In Dick Johnson Is Dead, veteran documentary cinematographer turned director Kirsten Johnson finds herself both in front of and behind the camera, making sense of her beloved father’s deteriorating memory with an unusually playful attitude. Whether she’s staging whimsical sequences in Heaven or assembling death scenes that are equally humorous and hard to watch, Johnson actualizes the morbid fantasy of those who envision witnessing their own death, and then actively flips it on its head. After its recent world premiere at Sundance, it won the festival’s US Documentary Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling.
Although a swift departure from Johnson’s acclaimed autobiographical debut Cameraperson, the two films both center family and self-documentation. Her position in front of the lens might seem abnormal for a filmmaker who’s made a name for herself as a camera operator / cinematographer behind some of the most essential documentaries of our time (Citizenfour, Fahrenheit 9/11), but it fits her role here as an ultimate multi-hyphenate. She’s oscillating between supportive daughter, loving mother, omnipresent caregiver, ingenious filmmaker, and chief narrator. In this sophomore feature, she employs tenderness and cheek to give levity to an otherwise upsetting situation. Dick Johnson makes for an unlikely subject. Declaring “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies!” in the opening moments, the 80-something former clinical psychiatrist with a contagious joviality must kiss his independence goodbye. Having lived solo for seven years since losing his wife to Alzheimer’s, he packs up his spacious Seattle estate to move into his daughter’s one-bedroom Manhattan apartment.
Johnson included footage of her mother in the late stages of her life in Cameraperson. She has since spoken about her intense ethical dilemma around the decision, and how she regrets not capturing the beauty and power her mother possessed before Alzheimer’s took hold. This inspired her to make this film, and to have her father actively participate in it, resolving feelings of betrayal with creative collaboration. This partnership seems to have taken shape early in their relationship. Coming from a devout Seventh-day Adventist household with stringent restrictions on everyday pleasures, including seeing movies, Dick defiantly took a young Kirsten to see Young Frankenstein in 1974, which laid the groundwork for her eventual career.
The Johnsons also play with the religious beliefs they once held dear. Counteracting the Adventist tenet that a soul cannot ascend to the afterlife until Jesus Christ returns to Earth, they create an audacious Heaven sequence that refuses to bide time until the Second Coming. Dick ascends to the pearly gates, imagined as a hyper-stylized vintage backlot, where Jesus himself heals his misshapen toes, which have been his greatest insecurity since his youth. Dick then dances with his late wives, surrounded by cardboard cutouts of dearly departed cultural icons. Not exactly the Adventist interpretation of the promised land. The fantastical experiment makes room for a series of inquiries into the reasoning behind the film itself. Is this one massive ploy to ease unavoidable heartache? Is it Johnson’s way to rectify her failure to document her mother’s life?
Rather than tackling those questions directly, the film is an attempt to control the uncontrollable. Following his move to New York, Dick’s dementia manifests as sleepwalking, staging his bedroom as his psychiatric office, and even getting lost on Halloween whilst trick-or-treating with his grandchildren. As his condition becomes more apparent, Johnson opts to contextualize his life by visiting people and places important to him. We go to New York, Lisbon (for a family holiday), Loma Linda (home to the Seventh-day Adventist Church headquarters and Dick’s college sweetheart), and back to Seattle to stage a beautiful, melancholic memorial for Dick while he’s still alive. Surrounded by loved ones, former patients, and his congregation, the mock funeral is the film in miniature, an epitaph for a man who still has some good days ahead of him.
In an interview on her travel essay film Forgetting Vietnam, Trint T. Minh Ha critiqued the supposed authenticity of documentary as “illusory to take the real and reality for granted and to think that a neutral language exists,” and says that “to use an image is to enter fiction.” Dick Johnson Is Dead operates with an understanding of this philosophy. It’s an absurdist, meta hybrid of elegy and celebration which expands on this theory of entering fiction. Johnson can’t circumvent Dick’s passing, but with this film, she’s found a way to evade reality by preserving his image. Towards the end, she records a voiceover in a closet, repeating “Dick Johnson is dead” three times. Then she opens the door to embrace her father. She’s penned a mischievous love letter about the only universal guarantee in life — death.
Dick Johnson Is Dead has been acquired by Netflix and will be released this spring.