'Dick Johnson Is Dead' Takes a Surprisingly Joyful Look at Death

Directed by Kirsten Johnson

BY James BrotheridgePublished Oct 6, 2020

A notable moment from 2016's Cameraperson finds director Kirsten Johnson watching offscreen as a child plays with an axe with no one but the filmmaker around. The moment is tense — not just because of the kid with the large, sharp implement but because Johnson is in strictly observational, "fly on the wall" documentarian mode. The audience is aware of and considers the conflict in Johnson's position, where she's using decades of footage from her documentary filmmaking career to explore her own presence in these works.

The moment parallels a few scenes in her new movie, Dick Johnson Is Dead. In exploring her father's impending end, Johnson finds herself in a few moments that are emotionally fraught, as she worries for her dad's health, to the point where she does what she didn't in Cameraperson: in at least one moment, she sets down the camera.

Dick Johnson Is Dead doesn't fight through that — it embraces it, along with Johnson's boundary-pushing instincts and her father's joie de vivre, in one surprising and true journey. Through staging scenes of her father dying in inventive ways, watching him in the world, and Johnson's cinematic essayist approach, nothing is denied about the experience, joy and pain included.

Her father, C. Richard Johnson — Dick for short — is retiring in his mid 80s and giving up his psychiatry practice. As his daughter, Johnson recognizes the situation for what it is. Dick is a widower, his memory's slipping, and he lives a state away from his family. With all this in mind, Johnson moves Dick into her New York City apartment.

While all this is going on, she's also starting this film. She's capturing moments in her father's life, visits to the doctor and with friends, snapshots of his day-to-day life. That's only one part of what she's doing here, though. She's also conscripted her father into scenes of his death. Stunt performers step in for the more acrobatic moments; otherwise, it's Dick, blood spurting out of him or lying motionless.

Johnson and Dick are in a conversation, processing this point in each of their lives, a universal process many children have to go through with parents. At the same time, the demands of filmmaking stand in for Johnson's own processing, the active consideration of each element of Dick's current experience, how his life might end, and what could come next.

At first, the crew are conspicuously present, spotlighting the creation in what we're seeing. This also has the benefit of letting us see Dick with more people and get a further sense of him as a man. We see him with his favourite chair, joking with people he knows well and people he's just met, and eating so much chocolate cake. Our man loves chocolate cake. As much as Dick Johnson Is Dead traces these larger themes, it's also a document of a unique man.

As the film progresses, some of the staged scenes are more seamlessly integrated into the text of the film, even as Dick's worsening condition makes Johnson question how to continue with the project. The result isn't without some anxiety hanging over the situation, but of course, that has to be the experience of living with a parent at this age in their life.

The miraculous effect is, among this uncertainty where we are in the story and what will happen moment to moment, Johnson solves the dread, finds peace, and never loses the light humour her father so ably throws off. In pressing the documentary form, she's created a movie that's unpredictable, inventive and heartening.

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