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The first thing you should know about Dick Johnson Is Dead is that Dick Johnson, the subject of this film, is very much alive. A retired psychiatrist from Seattle in his 80s, Dick Johnson is on the precipice of cognitive decline. His daughter Kirsten Johnson is a documentary filmmaker using this project to deal with the reality that her father has few years left. The result is a moving documentary, one that can be damn funny, about an experience that comes for us all.
Kirsten believes she can cope with Dick’s death by depicting it on film. Many of these staged “deaths” are exaggerated to the point of comedy. An opening scene, for example, involves an air conditioner dropping on Dick’s head.
Dick is a terrific sport. He acts out his death, repeatedly, and some of these deaths can be gruesome. He is happy and eager at home and in archival footage, although parts of his memory are starting to go. Still, his episodes are not as severe as Kirsten’s mother, who died from Alzheimer’s. There is footage of her mother struggling to conjure key details from her life. Kirsten calmly suggests she wished she filmed more of her. The film ably weaves these moments in which Dick forgets with the logic of memory. Sometimes we see him reminiscing about the past or spending time with his grandchildren, and in others he is in the hospital and tries to remember five words. Johnson is a deft filmmaker, using careful staging to suggest scenes that are alternately exaggerated and intimate.
Some of the most creative, satisfying scenes involve Dick in his version of heaven. There are actors on a soundstage with exaggerated cardboard cutouts of famous dead celebrities. Buster Keaton is there, and so is Bruce Lee. There are also cutouts of Dick and his departed wife, and Kirsten films these actors dancing to classic swing music. Maybe that is what heaven is like, but what makes this so powerful is its ephemeral nature. Dick does not really discuss the afterlife, so perhaps his moments of bliss help soothe the fear that he will depart his family.
Like Cameraperson, Johnson’s other documentary, the meta quality to her filmmaking is where she finds meaning. She is effectively an audience surrogate, getting the viewer to think about these bizarre situations just like she is. The cumulative effect is a warm, heartfelt feeling for her father. He is an easy man to like, and through Kirsten’s gentle direction, he becomes a man that is also easy to love through the film’s duration.
It is almost impossible to watch this film without thinking of your own parents. I am lucky that both my parents are still alive and healthy, but it is inevitable that one day they won’t be. Not all children have the skill or imagination to create a film like this for their parents, or the relationship that would warrant them to make one. If we are lucky enough to have good relationships with them, maybe this will inspire us to call mom and dad more regularly, or have another socially distanced lunch at the family house. Yes, they can nag us, but it is only because they—like Kirsten and Dick—already understand the sad truth we do not.
Dick Johnson Is Dead streams Friday on Netflix.