Written by: Hannah Tran
Dick Johnson Is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020) 3½ out of 4 stars.
Everyone’s parents die, but not everyone would choose to film their parents dying. Kirsten Johnson isn’t everyone. In the follow-up to her critically acclaimed 2016 documentary Cameraperson, Kirsten Johnson is turning the camera away from the world at large and toward an entirely new and unusual subject: her father. Not only is she determined to capture her father’s final years struggling with a worsening case of dementia, she is also determined to capture his death itself, even if it takes her a number of tries to capture it just right. That’s right, Johnson films a number of different fictional death scenarios centered around her father and they perfectly summarize the absurdity, hilarity, and heartbreak at the center of it all.
What binds this film together is the connection between the elder and the younger Johnson. Dick Johnson is strange, clever, sentimental, and completely unembarrassed to fully give himself into the wills of his daughter’s unconventional project. Kirsten Johnson is clearly cut from the same cloth. Every crevice of the documentary is filled with the sincerity of her love for her father, an ever-watchable subject who is ever-changing.
Watching this change take place over a condensed period of time onscreen is absolutely grueling. While at times it feels like the variability of timing such a film is a hindrance to the film as a whole, the timeline occasionally skipping weeks or months, it gives it this sort of home-video feeling that makes it resonate universally. It also allows Johnson to explore the complexities of such a loss and the effects it has on her family in an extraordinarily succinct and comprehensive way.
And as much as this process is fixated on her father’s inevitable death, the actual content of the film speaks to an entirely different truth. Between the increasingly zany death scenes is a celebration of, and a goodbye to, Dick Johnson’s life. We see him playing with his grandkids, celebrating his birthday, going to see old friends, saying goodbye to his workplace, and just about everything else that makes Dick Johnson Dick Johnson. Even the glittery teal celebrity-filled wonderland she envisions as heaven is filled with this life.
Despite its external shell of morbid eccentricity, every moment in Dick Johnson Is Dead is a demonstration of love. It is an empathetic movie for an empathetic figure. And whether that central figure is with us or not, his life lives on, if only on a screen.