I both laughed and cried harder watching Dick Johnson Is Dead more than any other film I’ve seen in 2020. I don’t expect that achievement to change by the year’s conclusion, as this truly is an exceptional film. Kirsten Johnson’s tenderhearted and transcendent documentary about the final years of her father’s life is a remarkable feat of cinematic art which demonstrates the medium’s capacity for revealing the True and the Real even by means of fantasy and fiction. In many ways, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a thematic follow-up—even a sequel—to Johnson’s masterful 2016 documentary Cameraperson, itself a cinematic memoir on human meaning-making and mortality which features home footage of Kirsten’s mother and her own trials with Alzheimer’s. Where that film was a perfectly-edited personal mosaic of the leftover bits from the various documentaries Johnson filmed as a cinematographer, Dick Johnson Is Dead gets even more personal and behind-the-scenes (sometimes literally) with Johnson’s relationships.
As the eponymous C. Richard “Dick” Johnson, an 80-something psychiatrist, begins to show early signs of dementia, he and Kirsten embark on a cinematic project: to confront his impending death directly by creating fantastical reenactments of possible mortal scenarios, combined with the cataloging of his final years. This is film as memory and as therapy, a way to keep Dick Johnson alive forever on film while also addressing the discomforting inevitability of the loss of a loved one. Where some might balk at the peculiarity of this endeavor and all its ethical qualms, it’s important to note that both Kirsten and Dick appear to be totally gung-ho for the project and truly make this film together. Indeed, the father–daughter duo are a pair of lovely, warmhearted, joy-filled individuals; they are both people I would love to have dinner with, to talk and laugh. The reenactments of Dick’s various deaths are as hilarious as they are macabre, but they never feel unbefitting of who Dick and Kirsten really are. The documentary regularly shows what’s happening behind the camera too, with sound engineers, stuntmen, and various performers all given plenty of on-screen attention by both Kirsten’s camera and Dick’s affable presence.
Beyond the death sequences, there are also reenactments of the afterlife, as Dick is a strong Christian believer in the Seventh-Day Adventist tradition. In this, Dick Johnson Is Dead is an explicitly religious and theological film, directly raising questions about beliefs in the afterlife and how faith can give life meaning and purpose. Even as these afterlife scenes are often campy and silly, filled with golden confetti and Astaire-esque dance sequences while a grinning Jesus stands by, Dick takes it all in stride, and seems to genuinely enjoy the eschatological fantasy. More down-to-earth is one of the most affecting and beautiful scenes I’ve seen on film, which involves Dick being eulogized by his Seattle church congregation prior to his death—Dick literally is able to attend his own funeral while his mind still works, and can watch his closest friend break down weeping at the thought of losing him. If this sounds gimmicky or mawkish, it simply isn’t in the film, which is at once hilarious and heartwarming. Indeed, Kirsten Johnson has crafted a memento mori imbued with both sincere love and aesthetic depth. This is a film I want to revisit and contemplate, a film I feel compelled to write articles or entire books about. Kirsten Johnson, if you ever read this: I’d love to interview you about the intersection of filmmaking and faith.
As the film progresses, Dick’s mental acuity declines, and it’s truly heartbreaking to watch. His eyes tear up often as he remembers his beloved wife’s own trajectory, and imagines himself as a burden to Kirsten and others. But these are also tears springing up from the well of life—they are rich with love and grace for others, and for himself. This reminds me of philosopher Paul Ricoeur, who was writing a book on death and dying right up until the point of his own passing in 2005. The unfinished work is titled “Living Up to Death.” The double entendre suggests both being fully alive and present right up to the point of shuffling off one’s mortal coil and a sense of meeting Death’s (and Life’s) expectations. I think Dick Johnson Is Dead encompasses this semi-positive posture towards death, a paradoxical sense of hopeful vivacity in the face of the apparent abyss. If we’re all going to die some day (and we are), may we live up to death the way Dick Johnson did.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11394180/