Everyone deserves a documentary to be made about them in the manner of Dick Johnson Is Dead. Of course, not everyone is Dick Johnson—or has a daughter, like he does, who could make something so honest and honoring.
Kirsten Johnson has worked as a documentary cinematographer since the early 2000s, a career she reconsidered in the brilliant, extraneous-footage collage Cameraperson, one of the best films of 2016. A few brief vignettes there featured her mother in the last stages of her life, as she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. Dick Johnson Is Dead turns the camera on Kirsten’s father, who is beginning to show similar signs. With clear-eyed familiarity, in a voice that is both resigned and resilient, Kirsten sets the stage early on: “Now it’s upon us…”
In response, she and her father decide to make a documentary about his final days. Some of this is what you might expect: fond memories and frank conversations. But mostly the movie consists of two, far more bonkers elements: elaborately staged dramatizations of the ways Dick could die (falling down stairs, an air-conditioning unit crashing on his head) and ostentatiously designed, fantasy visions of Dick’s glam afterlife.
As a subject, the older Johnson is a wonder: agreeable, vulnerable, open to discussion, and up for anything. (We learn he is a psychiatrist by trade and a Seventh-day Adventist by faith.) He’s attuned to the seriousness of their joint project, but also playful about it. At one point during a pull-the-plug conversation, when Kirsten asks him when he would want her to make that decision, he wryly responds, “Pass it by me before you do it.” It’s crushing when the documentary jumps ahead a year and we immediately recognize the drop in vitality and joviality. Dick still has a ready smile, but as the anxiety and guilt over being a “burden” take hold, he also shares despairing thoughts like this: “Oh man sweetie, your father is a wreck.”
Dick Johnson Is Dead is at once a work of painful introspection—a way of facing those hard realities—and a work of distraction. As Kirsten and Dick get lost in the details of the filmmaking (costume choices, how to manage fake blood), they get a reprieve from mortality, even as they’re creatively immersed in it. The death dramatizations have a dark humor that serves as catharsis, while the heavenly visions offer a joyous sense of celebration. There is a moment where two dancers spin with unabashed freedom, their own faces covered by poster-size portraits of Dick and his wife from their youth. Given that the man is barefoot, and that we’ve learned Dick was born with deformed toes that always embarrassed him, it’s a thrilling vision of restoration and kingdom come.
What a gift that Dick Johnson received this documentary, and that he and Kirsten Johnson shared it with us. (I’d be remiss not to mention Our Time Machine, a recent Chinese documentary that chronicles an equally moving artistic project between an aging parent and an adult child.) Works of art like these are more than creative endeavors. They function more as testaments: to the lives of their subjects, to the awfulness of death, and to the inspired ways we cling to the former, even in the face of the latter.