Thursday, December 24, 2020

Dick Johnson Is Dead


Director Kirsten Johnson

DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD         B                                                                                              USA  (89 mi)  2020  d:  Kirsten Johnson

Because I could not stop for Death,                                                                                                He kindly stopped for me.

The Chariot, by Emily Dickinson from Poems: Series 1, 1890

In the spirit of Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015), yet defiantly different, sometimes film crosses the line into bad taste, and many may find this film overly indulgent, a kind of home movie that takes plenty of wrong turns, all designed to familiarize viewers with the idea of death before it happens.  Documentarian Kirsten Johnson, maker of Cameraperson (2016), lost her mother to Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, where dementia plagued the last few years of her life, unable to recognize her own family members.  Unfortunately, the same fate awaits her 86-year old father, Dick Johnson, a successful psychiatrist working in Seattle, developing concerning memory symptoms, where it’s only a matter of time before dementia kicks in as well.  Sensing the inevitable, she asks her father if he wouldn’t mind filming that last years of his life, using several pranks to create death scenarios before they happen, allowing her father to participate in his own death while he can still remember, where there’s a rather ghoulish parade of deaths reminiscent of Hal Ashby’s HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), but it’s all make believe, with the filmmaker killing off her father in multiple scenarios, but he’s always brought back to life, usually celebrating with a delicious piece of chocolate cake, as the man has a thing for chocolate, even though his most unpleasant memory was a heart attack brought on by over-indulging after eating an entire chocolate layer cake.  Many involve violent accidents and the use of stunt men, such as getting hit by a falling air-conditioner, falling down a flight of stairs, or being struck in the neck by a wooden board near a construction site and bleeding out, but none are more elaborate than simulating his own funeral at his lifelong 7th Day Adventist church, surrounded by friends and parishioners, with an immobile body double in an open casket, hearing the tributes and tearful farewells, and then walking down the aisle saluting all who came to celebrate his life.  While poignant and moving, it’s also a bit much, where at least one member, his best friend Ray, is having a hard time playing along, lost in a death spell, perhaps unable to separate fiction from reality.  In addition to mock deaths, there are also highly stylized heavenly creations, like recreating a surrealist Last Supper in the company of friends one might choose from history, like Frederick Douglass, Sigmund Freud, Buster Keaton, Frida Kahlo, and Bruce Lee, meeting in a personal setting, creating an everlasting memory while he’s still alive.  While these are meant to be light-hearted tributes, engaging in a bit of sardonic fun, the exaggerated garish artifice may also be off-putting for some, as they’re sensationalizing death, poking fun at it while you’re still alive, which can be challenging, to say the least.  While much of this is meant to be therapeutic, but nothing hides the encompassing fear of losing one’s memory, and with it all identification of one’s self.  The agonizing process of watching someone you love slowly disappear before your eyes is utterly devastating.

Winner of a Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling at Sundance in the Documentary Competition, one thing is certain.  Dick Johnson is a pleasant soul who cares deeply for his patients and his family, always willing to lend a helping hand, where he’s simply a nice guy, extremely sympathetic before the camera, but it’s also clear he’s being used by the camera, like when we see him left alone on a street corner of a busy street, huddled against a street lamp, complaining he’s cold and wet from the fake blood, where at times it seems his daughter has taken things a bit too far.  Over time, he seems more lost and distant, completely aloof, where he’s used to sleeping more.  Among the hardest adjustments was moving him from his Seattle home to his daughter’s one bedroom apartment in New York City, which happens to be adjacent to an apartment with her two kids and their two fathers (filmmaker Ira Sachs and his husband painter Boris Torres).  This little arrangement is much tougher than it seems, and it takes a toll on her father, as his beautiful home offered peace and serenity.  Selling his car is equally heartbreaking, knowing he may never drive again.  Giving these things up to be with her is a major sacrifice, as it removes the tranquil meditative aspects of his life, replaced by the jarring noise of a big city where traffic and new construction is a constant.  We never really see him in a bed, as he spends all his time on a living room couch or sitting on his favorite recliner.  It’s clear he’s completely dependent on his daughter for food and shelter, having given up anything that resembles his own life, now in a completely unfamiliar environment.  While he constantly says the right thing, saying he would never trade these precious moments with family, clearly it also weighs on him, as there’s literally nothing for him to do, bogged down by guilt, where the last thing his wants is to feel like he’s a burden, but that’s exactly what he’s become, as he’s sacrificed his independence.  This change of scenery is exactly what happens to so many families when a parent ages, and it’s never easy, as the role of the parent completely reverses, no longer the authoritative force they once were, now completely reliant upon their children, eventually requiring full-time care.  We meet a nurse who’s been brought in to assist, where among her credentials is the fact she’s accompanied nearly a dozen others to their deaths, developing a uniquely intimate experience with the families, a no-nonsense caregiver who’s been brought in to do much of the dirty work the family is unable to provide, still working, kids going to school, leading active and productive lives, which includes travel to various places around the world, leaving him alone where he has to make the best of it.

Despite all the attempts to celebrate his life with phantasmagoric production numbers, each more wildly decorative and absurdly ridiculous, the most haunting aspect of the film is just how far removed and separated her father becomes from his own life, having left it all behind in Seattle, now subject to more doctor visits and memory tests, where he’s treated more like a patient than a human being capable of deciding things for himself.  That aspect of his life is simply gone, with very little spoken about it, with viewers obviously pained by his decreasing mobility and independence, as he really can’t share in the events of his family’s life.  When she takes her kids trick or treating for Halloween, she leaves her father in the home of a friend watching TV, a place he’s unfamiliar with and doesn’t recognize.  This turns into a Halloween sketch that’s scarier than it looks, as we realize the extreme degree of fright this causes him, as he has no recourse but to wait to be rescued, lost and alone in a no man’s land, like a place of purgatory before he dies, as he views it as a waiting place.  In one room he sees his future if he were placed in a home, like his wife, where nothing is recognizable, all left to the soothing sounds of elevator music that has no distinct meaning, but may instead reflect the loss of all meaning.  In another he sees the ghost of his dead wife, wearing a recognizable photograph for a face, while he has his own photograph for a face, and the two are animated bodies happily dancing, but her body becomes a contortionist, able to move in ways that aren’t possible, becoming more and more inhumane, losing all contact with reality.  Stuck in this strange house with these strange and mysterious rooms, he’s simply afraid, lost in the unknown, not really knowing what to do, shivering in fear.  When they finally come and rescue him, it’s as if he’s been transformed into a different identity, no longer recognizable to himself.  With his daughter narrating much of the film in a purely objective manner, there’s some question how much of this is sinking in with her, as she remains largely offscreen, a distant presence.  While this is an exercise of love, pure and unconditional, it also takes us into the sunken places hidden away that few are capable of ever recovering from, as we’re literally knocking on death’s door from the outset.  The film includes heartbreaking footage of her mother, made sometime after her initial diagnosis, already having difficulty with speech, or remembering those around her, including her own daughter.  The feeling may best be described by the beliefs of the 7th Day Adventist church, where the souls of the chosen are waiting for the return of Christ to be elevated and ascended into Heaven for eternity, but the unasked question is what about the ones not chosen who are left behind?  What kind of loneliness must they endure?  It feels indescribable and eerily unimaginable, to be separated from loved ones for all of eternity.          

Wednesday, December 16, 2020



Gary Oldman and Herman J. Mankiewicz  
Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, 1941


Orson Welles on the set of Citizen Kane, 1941

MANK                        C                                                                                                                USA  (131 mi)  2020  ‘Scope  d:  David Fincher

This is a business where the buyer gets nothing for his money but a memory.  What he bought still belongs to the man who sold it.  That’s the real magic of the movies.                                     —Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard), co-founder of MGM

Among the most cynically cold films in the Fincher repertoire, making this dead on arrival, despite the interest in reviving unchartered territory, as there is literally no one in the entire picture worth caring about, becoming a glamorized caricature of what might have happened behind the scenes when movie moguls were changing the face of the industry, creating highly appealing spectacles of entertainment that eventually became part of the mainstream culture.  Despite the Hollywood implications, this is a wretchedly sad story about legendary screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz (Gary Oldman), older brother of Joseph L. Mankiewicz who wrote and directed the scathing account of Hollywood backstabbing in ALL ABOUT EVE (1950), revealing how alcoholism consumes a person and his entire career before eventually claiming his life, left with nothing but feeble notions, hallucinations, and delirious tremors that leave you a shattered figure of your former self.  While this hints at the truth behind the writing of CITIZEN KANE (1941), that becomes a mere afterthought in this film, as the man who would be king is king for a day, winning an Academy Award for screenwriting (shared with Orson Welles) before the industry turns its wicked wrath upon him and spits him out as yesterday’s news.  Among the more pitiful pictures in recent memory, a portrait of a sad and forlorn figure who is even sadder than the behemoth giant portrayed in the movie, the larger-than-life portrayal of Charles Foster Kane as William Randolph Hearst, influential newspaper publisher and media mogul.  Written by the director’s father Jack Fincher, a journalist who died in 2003,  (Mank (2020) - Transcript - Scraps from the loft), showing scant affection for Welles, as if still holding a grudge, becoming a poison pen letter to a corrupt Hollywood of the 30’s, a cesspool run by over-privileged business tycoons who cared only about lining their own pockets, where this film is seen as a feeble attempt to fight back against the powers that be, yet indulges in the miserably self-absorbed, continually glorifying the artifice, wallowing in its own pathetic cloud of inebriation, blind to the horrors of the Depression, instead providing a hollow yet glamorized view of the millionaire movie moguls that controlled the industry.  With the hyperliterate Mankiewicz a towering figure walking among them, engaging in witty repartee, known for his biting sarcasm and free-spirited love of drink and gab, even Hearst enjoyed his dazzling conversation, so he fits right into an industry overflowing with magisterial self-indulgence and wealth, pampered by all the pleasures money can bring.  When we see him holed up in the middle of the Mojave desert with a nurse and secretary recovering from injuries suffered in an automobile accident (his leg broken in three places), including provisions (alcohol laced with Seconal) fit for an army regiment, he’s essentially given 60 days to produce a screenplay for the first film of new Hollywood wunderkind Orson Welles, all under the supervision of John Houseman (Sam Troughton), with Mankiewicz dictating to his secretary Rita Alexander (Lily Collins) who then types up the manuscript.  While it’s slow going at first, as he’s not easy to warm up to, continually plying himself with alcohol, subject to blackouts, he quickly makes progress on what is easily the greatest thing he’s ever written, a sprawling epic work that examines the life of an American newspaper tycoon who becomes one of the richest and most influential men in America, yet behind the scenes is a different story, a punishing portrait of a wrenchingly lonely and isolated man, never seemingly satisfied with all his wealth and riches, told with flashbacks, becoming a collection of fragments compressed by time and space, and from multiple points of view, where the daring visual design is all Welles. According to Mankiewicz, “You cannot capture a man’s entire life in two hours, you can only hope to leave the impression of one.”

The script is subject to historical Hollywood controversy where there are questions of authorship, with film critic Pauline Kael writing a legendary New Yorker essay in 1971 entitled Raising Kane where she attributes Mankiewicz as the sole and exclusive author, suggesting Welles’ grandiose claim of co-authorship is a power play on his part, actively plotting to deprive him of any screen credit, contributing little, if any, to the actual writing.  Rebuffing Kael’s argument is longtime Welles friend and admirer Peter Bogdanovich, who published his own essay entitled The Kane Mutiny in a 1972 article for Esquire that point-by-point disputes Kael’s argument, suggesting her refusal to consult Welles lacked all principles of scholarship, resulting in egregious errors with blatant damage to his reputation.  With various other film critics chiming in, like Andrew Sarris, Jonathan Rosenbaum, and Joseph McBride, it appears relatively clear that Mankiewicz wrote the original draft by himself, yet signed a contract giving up any claim to credit, but then changed his mind, subject to various rewrites by Welles, who had complete freedom to make whatever he wanted, suggesting in the end it was a collaborative process, with both named as co-writers of the film.  For the most part, Fincher chose the version that gave the most credit to Mankiewicz and the least credit to Welles, who is barely onscreen and never seen writing a single word of the script.  After receiving a shared Oscar, Mankiewicz quipped, “I am very happy to accept this award in Mr. Welles’s absence because the script was written in Mr. Welles’s absence.”  Fincher’s film doesn’t go into any of those details, ignoring any backstory about how he was selected, fully absorbed in the writing of the original script, suggesting Mankiewicz was extremely proud of his work, but it got bogged down in lawsuits, which eventually affected not only the script but the commercial aspirations of the film, as it was effectively sabotaged at the box office by the movie moguls who at the time controlled what was shown in theaters, opening the door for Hollywood to undercut Welles’s ambition within the industry, targeted by the right-leaning Hearst organization, with the moguls viewing him with leftist contempt, destroying his ending to THE MAGNIFICENT ANDERSONS (1942) and reshooting a new ending, which officially ended any relationship Welles may have had with Hollywood, as he felt betrayed in every respect.  The Mankiewicz career trajectory was quite different, establishing his reputation in the 20’s and 30’s as a theater critic and Berlin war correspondent before becoming a script doctor in Hollywood, called upon to add spicy dialogue, offering splashes of humor, even helping shepherd in the new wave of German émigré’s fleeing the Nazi’s in Europe, including Fritz Lang in FURY (1936), helping him make the American transition to Hollywood by speaking fluent German.  His career ended by basically putting Welles on the map, but in doing so soured all his Hollywood connections, biting the hand that fed him, burning all his bridges in the industry, exemplified in a single bravura scene at the Hurst mansion, a costume dinner party at San Simeon where he shows up uninvited and completely plastered, a court jester standing up to power, going on a lengthy drunken outburst that is cringeworthy and will forever alienate him from anyone left in the business, but he does have the last word, unceremoniously vomiting at this ultra-lavish dinner party where he is eventually shown the door by the host.  If anything, Mankiewicz seems to have thrown his entire career away in continual episodes of bad taste, going on drinking binges where he performs the part of the buffoon, but in the end no one is laughing.

A pale comparison to Welles’ last film The Other Side of the Wind (2018), which is a behind-the-scenes look at some of the characters within the Welles theatrical troupe, exaggerated in all their pomp and glory, consumed by alcohol to the point of dysfunction, but Welles has so much more to offer than Fincher, whose film is strangulating in its own pretentiousness, creating an empty and meaningless experience.  Fincher tries to paint a portrait of Mank as a visionary, one that is hard to believe, as he was a man that seemingly admired both Hearst and Welles, and was just as much a maverick as Welles, with both rubbing elbows with the movie moguls, including Hearst (Charles Dance) along with his partner and muse, actress Marion Davies (Amanda Seyfried), where the wealth and richesse of Hollywood was their social class during the Depression, surrounding themselves in pretense and self-indulgence.  In fact KANE and MANK cohabit many of the same spaces, but no clips are shown in the film, instead Fincher searches for the origins of the inventive screenplay by replaying various episodes in the life of Mankiewicz, a Hollywood insider with access to fame and fortune, but a gambling impulse left him perpetually in debt, who likely sees things quite differently than the millionaire class of moguls.  When the banks closed during the Depression, Louis B. Mayer (Arliss Howard) tearfully asks his employees to take a temporary 50 percent pay cut, promising to make his workers whole when the banks reopen, but of course, no repayment ever occurred.  Mankiewicz refused to join the Screen Writers Guild, believing unions were for suckers, but in this case the workers were certainly duped out of their salaries.  Like KANE, much of this film is told in flashbacks, making multiple diversions, becoming bogged down in the trappings of the movie industry, shot digitally in black and white by Erik Messerschmidt, including multiple scenes in near darkness, where Mankiewicz breaks from the political crassness when the industry becomes a walking advertisement for political shenanigans, becoming a voice of liberal dissent in a room full of conservative Republicans, drawing a parallel between the glorious ideals of Upton Sinclair, a muckraking novelist and an outspoken socialist who the industry slays into submission through discrediting negative advertisements that play in theaters across the state when he ran for Governor of California promising to end poverty, turning him into the bogeyman, but his valiant idealism isn’t so far removed from Hearst himself as a young novice trying to have an influence in reshaping the world, or for that matter the brash new visionary upstart in Orson Welles.  Pity that Hearst had to use all his power to destroy young ambition in its tracks, where a shattered idealism becomes intertwined with his own unfulfilled ambitions, leaving a giant void in the heart of the empire, where his castle-like estate is a collection of museum-like art pieces collected from around the globe, but does any of it hold any real meaning?  What this film lacks is what pervades throughout KANE, a personal perspective, an inner drive, something to cut through the emotional coldness and deep cynicism of Mankiewicz, whose openly hostile remarks are contentiously sarcastic and absurdly flippant, but instead Oldman delivers a performance that never convinces, continually uttering glorified phrases that sound nothing like how people really talk, lacking warmth and any real personal connection to anyone, at one point exclaiming “every moment of my life is treacherous.”  In stark contrast, the ingenious script for KANE is legendary, originating in such a desolate place in the middle of nowhere, creating something akin to a revolutionary work.  For Mankiewicz, the confessional tone of the screenplay he wrote was his ultimate expiation.