Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging, and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2010's Kevorkian directed by Matthew Galkin.
Elkin: To be able to die with dignity on our own terms is one of those Pandora Box type issues that cleaves into the core of all our fears, misunderstandings, cultural abstractions, and religious hoo-doo surrounding death itself, which, in reality, is really a comment upon our very conceptions of the value of life. People get all uncomfortable concerning questions of dying as it speaks to the unknown, as well as the precious clinging we do to and the inherent vanity associated with our own existence.
But there are times when life is no longer to be cherished, but rather endured. There is grinding and debilitating pain. There is the slow degeneration into dementia. There comes a time for some when life no longer holds any chance of pleasure and they become a writhing burden on their love ones. For these people, death is a release.
As a Western society whose medical mandate is to heal and whose basic religious foundation is ostensibly about cherishing existence, the option of taking one's own life is a sticky wicket. Our medical establishment profits from prolonging life, our religious pundits proclaim from the pulpit the sin of suicide. It ties our decisions about these matters in all sorts of emotional knots and leaves us knee-jerking and saliva-slinging as we throw our politics and doctrines in the face of the suffering.
Clouded from Alzheimer's dementia, my 95-year-old grandmother has brief moments of clarity in which she asks me, “Why can't I die?”
And I really have no answers for her.
In the 1990's, though, there came a man who confronted this question head on. A true Renaissance man, painter, musician, author, inventor, researcher, and doctor, Jack Kevorkian began a seemingly one man assault on our questions about end-of-life decisions and participated in at least 130 assisted suicides with people for whom continued life meant only pain or assured degeneration. “Dr. Death,” as he came to be known, almost single-handedly brought the issue of physician-assisted suicide into the national debate, and, for this, as well as his own hubris (which I am sure we will talk more about later), he paid a price: enduring political and religious attacks, being characterized as a “ghoul” and suffering through an eight-and-a-half year stint in prison.
Matthew Galkin's documentary, Kevorkian, does an excellent job of unearthing the man behind the mythos, revealing a complicated individual who defies easy labeling. Using Kevorkian's unsuccessful 2008 campaign for Congress as a framing device, the film uses all the documentarian's skills to try to get to the soul of Kevorkian and, by doing so, allows for commentary on the issue for which he is most closely associated.
The film pulls no punches. Kevorkian is presented warts and all in an attempt to understand. There are just as many moments that evoke sympathy as there are moments that evoke revulsion, and it shows that there are no easy answers when you are dealing with the complexity of what makes a man.
Sacks: Elkin, I think you absolutely nailed what makes Kevorkian such a terrific documentary and what makes Jack Kevorkian such a fascinating man. He was a man of tremendous complexity and often piercing contradictions – a man with deep intellectual insights and curiosity that sometimes manifested itself in pure arrogance; a man with deep sympathy for the patients he treated that manifested itself as his helping them die; a man with a love for humanity but a lack of close family; a man with an extremely wide range of interests that did nothing to cause his name to virtually become a verb.
Brilliant, complex, quixotic, arrogant, dismissive and passionate, Jack Kevorkian was truly one of a kind.
I have to admit that I was kind of dreading watching this documentary when we chose it for this week's Convenient Truths column. How could anything be grimmer or more saddening than the death of a precious human being of a disease that sucked their very life from them while leaving them trapped in their body? I was concerned that Kevorkian would force me to confront these issues in ways that I didn't necessarily want to; I was concerned that this film would be more polemic than poetic.
But Galkin does a masterful job of walking that line, of forcing us all to confront our own opinions about the issues of assisted suicide while also forcing us to think about issues that we never really expected to ponder – issues such as the role of the 9th Amendment in society, or the way that we treat our sometimes eccentric family members as they reach late life, or the way that we ostracize the brilliantly strange men like Jack Kevorkian who ironically bring so much life and color to human society as they force us to confront the darker corners of our lives.
For me, the most intriguing aspect of this film wasn't how Kevorkian deals with the issue of assisted suicide and its impact on our society. What I found interesting was the way that Kevorkian intentionally martyred himself to his cause, the systematic and specific way that the Doctor specifically and rather arrogantly tried to get his agenda in front of the Supreme Court by forcing himself to get arrested. It was frankly surprising to see a man of his intelligence and experiences choose to intentionally cause himself to essentially risk his own life to support the cause he believed in.
Is that proof that even the smartest men can sometimes make the most foolish choices? Does Kevorkian's sacrifice make him a hero or a martyr or a fool? Was Jack Kevorkian too arrogant, did he lack too much insight into his life and influence, to accurately judge the impact of his actions?
And if any of us were in Kevorkian's position, would we do anything different?
You're so right, Elkin. There are no easy answers in this provocative film.
Elkin: You know Sacks, thinking about Dr. Kevorkian makes me think about another doctor we looked at in a recent Convenient Truths column, Dr. Bronner, he of the soap. Both Kevorkian and Bronner came from a background clouded by genocide. For Bronner it was the atrocities of the Holocaust, while Kevorkian's family escaped the horror of the Turkish slaughter of the Armenians. Both of these events seemed to have some sort of lasting and formative impression upon these men, spurred them to success, and interfered with their ability to form lasting relationships. While Bronner all but abandoned his family, Kevorkian never settled down, for which he seems to feel genuine regret.
Both men were driven by what they felt were fundamental issues of self-determination. Both men felt they were on a mission to better man
kind, Bronner with his ALL ONE! religious ranting, Kevorkian with his end-of-life championing.
Both men also seemed to be colossal assholes.
Kevorkian positioned himself more as a martyr, though, as you point out Sacks. It seems that, unfortunately though, his quest for martyrdom ended much of whatever credibility he had garnered through the years. Kevorkian was right in thinking that ultimately physician-assisted suicide needs to be dealt with in a national debate and our country deserves a constitutional consideration on this matter.
This is the ultimate self-determination we are talking about. It asks the fundamental question, “Do mentally competent adults have the right to make decisions about their own life?” The film kind of positions this debate as one between the forces of emotions and the forces of reason, although it is certainly more complicated than that. It was the manner in which Kevorkian went about trying to force the Supreme Court to weigh in, though, that exposed the flaws in the man.
And this is where the documentary really excels. The film allows Kevorkian to expose himself further and further with each subsequent scene. At times sympathetic, at other times repulsive, at times avuncular, at other times ghoulish, Kevorkian is his own worst enemy. But this is the nature of the individual who takes an absolute position. The revolutionary is always the pioneer. They endure the suffering and the misunderstanding; they are the ones whose backs are broken to make the way for the settlers, those who come later who build on the work of those who have laid the foundations.
So are we further along in our development of a national understanding of the issue that Kevorkian championed, throwing his body over and over again before the oncoming train of ignorance, fear and superstition (a train that runs hard, fast, and is festooned with the sharpest of steel cattle catchers on its front)?
In some ways yes, while in other ways no.
This film tries to explain how Kevorkian is in many ways responsible for both of these things being true, and, by doing so, says quite a bit about our culture. By commenting on our culture in this manner, Kevorkian says even more about the human condition. This is why I think this is one of the better documentaries we've seen recently, Sacks.
There are no easy answers here, but the questions it asks are ones that we should each be asking ourselves every time we think we understand anything.
Sacks: And what do we understand less than the human soul? People are complicated, often self-contradictory creatures, full of complexity and, sometimes, conflicting interests and impulses. Our minds are capable of doublethink and cognitive dissonance. We battle opposing emotional and intellectual forces all the time. But sometimes a clear-thinker, a visionary of sorts, appears in the media and seems to point the way towards clarity. And sometimes that clear-thinker takes a risk that's an over-reach, a moment of all-too-human hubris that represents an overwhelming sense of pride.
As the Bible reminds us, "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."
There are so many ironies in Dr. Jack Kevorkian's story, as this terrific documentary so intelligently reminds us: a brilliant man who was brought down by his own ego; a man whose acts of great personal mercy helped bring a kind of devastation down onto the man performing the mercy; a man of great intellectual and emotional complexity who was reduced to a virtual caricature of himself; and, perhaps worst of all, the revolution for which that man advocated is no longer even remotely on the national agenda in our country.
For all the buzz that the topic of assisted suicide gained in this country during Kerkorkian's life, it has not been part of the national conversation for years. Only two states have legalized the practice (both in my very liberal region of the country), and there is very little conversation on the national stage about laws around this sort of end-of-life care. The United States, with its short attention span and strange lack of empathy for people that we don't know, has moved on to conversations about Obamacare and same-sex marriage, the federal deficit and the latest Dancing with the Stars. I'd venture to guess that if you asked any ten people on the street about him, maybe half would remember Dr. Kevorkian and even fewer would remember the policies for which he essentially sacrificed his life. And nobody would remember Dr. Kervorkian's unorthodox embrace of the 9th Amendment to the Constitution as a lynchpin for personal freedom in America.
Do these issues with his legacy make Dr. Kervorkian's life a failure on some level or in some way nullify the decisions that Dr. Kervorkian made to follow his life's passion and advocate for a policy that has unfortunately not been part of the public eye without him being out front for the cause? Is it only worth being a martyr to your cause if you succeed in your cause?
This film makes the point very strongly that Kevorkian was not a failure. He was truly a success in his life. Jack Kevorkian was a man who aspired to do something great and important, and during his lifetime gave great peace and closure to many families that were living with horrific illnesses to beloved family members. Dr. Kervorkian also did many, many other things in his life that gave him and his community happiness – with his painting, with his public speaking engagements, with all the lives that he touched in his many years in life.
People are complex. As Whitman wrote
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Jack Kevorkian absolutely contained multitudes. He was an immensely complex man: flawed and sometimes self-contradictory, irascible and caring, quixotic and oddly realistic. I really enjoyed how this documentary revealed the man in all his complexity, warts and all. If only all documentaries were this revealing about their subjects.
Elkin: It was your turn to quote Whitman, Sacks. I think that pretty much says it all.
Trailer for the film:
Daniel Elkin wants you all to know that he has signed an Advanced Directive and is fond of all kinds of sandwiches. He talks about these sorts of things on Twitter (@DanielElkin) and shows you what he is talking about at Your Chicken Enemy