2020 | rated PG-13 | Documentary | starring C. Richard Johnson, Kirsten Johnson | narrated & directed by Kirsten Johnson | 1 hr 29 mins |
The provocatively titled Dick Johnson is Dead is a tonally whiplashed documentary from Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) that chronicles her and her father’s grappling with his Alzheimer’s diagnosis and impending death. It’s an often painful movie that looks death square between the eyes about inevitable the loss of a parent for all of us (through Johnson) and the loss of our own independence and cognitive decline (through Dick). It’s frightening, charming, raw and very loving.
Kirsten and her very lovingly willing subject Dick lay all their fears and anxieties bare here for the cameras, exorcising them by making Kirsten’s death documentary. Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary about the making of a documentary, one produced solely as a confrontational coping mechanism in which Kirsten envisions and has her father act out several wacky, bizarre ways for him to die (tripping over concreate, getting hit in the through with a slab of wood, getting crushed by an air conditioner). This gives him a purpose and her a way to deal with the inevitable. She’s also constructed a surreal vision of her dad’s heaven according to 7th Day Adventist rules where Jesus gives him a footbath, he sits in his favorite chair and featuring large head cutouts of his first wife and Farrah Fawcett.
If this all sounds like a lot – it is. It’s a heavy, messy, emotional wreck of a movie, as untidy and alive with highs and lows as caring for someone with a fatal illness itself. Everything about it is raw down to the bone, from showing the behind-the-scenes of the behind the scenes of the movie within the movie to breaking the 4th wall and revealing Kirsten recording her narration on a cell phone inside her closet. What I loved about the movie is how it invites us right into their home life and the routine they have constructed for Dick’s final days. The film picks up with Dick leaving his skyscraper office where he worked as a practicing psychologist all of his life. Kirsten and her siblings have made the decision to move him out of his nice, big house and in with her high rise in New York City. We see Dick’s heart-breaking reaction to losing his car as well as his joy with living with his daughter and next to his grandchildren. The tragic detail that makes this cut all the deeper is that Dick several years ago lost his wife and Kirsten’s mother to the same dementia. They all know exactly what is lurking ahead of them and approach this cruel twist of fate with humor and warmth.
From an objective critical eye it also needs to be said that the movie doesn’t quite come together to make a cohesive whole. It’s more of a series of loosely connected vignettes. If the crux of the film is Kirsten Johnson recreating wacky scenes of her dad dying to numb them all to the thought of it, the movie has a very limited imagination for those deaths. Tripping on a crack in the sidewalk? The movie is otherwise so charming that she could have lifted scenarios from South Park or Groundhog Day and it would have been fine. It feels like the product of a New York art professor’s instruction that art is whatever you make of it. Just keep the camera rolling and capture everything. Any expression is art, even art for the sake of art – without molding into a more solid narrative experience. Part of the film’s wobbly feel is that it isn’t even clear by the end if Dick and Kirsten have gotten the acceptance and comfort they are seeking by the whole exercise. It feels incomplete of even the smallest personal victory.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a special piece of work for simply opening itself up to let us meet Dick Johnson. The film is buoyed by him, his sense of humor, his honesty and his bravery. The movie reminded me a lot of last year’s The Farewell, the Awkwafina film about the Chinese tradition of not telling someone they have a terminal illness because the stress of the prognosis sends them to an early grave. Where Farewell was all about paying respects to someone while keeping a stiff upper lip and stuffing down the emotion of the loss, Dick Johnson showcases the very Western fascination to explore death, to face our mortality down and contemplate our existential place on this planet. We are very fascinated by death at a distance until the minute it knocks on our door. That’s something that happens to other people. But both Dick Johnson and The Farewell comes to the same basic conclusion: that the best place to be when faced with the end of life is surrounded by a caring family. It’s a messy, unpolished, but effectively thoughtful and emotional movie that sticks with you.