1 Hr., 30 Mins.
Dick Johnson is Dead November 12, 2020
they knew that these were signs that it wouldn't be long before their beloved patriarch — so preternaturally loving and understanding that him so much as existing seemed a once-in-a-lifetime blessing — wouldn't be around anymore. Rather than keep her unease internalized, Kirsten, after some time mulling over her new reality, had a creative epiphany she wanted to make tangible. What if I made a movie through which I could engage with my worry? The resulting documentary, Dick Johnson is Dead (2020), is something of a rehearsal for grief. As of the film’s release last month on Netflix, Dick Johnson is not, in fact, dead. He’s celebrating his 88th birthday this year. But with the movie his daughter openly prepares for the moment when the for-now-at-bay announcement of the title isn’t merely a concept.
Although most of the feature is taken up by touching scenes during which we get a feel for Kirsten and Dick’s relationship, it’s periodically (and by-now infamously) interrupted by several staged death scenes in which Dick stars. It’s a darkly goofy artistic decision; the movie is one part heartfelt autobiography and one part Final Destination chapter. During certain segments, it can be hard at first to parse whether we’re seeing something real or if this is just another lead-up to a fake grisly demise supported by a stunt double, clever editing trickery, and a generous amount of corn syrup. In the course of the documentary, Dick — or “Dick” — will be "happenstantially" smushed by an air-conditioning unit that falls out of a window, hit by a car, get his throat cut by a bumbling construction worker who swings one of his instruments the wrong way at the wrong time while ambling down a sidewalk. Dick participates in Kirsten’s set-ups not necessarily with gusto and more so with the simpatico understanding of a patient father. He loves her, so he’ll do whatever she tells him she needs him to do. (Though he ponders, while eating alphabet soup for dinner one evening, the fact that she gets paid for her work while he, the star, does not.)
This odd-sounding mixture of familial warmth and horror-movie theatrics doesn’t sound like it would quite cohere on paper, especially not in the scope of a documentary. Are these faux deaths provocative for the sake of provocation? Hardly — they remind us, however comically absurd they are, that death is an inevitability that could hit any of us, and any one of our loved ones, at any time. They also help Kirsten repeatedly confront that there will come a moment when her father will die and she must accept that this is something she has no control over. The staged deaths make for an inventive way of acknowledging, and squaring up with, that frightening powerlessness. Death is inexorable, but coming to terms with that inexorability and the practice of grieving in general are both societally ingrained as things to be done in private. Dick Johnson is Dead is a bold challenge to that. While blackly funny, it’s also a very touching movie, in large part because the affection Kirsten has for her father is so keenly
We come to have a lot of affection for Dick, too. There’s a too-good-to-be-trueness to him. In one especially moving scene, Kirsten reminds Dick, who is now living with her in New York (he can't function independently anymore), that she is going on a trip to Israel — something he has forgotten about. He confesses that he’s gotten so used to looking up to her these days that she might as well start thinking of him as her little brother. When she asks, while
hugging, if his eyes are just watery or if he’s crying, he confesses, with a quiet laugh, to the latter. My eyes were also moist as I watched this unfold; it wasn’t because they were watery.
Dick Johnson is Dead’s most daring provocation comes toward the end of the film, when Kirsten stages a pretend funeral for her dad. (We don’t realize it isn’t real until a few moments have passed and we sense an offness in the air.) Packing the Seattle church in which it’s being hosted, the guests all know this isn’t the real deal, and that it's part of Kristen's documentary. (I wonder what exactly the invitations looked like.) But they’re nevertheless emotionally swept up in the proceedings. Unlike Kirsten, who has been rehearsing so openly and by now for so long for her father’s passing, they hadn’t quite given as much thought about Dick’s mortality so seriously until now. Eulogies are delivered; it’s poignant seeing how much Dick means to so many people. His best friend, who shares his remembrances last, gets so overwhelmed as he speaks that after getting a few sentences in, he can’t stop himself from sobbing. He chokes out his words, as if he's struggling for air; when it’s over, he stands in a corner, struggling to contain himself.
In hands less capable than Kirsten’s, this scene might feel a little stuntish; perhaps it's a step too far (as some have argued), affecting people too intensely for one’s intimate artistic vision. But when Dick emerges from the lobby at the end of the orations, the film’s emotional resonance clinched for me. No cinematic experiment can mitigate the pains of losing a loved one, but Dick Johnson is Dead makes us appreciate life a little more — its own sort of tonic. It encourages us to do everything we can to avoid being the person who doesn’t realize what they had until it’s gone. A
few years ago, cinematographer and documentarian Kirsten Johnson (2016’s Camera Person) started getting increasingly anxious about the mortality of her father. Richard “Dick” Johnson, a clinical psychiatrist in his 80s, had begun double-booking appointments; he was having forgetful spells while driving. She and other family members understandably didn't want to admit it to themselves, but