Not many films this year leave the emotional and humorous mark on you like the bittersweet and imaginative Dick Johnson is Dead.
Daughter and filmmaker Kirsten Johnson has a great dad, but all things, good and bad, come to an end.
Very much alive, Dick Johnson is a retired psychiatrist who is now relocated to New York and living with daughter Kirsten Johnson. The day-to-day moments and the looking back that is captured on film offers varying degrees of sentimentality and comic relief, as we learn more about her mother who died years earlier. It was the lead up to her death that was more difficult for both Kirsten and her father who both watched Alzheimer’s do its worst.
Acutely aware her father’s memory is failing and that he appears to be heading in a similar progression that her own mother suffered with Alzheimer’s, Kirsten engages him in a fun but poignant film to record his sense of humor and engage his spirit.
Our own culture specifically does little to alleviate the anxiety about the end of life, and this documentary succeeds in allowing us to lose some of the dread and delight along with Dick Johnson as Kirsten cooks up very dramatic and well-staged and crafted ways to end it all: Heart attacks, impalings, having an A/C unit fall on our heads. All while Dick Johnson discusses the merits to each calamity and gives amusing post-mortems of every potential demise.
Kirsten wisely captured her charming and fey father’s personality to share with all of us who will remember the gregarious and affable Dick Johnson until we no longer walk on Earth. Dick is awesome! He’s a delight to watch and even in staged death moments we gasp a bit and hold our breath. A renegade in his restrictive Seventh Day Adventist faith, Dick, we learn, planted the film loving bug in Kirsten’s head, sneaking her off to see a forbidden movie, Young Frankenstein.
This premise cooked up by Kirsten Johnson is a brilliant one, and I hope inspires people to at the very least record the great stories their parents have for posterity. Johnson is already an established and adept cinematographer who graduated in 2016 to direct a feature-length documentary film, Cameraperson. Her father teases her a bit in his film about not taking a more lucrative path in filmmaking and steering clear of documentaries.
The resulting body of work has led Johnson to chronicle her life and examine things closer to home, Filming her dad Dick Johnson and how he would possibly die seemed to make sense.
Lucky for her that her father has a gleeful delight in hamming it up and staging his own death. However not everyone reacts the same, and Dick’s best friend and some family members are less enthused and react through the film with mixed feelings and a lot of emotion, especially towards the end.
What Kirsten Johnson delivers is a reminder of our own mortality, losses suffered and resolve to not let time waste. The film brings home the fleeting nature of that bedeviling constraint and the most precious thing next to good health that we possess.
The film culminates with a funeral for Dick that is being recorded and in the wings is Dick, whose own best friend is so overcome with emotion he grieves the idea his friend is close to the end of his life. And perhaps that he is as well.
Kirsten Johnson has managed to make a profoundly moving and entertaining film about a subject that will resonate with everyone. If you are close to your parents or have recently lost a parent, you will react with unexpected tears.
But this film is not a dirge, nor is it a claustrophobically depressing film but one that reminds us all that the best way to get through life is with family, friends and a lot of laughter.
What we are, in essence, are repositories for all the memories of loved ones and all memorable “others” who crossed paths with us in this short life that disappear with us at the end of it.
You will be glad Dick Johnson crossed your path, and you will remember him.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is available to stream on Netflix starting Oct. 2