death and says that obsession is the right response. It says that it should consume you, not to rob the subject of fear, but to validate the grandness with the degree that it deserves. Death is the biggest thing in life and if you don’t make it huge in your own life, when it invades you will be entirely unprepared.

This may not work for everyone. I don’t think a movie where the premise is to make your elderly father think about his violent death to the point of enacting it with stunt doubles is going to connect with America. I assumed this would be an entry point to a larger conversation, but it isn’t. This is all of it, which isn’t a complaint. It’s just astounding that every brick laid on top of every brick in this movie is more death, more overwhelming fear of what might happen and how it might impact people. There’s a fake funeral where people seem to realize this isn’t necessarily fake, even if it is in the moment, and it feels really cruel to put people through all of this.

But that’s the most important thing about Dick Johnson Is Dead. Is it cruel? It’s awful to live in a cloud of death and fear of death, but it’s worse to pretend. Kirsten Johnson wants to be ready and her way to be ready is to do it all now. My father passed away unexpectedly and the only solace at all was that earlier he’d had a significant health scare that caused me to do some of the processing earlier. He lived, then, and so when he didn’t, I’d done some of the work. Kirsten Johnson has done way more work than that.

I went back and forth while watching it. I think it is too much and it’s clear from what the director leaves on the screen that her dad also thinks it’s too much. He also loves it, if not from a desire to be on camera then from a desire to spend time with his daughter. I think it’s an important movie and something that does something I haven’t seen done before. It’s not something I’d put someone through, but I don’t have this kind of relationship. The device always works even when some of the pieces don’t, and the fact that this exists at all is a testament to stories that need to be told even when they’re really difficult to tell.

Is it better than the last movie we looked at? What would Howard Hawks have said? Hey, man, here’s a documentary from a year that starts with a 2 where a woman films her dad fake dying six times, what do you think? I will spend more of my limited time above ground thinking about the documentary than I will the story of a paleontologist being flustered into falling in love. It’s not really fair to Bringing Up Baby, but I do think this is a better movie.

Is it the best movie of all time? I want everyone in my life to watch this. I want people to talk about it and to hear what people think. I think this is one of those movies you can’t really “like” or “dislike,” you feel stronger than that in either direction. I rolled my eyes a little at some of the flashier fake sequences and I think some of that gets away from the story that really hooked me, so I am still going to stick with Badlands, but I really would be doing you a disservice if I ended this any other way than a demand that you give this an hour and a half. It’s grim, sure, but it’s not what you’re expecting.

You can watch Dick Johnson Is Dead on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.

An Obama Campaign Worker Watched the Documentary Mitt. Should You See it?

abcmitt

Alex Marino

In our rarely-running kinda-series Should You See It? we talk about movies that just came out. You can figure out the rest of the premise from the title of the series. That’s right: we talk recipes. Should you see the new doc about Mitt Romney?

Given that all my other pieces here are about yelling at kids to get off my lawn, I could understand the belief that I spend my days sitting on a porch in a lawn chair being grumpy at the world.  But before all that I worked for the Obama campaign doing data work in North Carolina for all of 2012. It was exhausting and exciting and unhealthy and incredible all at the same time. Like so many of my colleagues, once everything was over and I actually had an ounce of free time I decided to occupy it with reading as much as I could about the election. I’ve read almost every book that’s been written about the campaign. Hell I was reading short e-books about the campaign during the campaign. It was always interesting to see what journalists got right (that we used data incredibly well) and what they were completely clueless about (how we used that data). I had read so much that by the time the highly-anticipated sequel to Game Change called Double Down came out there really wasn’t a whole lot of never-before-seen content. I finished it craving an account that actually understood what we did or at least brought a fresh perspective to the race. But I never thought that a documentary about the guy I worked to beat would be that account.

Mitt isn’t about the inside politics of a national campaign. It’s not about the internal struggles or the war room drama. You don’t see Paul Ryan until 70 minutes in. You don’t see the campaign manager until 80 minutes in. It’s the story of a man and his family on the campaign trail since 2007.

When you work on a political campaign it’s easy to lose perspective on how you view your opponent. For so long I held this belief that Romney was completely out of touch with working-class Americans. And while Mitt didn’t show any evidence that directly refutes that belief, there was a really touching scene where he talks about his father, former Governor of Michigan and candidate for president George Romney. He was showing the notes he took while on stage at the first debate. At the top of the first sheet was “DAD”.  He went on to explain:

“I always think about dad and about [how] I’m standing on his shoulders… There’s no way I’d be running for president if dad hadn’t done what dad did. He’s the real deal. The guy was born in Mexico. He didn’t have a college degree. He became the head of a car company and became a governor. It would have never entered my mind to be in politics.  How can you go from his beginnings to think ‘I could be head of a car company. I can run for governor. I can run for president.’ That gap. For me, I started where he ended up. I started off with money and education and Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School. For me, it’s moving that far. (moves his hands, palms facing each other, slightly apart) For him it was like that. (moves hands considerably apart)

Even after the first debate I felt so confident that Obama was going to win that I couldn’t imagine the conversations going on at Romney HQ. I thought they had to be living in some strange bubble where only good news gets passed along. But after the first and second debates it was Romney who was even-handed. He knew he did well in the first debate and he knew he didn’t do as well in the second. This was in the face of his family being excessively supportive (as they should be). Even on election night as everyone else is trying to find ways to hold on to the belief that he can win, Mitt is well aware that it’s over and seems remarkably relaxed.

I remember feeling so strongly that Mitt was this out of touch rich guy.  His life consisted of car elevators and dressage horses! I never once thought that those things helped make his wife’s life a little easier as she dealt with multiple sclerosis. And while those things may seem excessive, if you were as rich as the Romneys wouldn’t you do everything in your power to make coping with a disease like MS easier?

But while Mitt did such a better job than the campaign in making the candidate seem human, there were many puzzling things the film revealed how informed Romney was about the state of the race. In the last few weeks of the race he saw huge crowds everywhere he went. I understand how he could feel like things were on an upswing. But a look at the numbers would have quickly brought him back down to Earth. During election night Ann mentioned that they were hoping to win Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Polling just before election day never showed any of those states as even being close. The fact that the candidate and his wife weren’t aware of their path to victory is baffling to me. They got most of their return information from external news sources rather than their internal analytics team. But was he actually not briefed on these things or did the documentary just not show any of that?

The scene that hit me the most took place the day after election day at Romney HQ in Boston. After he and his campaign manager each spoke, you saw the tears of sadness streaming down the faces of his staff. Most people don’t understand what’s in those tears.  For so many of us this race meant moving across the country, barely seeing friends and family, putting off school for a year, relationships collapsing under the stress of the campaign, 3:30 a.m. wake up times, 10:00 p.m. checkout calls, 11:00 p.m. dinners, and more takeout than you can imagine. It was our entire life and to not have it all end with a victory is nothing short of devastating. I was lucky to be on the winning side that was filled with tears of happiness on election night.  I can’t imagine how I would have felt had the results been different.

Should You See It? If you have Netflix make sure to watch Mitt. If you don’t have Netflix what the fuck is wrong with you; are you 90? Because while it’s easy to get caught up in the passions of a long political campaign and view your opponents as enemy robots seeking to destroy your entire existence, it’s healthy to remember they’re people too, from the field intern all the way up to the candidate.

Image source: ABC