Kirstin Johnson’s documentary is a bizarre and profoundly moving meditation on death, grief, and the incomprehensibility of losing a loved one.
In Dick Johnson is Dead, documentarian Kirstin Johnson attempts to reconcile herself with the fact that her father is slowly dying…by killing him. Multiple times. Through staging a series of fictionalised “deaths”, reminiscent of horror-comedies like The ABCs of Death or 1000 Ways to Die, Johnson seems determined to wrest back control over her father’s fate.
Richard “Dick” Johnson is 86 and has Alzheimer’s disease. Although fully cognizant throughout most of the filming, which takes place over a number of years, the pernicious effects of his condition are already slowly beginning to affect his autonomy. Dick smiles benignly as his daughter instructs him to lie in the coffin she has procured for him, or whilst crew members gently strap bags of fake blood to his body. His willingness to go along with this seemingly madcap scheme is indicative of the deep bond that he and his daughter share, a love which permeates the film and makes his tragic deterioration painfully sympathetic.
During the film, we learn relatively little about the life of Dick Johnson before his diagnosis. We know that he is a retired psychiatrist, a Seventh Day Adventist, and that he loves chocolate cake, but the documentary is devoid of flashbacks and sparing with narrative. Lacking historicity in this way, the footage has a vivid sense of realism to it. We are watching a life play out in real time. Dick Johnson is a kind, gentle, and thoughtful man, with a delightful sense of humour and a warm personality. On the various sets where his daughter orchestrates his demise, he is often gregarious and patient, with a natural amiability that seems to put everyone at ease. Yet it is clear that a great sadness lurks underneath this genial facade. Despite the absurdity of its premise, the film is often quiet, even meditative. Away from the set, in the privacy of her apartment, Johnson and her father softly express their love for each other, tears running down their faces. These moments have a startling intimacy to them, becoming more like home videos, with Johnson seemingly alone holding the camera.
A running theme is the incomprehensibility of losing a loved one, the immense difficulty of accepting it as a reality. As if to reinforce this, Johnson constantly reminds us of the artificiality of her fantasy scenes. This resistance to escapism feels symbolic of Johnson’s grim resolution to face her father’s mortality head-on. In one sequence, she creates a phantasmagorical depiction of her father’s ascent to heaven, which, in her rendering, is more like a Katy Perry music video than any biblical reference. Shot in slow motion, we see her father languishing on clouds eating from a chocolate fountain, whilst his idols and his late wife crowd around a table waiting to welcome him. The fantasy is abruptly broken, however, as Johnson suddenly cuts to the crew and the set. The whirring of industrial fans and bags of cotton wool, set against a greenscreen, destroy the movie magic she has just taken pains to create. By shattering her own illusions, she brings us closer to grasping the reality she and her father are facing.
The making of this documentary seems to have been a therapeutic act for Johnson. It has allowed herself and her father, as well as all of their friends and family, to grieve. At the moment of his true death, it is likely that Dick Johnson will no longer be able to comprehend their sadness or their love. This is the cruelty of conditions like Alzheimer’s, which are a kind of death-in-life as they erode the personality and memory of their victims. Faced with the inevitable, Johnson has elected to confront her father’s condition directly, in a strange and moving testament to the unfathomability of losing a loved one. Her absurdist constructed death sequences, often comically violent, merely punctuate the quietude of this dark knowledge.
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