Dick Johnson Is Dead (2020)
February 26, 2022 1:25 AM - Subscribe

A daughter helps her father prepare for the end of his life.

As her father nears the end of his life, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson stages his death in inventive and comical ways to help them both face the inevitable.

Hannah McGill: In the face of this encroaching loss, what is the value of Johnson’s patricidal tableaux? As observers, we undergo at a stranger’s remove a version of her efforts at mental preparation for the inevitable. We see Dick robbed of animation and of dignity; we experience relief at his revival; we appreciate him anew.

What we don’t do is become inured to the idea of his death; conversely, we attach to his living image more, a process that Johnson acknowledges and encourages by keeping us guessing until the final hour about Dick’s actual condition. The two worlds touch briefly, and upsettingly, when Dick loses sight of the context for what he’s doing and takes artificial blood to be real. A prerequisite for Johnson’s processing of the real through the pretend is a firm grasp on which is which; we see her exhort her crew to refer only to fake blood and not blood.

Derek Smith: Dick’s untimely ends are startling and funny, many of them accomplished with stuntmen and effects teams, whose efforts behind the scenes become as much a part of the film as the deaths themselves. Dick Johnson Is Dead is very much a film about its own making, one which repeatedly exposes its artifice. We understand that Dick’s true departure from this mortal coil is unlikely to come so swiftly and cinematically as it does in the film, that it’s more likely to involve a gruelingly slow decay of Dick’s body and mind than an airborne appliance.

In a sense, these meticulously crafted simulations of Dick’s death aren’t performed for the benefit of the audience at all. Rather, they’re Johnson’s highly personal means of acclimating herself to the eventual loss of her dad. In one of the documentary’s more poignant scenes, Dick, covered in fake blood from one of the death sequences, loses himself in the moment, forgetting that he’s acting in a film and believing himself to be in mortal peril.

Though not as idiosyncratic as Abbas Kiarostami’s work,
Dick Johnson Is Dead evinces a similar ability to find truth in the gray area between documentary and fiction. In the film’s most eloquent melding of truth and invention, Johnson elaborately stages her father’s funeral, with his friends, family, and fellow church parishioners all in attendance. As a close friend offers a tear-filled eulogy, Dick wonderingly remarks, “I think he thinks it’s the real thing.”

Alissa Wilkinson: It’s a very playful film. In some sequences, Johnson stages her father’s arrival in heaven. In others, we’re not sure if we’re looking at something that really happened or something that’s imagined. Some scenes are shot in a vérité style as Dick plays with his grandchildren, or packs up his office after retiring, or talks about his late wife, Kirsten’s mother, who had Alzheimer’s and died several years ago.

For anyone who’s lost a parent — and, I suspect, a lot of people who haven’t — Dick Johnson Is Dead feels more like a gift than a harrowing viewing experience. We are invited into the intimate experience of helplessly watching someone, or even ourselves, lose the capacities they once had and face what that means. But the presentation of this uncomfortable truth is accomplished with generosity and love.

And most of all, Dick Johnson Is Dead is an exercise in imagination, and an inquiry into whether imagining the death of a loved one and their hopes for the hereafter might magnify or blunt the blow of death when it finally comes. (Johnson’s parents are devout Seventh-Day Adventists, the faith she was raised in, and the ways belief and doubt shape how we confront death are an important part of the movie.)

Which means that in some ways Dick Johnson Is Dead is a gentle rebuke to Derrida’s and Barthes’s ideas about the link between images of people and mortality — or maybe, more accurately, a counterpoint to the idea that this is something to fear.

posted by Carillon (2 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I just saw this today so I can't say I've fully processed it. It was interesting how the fake deaths were spaced out, I think it makes sense given what we know/saw of how things were progressing, but I felt that the fake deaths slowed towards the second half? This is also a very personal thing, but I really liked Dick Johnson, but had trouble with the Seventh Day Adventist faith part of his life. From what I know about them, a lot of their official beliefs are contrary to my own understanding of the world. But it was wonderful seeing their relationship, his warmth and love of his kids and grandkids. It hits hard too as I feel I'm losing my own father in some ways. Small right now, but I can see them happening slowly and then all at once in the future, and I worry about my own ability to handle his changes. Seeing her do what she does was heart warming and reassuring. He's a pretty special subject and this is a pretty special film.
posted by Carillon at 1:31 AM on February 26, 2022 [1 favorite]

I just stopped by to say that this film is incredible, uncomfortable, and brilliant in its use of discomfort (so many layers of discomfort!) to heighten the experience of watching such a portrayal of a loving, multifaceted, unique and yet eminently relatable relationship, and that it deserves more than just one comment on its FanFare page. Now there are two.
posted by skoosh at 6:38 AM on March 9, 2022 [1 favorite]

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