Sunday, May 22, 2011

On HBO, a most important documentary by Peter Richardson, HOW TO DIE IN OREGON


TrustMovies is not going to bet the farm on whether Peter Richardson's thoughtful and moving documentary HOW TO DIE IN OREGON will be the "best" of the year -- artistically and awards-wise, that is -- but he will go on record as saying that there is unlikely to be a more important film than this one. So, what's the deal about dying, and why in Oregon? Because, back in 1994, that state became the first in the U.S. to make legal the practice of a physician bringing aid-in-dying to the terminally ill and those in unbearable pain. At that time only Switzerland and the Netherlands offered this kind of help. Since then other countries have joined in, as have our own states of Washington and Montana.

The winner of the Grand Jury Prize for Documentaries at this year's Sundance Film Festival, the film begins with a death -- but is otherwise remarkably full of life (even from those whose death is imminent). As the film begins, we see an old man (shown below), of whom we know nothing more than he seems to be about to drink a potion that will result in his death. Surrounded by friends, family, and his doctor, he is asked if he fully understands what he is about to do. He does, and he says so. Goodbyes are bid, he drinks, and as he slips into a coma, he sings a few strains of "Old Black Joe." Though we hardly know him, this scene is quietly staggering, and I think the only misstep of director Richardson (shown above) is that the very next song on the soundtrack, almost immediately after, sounds unbearably "kitchy" and uselessly sentimental, given what we've just seen and heard.

From here we meet a volunteer from Compassion & Choices, a group dedicated to improving care and expanding choice at the end of life, and through her we meet other dying patients determined to make their exit a more humane and comfortable one.

These include Gordon, above, a man who watched as both his parents suffered for years before dying, and who each told their son,  "I just want out."   At that time, Gordon tells us, "I couldn't figure why they would say that, but now I understand." At age 86, he is himself dying and plans on using physician-assisted aid.

Initially I imagined we would come back again to that first death we viewed, spending time with and getting to know the patient involved.  But, no. Instead we begin to focus on a relatively young woman, Cody Curtis -- shown below, in her early 50s and diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. We also follow the Washington State campaign to pass Initiaitve 1000 and meet Nancy Niedzielski (shown center, above), a feisty woman whose husband Randy (shown healthy at left, and not so at right) died a horrible, painful death because, being a legal resident of Washington rather than Oregon, he was not able to obtain aid in dying. Nancy dedicates her life to getting  her state aboard the aid-in-dying platform, and we viewers follow along hopefully.

More and more, however, we spend our time with Cody and her family, as things seems to get better, then worse -- easier, then more difficult. For those who claim that people who want to end their own life are somehow deluded or not in their right mind, "Pain, too, takes away your ability to make decisions," notes Cody, who proves to be the ballast and the heart of this fine movie. Toward the end, we watch her having trouble simply opening the refrigerator door. On her difficult relationship with her own mother, still alive, she notes, "Just because you're gonna die doesn't mean you solved everything in your life."  Cody can't breath easily, but there she is, helping her son bake Christmas cookies. Finally, sense of humor intact, she gives us one hilarious, heartbreaking comment about husbands and checkbooks.

I'll remember this beautiful, warm woman until movies no longer matter. This one does. I should think seeing it will do wonders for our population's understanding of the idea of death with dignity, compassion at the end, and allowing humanity the option of choice when it comes to how and when we leave this world behind.

How To Die in Oregon, 107 minutes, debuts this Thursday, May 26, on HBO at 3:50am and  8pm.  Other playdates: Sunday, May 29, at 11am; Saturday, June 4, at 10:15am; Tuesday, June 7, at 12 am and 2:30 pm; and Monday, June 13, at 10am.  On HBO2, see it Tuesday, May 31 at 10am; Wednesday, June 1, at 8pm and Tuesday, June 14, at noon.

2 comments:

Karen said...

You should submit your film to the Life and Death Matters festival - of film, theatre and educational programming - Boul;der, CO Sep 1-4 www.ladmatters.com and check out the facebook page too.

James van Maanen, said...

Thanks for your comment Karen. I'm not sure how submissions to film festivals are handled, now that the film is to be shown on HBO. But I will try to see that Mr. Richardson gets word of this LAD fest -- which sounds like a perfect venue....