Last month, Netflix released Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson’s documentary that allegedly covers her father’s dementia. It starts with the title Dick pushing his grandchildren on a swing in a barn. It brought back memories of my own grandpa taking me to the swings in the park and pushing me back and forth for longer than most other adults would tolerate. Dick Johnson looks old but lively. His movements are just as limited as his facial expressions are temperamental. The documentary continues to piece together contradictions; Absurdity and worldliness sit side by side, joy is interwoven with sadness.
It’s one of several films this year that have taken an inventive approach to characterizing dementia on screen. The Australian film Relic takes up the horror genre and can face the most terrible aspects of dementia. Edna (Robyn Nevin), an old woman who lives alone in a derelict house in rural Australia, is visited by her daughter Kay (Emily Mortimer) and granddaughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) after she was reported missing. Edna shows signs of absent-mindedness and behavioral changes that suggest dementia, although the way she lives is never stated.
The author and director Natalie Erika James uses the mold motif to externalize the overarching effects of dementia and thus make them visible. When we project those slow-blooming spores over the walls and then over Edna’s skin, we cannot ignore the feeling of putrefaction and decay. Edna’s behavior is also becoming increasingly volatile, and James gives space to examine these changes as well as her memory loss. “There are disturbing and eerie moments that can happen to people with dementia,” James told the Guardian, saying that her grandmother was convinced that someone lived in her closet.
Radiating out the more hallucinatory aspects of the disease feels both insightful and useful. Some dementias have an important “motor component,” where hallucinations are very common, says Martin Rosser, professor of clinical neurology at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery and National Director of Dementia Research at the National Institute for Health Research. As dementia progresses, people lose their language and ability to understand their visual environment and, in some cases, their empathy and judgment.
For our own empathy, a cinema is essential that not only focuses on the perspective of a person with dementia, but also allows us to immerse ourselves in it. At one point, during Relic’s most gruesome sequence, Edna and Kay get trapped in the walls of the house when it appears to turn into a never-ending maze. The house becomes an allegory for Edna’s wandering spirit. James remembers getting the idea after a man with Alzheimer’s described the creepiness of getting lost in your own home.
Presentations of dementia have so far been characterized by a feeling of extraordinaryness. The tragedy of a deteriorating mind is so great because that mind is “first class,” as was said in Richard Eyres’ biography of Iris Murdoch. Alice Howland in Still Alice (2014) is a renowned linguistics professor who is described by her husband as “the most beautiful and intelligent woman I have known in my life”. The fact that she can no longer articulate herself is considered a major loss due to her academic ability. However, dementia is an increasingly common disease, and dementia is no less sad if it hasn’t been published or publicly praised. Loss is loss.
Equally pernicious is Still Alice’s focus on diagnosing early-onset Alzheimer’s disease, which manages to avoid the disease’s uglier symptoms. Alice’s dignity comes at the expense of clarity about the devastation that might lie ahead. The same applies to this year’s Supernova. Stanley Tucci and Colin Firth play Tusker and Sam, a couple who embark on a scenic but gloomy road trip through northern England. one “last hurray” before Tuskers dementia arrives.
There is something noble in Supernova’s intentions. Tusker is afraid of “becoming a passenger” in his own life because dementia is unpredictable. Supernova thus becomes an attempt to regain control of a narrative impaled by loss, and Tusker becomes a man determined to deflate his own balloon on his own terms. By giving Tusker this dignity, the film is strangely cleaned up. It’s almost romantic when Sam Tusker gives a passionate speech about his duty of care – “I was brought to earth for you.” As the couple drives through the idyllic landscape – all the rolling hills and shimmering lakes – it’s hard not to be supernova To see dementia evoked with immense class.
It is important to expose the uglier elements of dementia. We have to see the worst of the disease to know what to expect. And like in Relic, our hug to someone who is most impaired is somehow more hopeful.
Florian Zeller’s The Father, a large-format adaptation of his piece that is due to appear early next year, offers a similar exercise for total immersion. Anthony Hopkins plays Anthony, an 82-year-old dementia patient whose daughter Ann (Olivia Colman) is fighting over how best to take care of him. She is about to move to Paris and employs a caregiver named Laura (Imogen Poots) to help. These plot points, along with Anthony’s fixation on losing his watch, are repeated throughout the film. Scenes repeat, repeat, and jump from different perspectives so you’re never quite sure where you are on the timeline. It viscerally restores the experience of having the same conversation over and over again.
Even more destabilizing than that is the ingenious step of casting different actors in order to embody the different characters at different points. Rufus Sewell and Mark Gatiss appear as versions of Ann’s husband. This, combined with the awkwardness of events, skilfully and poignantly mimics Anthony’s loss of control over his reality. We’re just as confused as he is. The elliptical structure of the film also helps us observe Anthony’s deterioration and thus see the complexities of dementia in a new light. Anthony can be charming, quick-witted, and condescending. He can outsmart someone in a conversation but then fail to figure out how to put on a sweater. As he regresses to an almost childlike state of vulnerability towards the end, I had to remember my own mother who diligently cared for her father during his decline, as he had done for her when she didn’t know any better.
One stigma that persists in our thinking about dementia is a level of inevitability. Rosser believes that this is one of the greatest obstacles that remains to be overcome. “If someone developed heart failure or arthritis later in life, they wouldn’t be very happy with the idea that ‘well, that’s just part of getting older’. There is a tendency to ignore impaired brain function as an inevitable part of aging and that there is nothing to be done. ”
Tackling this stereotype of inevitability head on is Johnson’s surprising and surreal performance in the nonfiction book Dick Johnson Is Dead. Johnson stages brutal scenarios in which her father could suddenly drop dead. In the first of these, an air conditioner races from an apartment upstairs to knock a smiling and ignorant Dick to the floor. It is terrible. What makes the documentary so brilliant is to combine death and dementia in a way that isn’t as morbid as it sounds but gives rise to some kind of celebration – like during a fantasy dance sequence with confetti, glitter, and a radiant one Tail johnson.
We are born and therefore we will die. But for the most part, this knowledge doesn’t hinder our joie de vivre. Perhaps the scariest part of films like Still Alice or Supernova, where characters ponder suicide, is the suggestion that life with dementia is not worth living. However, there are approaches that can alleviate symptoms and improve the quality of life to which a person with dementia has access.
What Johnson’s film suggests, or at least what I took away from him, is that dementia should warrant the same response. Just because dementia is felt to be inevitable doesn’t mean a slow and excruciating erosion of the self does not mean that life cannot still be enjoyed. There are birthday candles to blow out, wishes to bake, cakes to devour. “I love life too much for that,” says Dick when the subject of euthanasia comes up.
Dementia is often framed by the lens of the disease, which can be harmful in that we seek a cure or treatment. Linda Clare, professor of clinical psychology of aging and dementia at Exeter University, suggests viewing dementia as a disability. In the event of an acquired brain injury, the patient would enter a period of rehabilitation to regain the skills lost in the accident and be equipped with various strategies to enable them to deal with it. Clare believes dementia could be supported in the same way.
Dick Johnson Is Dead has a spirit of defiance. “What loving demands are is that we face the fear of losing one another. When things get chaotic, we hold on, ”explains Kirsten in the final moments of the film. The fact that many of these films end in a hug speaks for how they capture and combat dementia like never before.
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