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Arts & Life

'Dick Johnson Is Dead' Is An Astonishing Documentary Film

Dick Johnson is Dead — Still 1
John Wakayama Carey
/
Sundance Institute
Dick Johnson appears in 'Dick Johnson is Dead' by Kirsten Johnson, an official selection of the U.S. Documentary Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.

The new documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead has just been released on Netflix. It’s by a daughter about herself and her father, now stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. For KUNC film critic Howie Movshovitz, who teaches film and television at CU Denver, there’s not been anything quite like it.

For starters — I know Dick Johnson, and filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson’s daughter. We’re friends. And while it’s typically not proper to review work by one’s friends, this film is so unusual and affecting that I want to tell people about it.

Dick Johnson is alive. He’s an 88-year old retired psychiatrist suffering from Alzheimer’s Disease. He’s cogent in the film, but recently his children have had to put him in a place that cares for Alzheimer’s patients.

Kirsten Johnson is one of the most imaginative, courageous — and accomplished — filmmakers in the world. As a documentary cinematographer she has filmed war zones, labor strikes, philosophers, whistleblower Edward Snowden and torture victims. About 20 years ago, at the Sundance Film Festival, Kirsten Johnson had been the cinematographer on four of the 10 films in the prestigious documentary competition. In 2016, she directed her first film, Cameraperson, a memoir of her work and life.

What she does with Dick Johnson Is Dead is astonishing. With her father’s entirely aware consent, Kirsten Johnson filmed a series of death scenes that could be possible for him — death by car crash, by falling downstairs, by accident on the street, by heart attack — and others. In spite of his illness, Dick Johnson is willing to stage these scenes and talk about his own death.

And he talks about how he imagines existence after death. Dick Johnson is an observant 7th Day Adventist. The scenes he and his daughter imagine, and film show a luxurious heaven, with glittery, colorful disks floating through the air, and reunions with his beloved wife who died of Alzheimer’s Disease some years ago.

In its attempts to get at how someone thinks, Dick Johnson Is Dead is like what Joshua Oppenheimer did in the shocking The Act of Killing where leaders of Indonesian death squads acted out for the film their murderous acts. That’s only true in the shape of this film, of course, but what Kirsten Johnson also does is show how she films these scenes. Aside from the deep emotional richness of the film, it’s a wonderful exhibit of filmmaking technique. Kirsten Johnson is not going to push her father down the stairs, so she shows how to insert the work of a stuntman, how to create a construction accident or a car crash.

Dick Johnson Is Dead captures an extraordinary ballet between a father and daughter. Her filmmaking skill blends with momentous events in the life of this aging man — the closing of his medical office in Seattle, his move to her home in New York. Most powerful, though, is how the two show their love for each other.

It’s a wonderful and also a brutally blunt, emotionally naked film. Father and daughter both laugh throughout the movie. Sometimes, it’s the laughter of people who understand the deep comic side of human life. At other times, it’s the nervous laughter of people revealing themselves. They talk about the things most of us don’t want to talk about with our parents or children, and don’t want shown on film.

With a movie like Dick Johnson Is Dead, you also have to consider how much father/daughter interaction is acting. Of course, people alter themselves on camera — that’s why the frequent scenes of the making of this film. But as Kirsten Johnson knows the camera finds what’s true. You can see it, and you can see how incredibly sad and marvelous this business of life is.

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