Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary but it’s a hard movie to describe because, at its core, it’s the use of art to memorialize a man, to process grief on personal terms, and as a love letter from a daughter to a father. Kirsten Johnston (Cameraperson) records her life caring for her ailing 85-year-old father. Dick is a former therapist, a widower, and starting to go through the early stages of Alzheimer’s and coming to terms with his new limitations. Kirsten is a camera operator who has worked on documentaries for over thirty years, so she turns the lens on her father and the two of them enact a series of wacky fake deaths, starring Dick himself (until the stuntmen take over), as father and daughter work to make a movie celebrating life while they still can together.
First things first, Dick Johnson is just the sweetest man. Spending time with him is a treat and watching him smile with like his whole face just made me feel happy. I enjoyed learning just what a good person he was and what he’s meant to his friends, family, and colleagues, but he’s just so pleasant and nice and compassionate that you feel the love his daughter intends you to understand. That’s the overwhelming feeling from this quirky documentary. Dick has such love for his daughter and is willing to humor her silly morbid scenarios confronting his death. Kirsten has loved this man for so long and already lost one parent to Alzheimer’s and now must go through it again. She’s using the medium she feels most capable and comfortable with, photography and moviemaking, to celebrate her father and his unheralded life of being a good man coming to an end. My heart ached for him when he breaks into tears articulating what relinquishing his ability to drive means for him and his sense of independence, looking ahead. Kirsten highlights some of the more unusual details about her father for this movie-within-a-movie, creating sequences that shed light on his faith as a Seventh Day Adventist and his insecurity over how his feet appear. It’s insightful aspects that better round out this man, like his ability to start conversations with strangers, or his knack of being able to fall asleep anywhere as long as he can prop his feet up. For Kirsten, recording these moments while her father is still lucid is a matter of documenting him while he can still recognize himself. She laments the minuscule amount of footage she has of her mother before her death. She doesn’t want to make the same mistake with her father, so why not also make him a movie star if she can? Watching Dick Johnson is Dead is to feel overcome with her adoration for this remarkably ordinary and good man.
The movie also serves as a strange way to take control over something inevitable yet unknowable. Dick Johnson is going to die, as we all will, but he will very likely die before his physical body expires. His mind will deteriorate, and he’ll stop being Dick Johnson. I wondered early why the movie kept resorting to slapstick with the many possible deaths of Dick onscreen. It’s more than a bit morbid for a daughter to direct her own father dying again and again in a variety of wild and bloody and violent accidents. I can understand many viewers being put off by this, worrying that Dick is being exploited, and at least finding it all to be in bad taste. I tried to assess why this element was so essential to the production. I suppose it functions as a gimmick that can help it get more attention and a larger audience considering the film lacks a hard-charging topic, unique insider access, or a headline-grabbing name or artistic approach. However, as I continued with the movie, I concluded that Kirsten Johnson is inflicting all manner of over-the-top goofy deaths and violent mayhem upon her beloved father as a means of processing her looming grief. She’s trying to reclaim a sense of control and offering that same ownership to her father. They aren’t running from his death but are embracing it, laughing at it, and doing it their way. The documentary is an artifact of love and a filmmaker using art to comprehend her grief.
The Seventh Day Adventist adherence presents an interesting dynamic to explore when discussing a spiritual afterlife. This smaller Christian denomination believes that the worthy will return to heaven but only after Jesus returns to Earth to kick-start the whole Armageddon deal. Until that fateful day, the dead will lay in their graves and wait for however long it takes. I had never heard about this before. Many religions are about delayed gratification, the reward coming upon the conclusion of Earthly existence, and these people believe the wait extends even beyond death. A lifetime and then some of waiting would shape very patient people like Dick. The great fear of an Adventist, we’re told, is to be one of the ones left behind, and it’s easy to see the parallels with losing one’s sense of identity through the creeping fog of Alzheimer’s. Apparently, strict Adventists also don’t approve of dancing. In a fantasy sequence engineered by Kirsten, Dick gets to dance in heaven with his wife again and knowing all these details gives the moment, which can be immediately silly on a surface-level, its own sense of poignancy and reverence.
The only thing that holds the movie back is that late into its 90 minutes I feel like it gets too manipulative and meta for its own good. There’s an emotional climax and then the movie reveals some key details that can make you feel a little bamboozled. It’s not enough to sacrifice all the emotional investment and artistic gains that came before but it’s just a few steps too far. Don’t get me wrong, I’m genuinely happy with the overall ending, but I didn’t care for being jerked around.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a peculiar, funny, heartwarming, and experimental documentary. It reminded me in some ways of 2012’s The Act of Killing where filmmaker Joshua Oppenheimer finds old men who participated in Indonesian genocide in the 1960s to re-enact their crimes but playing their victims and through the surreal prism of a film production. Except this movie is far more personal and far more affirming; it’s very much a love letter to a wonderful man. You feel the intimacy of this family relationship and I felt privileged just to be let in and share these moments, the ordinary ones, the reflective ones, the emotional ones, the silly ones. This is an affecting documentary using its very form and function to use art to make sense of pain. It’s currently available on Netflix streaming and I would highly encourage you to relax, kick your feet up like Dick, and watch one of the best and strangest movies of 2020.
Nate’s Grade: A-