It’s a simple fact of life that everybody will eventually die. But that knowledge doesn’t make the passing of loved ones any easier to bear. In the new documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson and her father, Dick Johnson, call her late mother’s decline due to Alzheimer’s “a long goodbye.” Over footage of Kirsten helping her mother get around the house and quizzing her on details, Kirsten expresses regret that she hadn’t filmed her mother before she started to lose her memory. (The point feels particularly resonant given the way Kirsten’s 2016 autobiographical film Cameraperson was stitched together from footage throughout her life — and included brief shots of her father.) Though the scene comes halfway through the movie, it serves as a succinct explanation for why Dick Johnson Is Dead exists, and why it’s such a powerhouse of a film.
Dick’s dementia is growing worse. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a way for Dick and Kirsten to prepare for his eventual death while he still has enough mental clarity to participate. The two stage and film multiple scenarios for Dick’s death, from being struck by a falling air conditioner to experiencing a sudden heart attack. These fantasy sequences of death, which also include Dick’s funeral and entrance into heaven, feel strangely life-affirming.
Part of the magic of Kirsten’s work is in the fact that these hypothetical deaths feel joyful rather than entirely burdensome and inevitable — they’re a filmic equivalent of laughing to keep from crying. Seeing Dick so gamely playing along with his own death only makes the scenes from Kirsten’s real life that much harder to stomach. When she informs her father that they’re selling his car as he moves from Seattle to New York to live with her, he says he now understands how her mother must have felt when they sent her to an assisted living facility. It’s devastating, even as he and Kirsten try to laugh through it — there’s a camera present, after all.
The two realms, fantasy and real life, do sometimes overlap. At Dick’s “funeral,” attended by his real friends and colleagues, his best friend can’t help but break down in tears while delivering the eulogy. He’s still crying even as Dick himself appears in the church. The events they’re playing out are make-believe, but the underlying fact that they’re in preparation for a very real tragedy never appears to be too far from anyone’s mind. The film’s title emphasizes what’s in store: Dick Johnson will eventually be dead.
Kirsten’s camera loves Dick as a subject. His eyes sparkle, and he takes almost everything that’s thrown at him with good humor. He’s full of life, even with a body that’s visibly breaking down. Each time a stuntman takes a hit for him, Dick yells as though he’d taken the hit himself, and his bright laughter punctuates the end of every apparent death. Shots of him falling asleep on set or joking about the excessive amount of chocolate cake that may or may not have led to his heart attack a few decades ago ensure that audiences will love him at least a fraction as much as Kirsten clearly does, and feel the effect as he begins to slip away.
On the simplest level, Dick Johnson Is Dead is Kirsten’s tribute to her father. But it’s also a very public reckoning with grief, and a way, at its heart, for Kirsten to spend more time with her father while she still has the chance. Watching the two of them play with death may not ultimately make it easier to cope with, but the scenes where they pretend he’s dead feel full of life. They’re exaggerated and colorful, especially when Dick goes to heaven and has a few wishes granted. But more strikingly, these sequences are palpably full of love. When Dick Johnson does pass away, Dick Johnson Is Dead will remain as an unfading memory. It may be a bittersweet memory, but not acknowledging the downs with the ups would be a disservice to how skilled a storyteller Kirsten is.
The documentary is an extraordinary work for how easily Kirsten slips between tones without coming off as saccharine or untruthful about what’s unfolding onscreen. (Unsurprising, maybe, given her background as a documentarian.) The film’s focal point is obviously difficult — Kirsten’s voice almost never breaks in her narration, and that’s a feat in and of itself — but the heartbreak the film invokes is bearable because the documentation is so earnest. Dick Johnson Is Dead is the best reminder possible to cherish your loved ones while they’re still living — to take that extra photo or video as something to hang onto once they’re gone.
Dick Johnson is Dead is streaming on Netflix now.