“Dick Johnson is Dead,” 2020, directed by Kirsten Johnson — 4/5 Stars
Kirsten Johnson first made waves in the documentary filmmaking world with “Cameraperson” in 2016, a complex and moving collection of footage that posed questions about war, impermanence and trauma. For the past four years since, Johnson’s work was not present at film festivals or other events, until now. While “Cameraperson” covered broader themes of humanity and global connection, Johnson’s new film, “Dick Johnson is Dead” — made in association with Netflix and shown at Sundance Film Festival in early 2020 — is much more personal, imaginative and funny. Johnson’s experimentation with the medium is not always successful, but the semi-documentary feature is undeniably unique and thought-provoking.
The basis for the film is Johnson’s elderly father, Dick Johnson, who will be referred to as “Dick” from now on for the sake of convenience. Dick is not dead. Johnson explains, through her narration, that her father is beginning to decline, and she wants to begin to come to terms with his death. She also says that she has very little footage of her mother before she was lost to Alzheimer’s and that she regrets not having more documented memories to look back on. So, to preserve Dick’s memory and to meditate on his inevitable mortality, she proposed that they make a film about him dying, and he agreed.
The film is largely made up of footage recorded during personal moments between Johnson, her father and other members of their family. Between these moments, though, are surreal sketches in which Dick “dies.” Unexpectedly, an air conditioner will fall on his head, or he will fall down the stairs and lie motionless. These moments are jarring and shocking but are immediately countered with the levity of “behind-the-scenes” style footage, showing a stunt double taking Dick’s place, the set and crew and Johnson directing it all. Countering these scenes of death are sequences showing Dick in “heaven” dancing with his deceased wife and being bathed by angelic figures. These too are accompanied by footage showing the creation of these scenes, including interviews with Dick himself, who laughs and goes along with whatever Johnson throws at him next.
This authenticity and playfulness are key to the intended message of the film. It sometimes feels like Johnson is intruding on Dick’s life, subjecting him to putting his embarrassing last moments on display. What becomes clear, though, over the course of the film is that Johnson inherited much of her dark humor from her father, and he has a very nonchalant and peaceful view of his inevitable death. In one scene, he jokes to Johnson, “You can euthanize me.” When the film arrives at its final scene, a staged funeral for Dick, the message shines through: the death of our loved ones is inevitable, but we shouldn’t fear it but, rather, simply use it as motivation to cherish the time we do have with them.
What makes “Dick Johnson is Dead” truly beautiful is that it feels undeniably genuine. Through it, we are getting a glimpse at a loving bond between a father and daughter and, maybe, if we’re lucky, a glimpse at our relationship with our own parents and loved ones. “Dick Johnson is Dead” can be watched right now on Netflix.