Dick Johnson is Dead is an utterly unique, clever, and emotionally stirring sorta-kinda-but-not-really-documentary portrait of filmmaker Kirsten Johnson's relationship with her aging father. Simultaneously poignant and twisted, sweet and morbid, it tackles the taboo topics of aging and senility and death with a rare combination of grace and sick humor that has every reason not to work-but does.
The titular subject of the film (who is not, in fact, dead-at least not while the film was being made) is the director's father, with whom she has a close relationship, especially since her mother died years earlier from Alzheimer's, a fate that looms over her father, as well. In voice-over, Kirsten laments the lack of footage she shot of her mother in her last years, a loss she is determined not to replicate with her father. So, we follow over a period of two years as Dick, who is in his early 80s, retires from his psychiatric practice in Seattle and moves across the country to live with Kirsten and her children. Throughout the film she talks with him on camera, discussing how he feels about the end of his career, various aspects of his life, his memories and their loss, and the idea of death.
And she also stages elaborate death scenes in which Dick is killed in various outlandish scenarios, including being hit by an air conditioner unit that falls from a building (which happens in the first two minutes of the film, right after sweet documentary footage of Dick playing with his grandkids in a barn), falling down the stairs, and getting his neck punctured by a two-by-four. Dick's ghastly demises are always accompanied by the revelation of their artifice, as we see the camera operator and sound recorder step into frame, we see the preparation for the shoot, and we hear directly from the special effects technicians who explain the use of fake blood and prosthetics. We also get a number of campy theatrical renditions of life in the afterlife, complete with puffy clouds, raining glitter, Jesus Himself (Dick is a devout Seventh-Day Adventist), and dancing-lots of dancing-all shot in heavenly slow motion.
So, you see what I mean by a kinda-sorta-but-not-really documentary?
However you want to define it or categorize it, Dick Johnson is Dead is pretty wonderful. It helps that Dick is such a genial and compelling subject. A gentle-looking man with a round face, bright expressive eyes, and the kind of genuine smile and laugh that makes you want to do the same, he doesn't seem to have a pretentious bone in his body (how could he, given his willingness to submit to what his daughter puts him through to make the film?) even though he was a psychiatrist for decades. And, while we see a few glimpses of him in years past through home movies and photographs, mostly we see him in his aged body, shuffling here and there, eating soup, napping on various sofas and chairs. When he talks about losing his memory, there is a sharp poignancy because, despite the limited time we get to spend with him, we sense the tragedy of what he is losing and its effect on those who love him (who are, not surprisingly, many in number). The best thing I can say about Dick Johnson is Dead is that, despite all its morbidity and dark humor, it was clearly made by a daughter who loves her dad, a love that permeates the film and makes us love him, too.
Copyright © 2022 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © The Criterion Collection
Overall Rating: (3.5)
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