Kirsten Johnson brings us closer to the acceptance of mortality in a mischievous film that uses stunts and special effects to depict various scenarios of her 88-year-old father’s death.
Dick Johnson is Dead. Now, that’s a movie title that jumps out at you. Surprisingly, this is a non-fiction film, what we usually call a documentary, although in this case I prefer the term “essay film.” And among essay films, it’s quite unusual.
The director, Kirsten Johnson, is best known as a cinematographer, having worked with prominent documentary filmmakers and on TV shows such as Frontline and American Experience. Her previous feature as a director was Camaraperson, from 2016, which explored the many images from her own work that have helped her gain insight into the art and experience of capturing life on film.
But this movie is much more personal. Johnson’s mother Katie Jo died from Alzheimer’s in 2007, and her daughter felt a deep regret that her own fear of death kept her from being closer to her Mom as she gradually faded away, and that she hardly had any footage of her mother to remember her by. Ten years later, her father, 88-year-old Dick Johnson, was diagnosed with incipient dementia. This time, instead of shrinking from her parent’s impending death, Kirsten decided to face it full on, using her cinematic imagination to face her father’s death and celebrate his life. The result is this strange, extraordinary film.
She asked her father, a retired psychiatrist, if he would be willing to stage multiple versions of his demise. The father is apparently just as goofy as the daughter, because he enthusiastically said yes. Using props and stunt doubles, she films Dick dying through various accidents over and over, for instance, tumbling down a flight of stairs, or being struck by an air conditioner that is falling from an upper story window. She also films him going to heaven, which is a colorful little place with a party atmosphere, a fountain of chocolate, and interesting guests like Buster Keaton and Frida Kahlo. Dick happens to have had deformed toes since birth, so in the heaven scene, Jesus shows up and heals his feet, with the film making his toes appear normal through special effects.
All of this—and there’s much more, which I won’t spoil for you by giving away—might seem morbid or inappropriate when you hear about it. Watching it, however, is playful and funny and affectionate. Dick Johnson thinks it’s the most hilarious thing he’s ever done. Paradoxically, Kirsten’s silly death enactments serve to make mortality seem intimate, real, and close to us, shortening the awful distance between our thoughts and our inevitable end. In the course of the film we also witness Dick’s cognitive abilities gradually declining. Some of the best parts just show Kirsten talking and filming her father in his everyday activities, including arranging for him to move to New York with her, and discussing options for care.
By embracing death and making fun of it, allowing it out into the open instead of being ashamed of it, Johnson and her father have created a tribute to the experience of dying, which in the final analysis is an ordinary one, since every living being goes through it eventually. Grief and mourning, as painful as it is, can also lead to healing. And instead of just waiting for her father to die, Kirsten Johnson decided she was going to let him see everyone grieving for him while he was still alive; an incredible opportunity to really feel the fullness of love that others have for him, in a context that normally doesn’t happen until we’re no longer around. Dick Johnson is Dead honors, in its mischievous way, the best times of our lives.