With more than 50 credits to her name (according to IMDb), cinematographer Kirsten Johnson has made a career of observing the world around her and capturing it for us to absorb in all its beauty, chaos, turmoil and tranquility. Her work as director is a much shorter list, but 2016’s Cameraperson impressively encapsulated her years of framing moments through a lens, a cinematic memoir documenting both her travels on assignment and more personal moments close to home. With Dick Johnson Is Dead, a film as light-hearted and silly as it is deeply affecting, Johnson focuses on life closer to home as her father (the Dick Johnson of the title) is diagnosed with dementia. In a testament to their close bond, Dick plays along when Kirsten proposes that staging his death in various unexpected, accidental ways would be a good way to prepare everyone who loves him for his eventual departure.
If the premise sounds a bit absurd, the film is anything but. Johnson (the filmmaker) uses the set-up to explore the sensitive depths of dealing with death, making it something of an adventure as she apparently taps into her professional network of film craftspeople to help stage ever more intricate stunts to “kill” Dick. A soft-spoken gentleman and life-long Seventh Day Adventist, Dick is entirely game to go along with Kirsten’s scheme, delighting in the opportunity to act his way through getting an air conditioner window unit dropped on his head or “fatally” falling down the stairs in his home. Though his age and progressing dementia make it difficult as time goes on to be as adventurous as Johnson might have imagined their stunts could be, the vibe on set nevertheless seems to be (counter-intuitively) one of joy and humor. She even goes so far as to film whimsical, vibrant scenes of Dick ascending to heaven, basking in divine light as younger versions of himself and his late wife dance like something out of a Fred Astaire film.
It’s all enough to make clear that the Johnson family understands in their bones the precious nature of life. Only those with a healthy respect for its inevitability and an appreciation for making the most of our time on the planet could get such a thrill out of laughing in its face this way. And that’s where Dick Johnson Is Dead finds its poignant edge, a clarity of perspective that makes it impossible to ignore the truth: death is still death, and losing a loved one, no matter how much you think you’ve prepared for it, sucks. Johnson balances the film’s goofier moments with a vulnerability so genuine it’s painful (that good hurt, if you will). She captures herself recording the film’s voiceover from what looks to be her bedroom closet, for example, and though it’s brief, it’s an opportunity to see on her face the toll all this talk of death and losing her one remaining parent is taking on her.
Far too often, documentaries become stodgy, lifeless things; as they recount a subject or a life or a moment in history, the talking heads and archival footage parading across the screen with dreadful predictability. It’s safe to say that Dick Johnson Is Dead is very much not that kind of documentary. In fact, it may just be like no other non-fiction film released this year. With her refined and well-earned understanding of shaping a story through images, Johnson’s filmmaking isn’t afraid to mix media and perspectives, from staged re-enactments to home video footage to observing Dick from a distance as he reckons with the reality of his diagnosis and the effect it will have on what years he has left. Because she is such a natural behind the camera, Johnson is more than capable of making shots others might leave in the editing room feel like essential moments of cinema, like the awkward, messy pans to the ground, all bumpy and out of focus, as she sets down her camera in order to go hug her father during an emotional moment in an interview. It’s a small moment rich with humanity in a film already filled with such revelations.
For a film about death, Dick Johnson Is Dead is surprisingly life-affirming. As Johnson explores what it will mean to lose the father she’s so incredibly close to, it’s impossible not to think about the important people in our own lives, their stories and the precious time we have left with them. Vaccines work because they contain a bit of the disease they’re made to prevent, allowing an immune system to fight back a mild case in order to inoculate the body from it in the future. There’s certainly no way to inoculate oneself to the death of a loved one, but watching Johnson give it her damn best to brace herself for Dick’s departure reminds us that denying the inevitable is never the answer. With humor, heart and a somber sense of acknowledgement, Dick Johnson Is Dead sees Johnson face the eventuality of loss in a way that offers welcome lessons for us all.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is now streaming on Netflix.