Memoir and fantasy combine in the new documentary, Dick Johnson Is Dead
Veteran documentary cinematographer Kirsten Johnson made her solo feature directing debut in 2016 with Cameraperson. That film was an offbeat memoir, by way of video collage. Previously unused clips from numerous projects that Johnson shot were assembled in a way that told her own story alongside what the footage documented. It showed her relationship to her work, to her subjects, and to the act of making images.
One of the most striking threads of Cameraperson concerned the last days of Johnson’s mother, who was succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease in the mid-2000s. In the footage, Johnson’s mother looks distant and sometimes can’t even remember her daughter’s name. Later, Johnson shoots an image of a labeled box from the mortuary containing her mother’s ashes. The film’s editor leaves in the moments where Johnson fusses with her mother’s remains to get a better visual composition.
In some ways, Johnson’s newest documentary is a continuation of this story thread. Dick Johnson Is Dead is Johnson’s portrait of her octogenarian father, as he experiences his own decline due to dementia. Both the filmmaker and her father — the titular Dick Johnson — dread the pain, trauma, and eventual loss of life to come. So they decide to dramatize their anxieties by acting out various death scenes.
These are plausible but often grisly tableaux, in which Dick is hit in the head by an errant air conditioner, stabbed in the neck by a hunk of metal wielded by an inattentive construction worker, and unceremoniously done in by a random fall down some stairs. Johnson documents the production of these vignettes, including the casting of stuntmen to take the brunt of her dad’s imagined injuries.
In addition to these Grand Guignol setpieces, Johnson also envisions a stylized afterlife celebration for her father to enjoy. Johnson’s vision is a bright and happy, all-singing, all-dancing sort of heaven — a slo-mo mix of Busby Berkeley and Bollywood. This fantasy is conjured even though Dick is a Seventh-Day Adventist: a Christian denomination that doesn’t support the notions of heaven, dancing, or movies. On the other hand, Johnson recounts being taken to see Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein in the movie theater by her father — an event that she recalls scandalized and delighted her — so clearly there’s some wiggle room there.
Threaded through these imaginative vignettes is the story of Dick and Kirsten’s past few years together. Once it becomes clear that the dementia is affecting Dick’s work, he retires his psychiatric practice, packs up his home in Seattle, and moves cross-country to live with Kirsten in a one-room apartment in New York. (Kirsten co-parents two adorable kids with a married gay couple who took the apartment next to hers.) When Dick learns that Kirsten sold his car without his knowledge, he laments the lack of freedom and feels mildly affronted that he is perceived as less able to take care of himself than he thinks he is.
And, at first, he seems mostly fine. Just a good-natured old man who shows his age. But then the film shows us his struggle with his own mind. Moments after Kirsten tells him to leaves his wallet in his room, Dick asks where he put his wallet. He does poorly on a doctor-administered memory test. While prepping a death scene where fake blood is rigged to shoot out of Dick’s neck, Dick gets confused and thinks the crew has somehow stolen his actual blood.
Viewers can feel Johnson pulled in two directions during certain scenes, trying to be an attentive and caring daughter while trying to be a storyteller collecting footage for her movie. In one scene, she turns the camera away as she talks to her dad, and at the end of the conversation, he can be heard saying, “You can use that in your film.”
With its juxtaposition of fantasies (both bright and bleak) and its semi-video-diary material, Dick Johnson Is Dead is more fanciful and more direct than Cameraperson. As it progresses, the film navigates the potentially queasy situation of waiting around for Dick to fall apart and die with much-needed grace and sensitivity. The film is book-ended by material that faintly calls to mind Orson Welles’s famous documentary provocation F for Fake. But where Welles used his imagination and skill to gleefully thumb his nose at the audience, Johnson and her father seem to using cinematic tools to create the kind of catharsis and closure that so rarely occurs in real life when a loved one dies.
In broad sketches, a film like Dick Johnson Is Dead might come off as exploitative and tacky. In director Kirsten Johnson’s hands, it is an unforgettable, touching, and highly personal celebration of her father. Her film doesn’t shy away from the pain and fear that accompanies loving someone deeply. It’s one of the best things I’ve seen this year.
Dick Johnson Is Dead begins streaming on Netflix on October 2.
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Justin Remer makes movies, directs music videos, and plays in the bands Duck the Piano Wire and Elastic No-No Band when he is not writing movie reviews. His folk-rock documentary MAKING LOVERS & DOLLARS is currently streaming on Amazon.