Dick Johnson is Dead
Life, death, faith, grief, memory, the healing power of the cinema. These are the themes at the heart of the documentary Dick Johnson is Dead (streaming on Netflix). It has a morbid premise, but is full of love. Death and the pain it causes are unavoidable; however, this is the story of two people who chose to engage with it in an effort to better embrace one man’s life before he loses his memory and, eventually, passes away. Despite the subject matter, it is a sweet, and very touching, tribute to a life whose end seems to have begun.
Psychiatrist C. Richard (or Dick) Johnson’s wife died after a battle with Alzheimer’s that stole her from the people who loved her, long before her death. When he began displaying the signs of memory loss, his daughter, documentarian/cinematographer Kirsten Johnson, decided to make a movie about him. Instead of making a straight documentary about her father, she has made one that tries to make peace with his death while he is still here.
Interspersed with footage of him dealing with his condition are various staged scenes of him dying. Using a film crew including makeup artists and stuntmen, Kirsten Johnson has her father act out his own demise several times. She even stages a mock funeral for him. By taking this approach, she has created something that celebrates his life as it acknowledges her inevitable loss. It would have been easy to make this more about her process, yet she keeps that in the background as much as possible, focusing always on her Dad. This is a complicated movie, existing at the intersection of life, death and art.
In a way, Dick Johnson is Dead is two things at once: it is a documentary about a man losing his memory and it is a documentary about its own making. For all the conversations they have about his life, or reminiscing about his late wife, there are also scenes where they discuss potential deaths with stuntmen. We see him “die,” then the camera pans over to the real Dick, watching his daughter direct a fantasy of his death. We see him watching as his family and friends carry out a funeral service for him. It becomes a meta exploration, not just of a man’s life, but his mortality.
Putting the reality that he is still alive side-by-side with the likelihood that he won’t be around for much longer (or, at the very least, that the parts of him making up his identity are starting to slip away) is a tricky, and strange, balancing act. Luckily, the two pieces serve to strengthen each other. Kirsten Johnson has made a movie that honors her father as it deals with her feelings of loss. For his part, Dick seems perfectly fine with the idea, though there are a few moments where it seems his daughter may be pushing him a little too far for her art. Actually, the biggest flaw in Dick Johnson is Dead is that Kirsten Johnson never explores her own motivations. Or, perhaps most glaringly, whether she is exploiting her father by putting him in these situations. She has his consent, but how much does he truly understand about what’s going on?
Those thoughts aside, this is clearly a work of love from a filmmaker who is not afraid to stare the death of her own father in the face, possibly as a way of preparing herself for it. The result is a fascinating journey through her own psyche, as well as a fitting portrait of a charming man, while is he still able to be himself.
4 out of 5
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Written by Nels Bangerter and Kirsten Johnson