Death isn’t wasted on the dead, exactly, but much that follows in its black-veiled wake is: A heartfelt eulogy, after all, is often composed of warm words we should have shared with the deceased before they turned cold. Eighties soft-rock band Mike and the Mechanics had a #1 hit with this very observation, of course: “I wish I could have told him in the living years,” they crooned, mourning unspoken father-child affections over waves of glossy synths. Kirsten Johnson’s wonderful new documentary “Dick Johnson is Dead” takes the same sentiment and gets one step ahead of it, with less sentimental sturm und drang. A profoundly heartfelt cinematic eulogy to the filmmaker’s living father Richard, made with his good-humored collaboration as he slowly slips into the limbo of Alzheimer’s, it also doubles as a witty, thoughtful rumination on death itself, the ways we prepare for it (or don’t), and what may or may not come next.
Already snapped up by Netflix, who are sure to keep this unique item in the documentary conversation throughout 2020, “Dick Johnson is Dead” represents a significant stylistic departure from DP-turned-director Johnson’s exquisite debut feature “Cameraperson” — an equally personal endeavor that deftly stitched a career’s work behind the camera into an illuminating archival memoir.
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Here, as she instead casts her gaze forward into the unknowns of mortality and beyond, the focus is on creating new images: both of present-tense life as she and Richard currently know it, and of an afterlife fancifully imagined as a glittery découpage of multiple eras and alternative timelines. This is a rare, extravagantly playful response to the personal terror and tumult of ageing and watching loved ones fade before our own eyes. Uncowed by the gravity of their subject, filmmaker and subject are mutually happy to risk kitsch, bad taste and inky gallows humor in the process — because, well, whose death is it anyway?
A clue as to why Johnson has taken this unconventional, occasionally irreverent approach to a potentially sore subject comes in a brief, quietly lacerating extract of archival footage that binds “Dick Johnson is Dead” to “Cameraperson”: a grainy home video of Johnson’s late mother Katie Jo, deep in the fog of Alzheimer’s disease, struggling to identify her daughter by name or face. Some of the most moving passages of “Cameraperson” likewise documented the disorienting effect of Katie Jo’s dementia prior to her death in 2007; here, Johnson sorrowfully admits that these upsettingly vulnerable videos are the only ones she has of her mother at all.
With Richard, a retired clinical psychologist, diagnosed with the same inexorable disease, Johnson is determined to chronicle his last years differently. Yet the aim of “Dick Johnson is Dead” isn’t merely to preserve evidence of his bright, loving personality and their tender, joke-filled relationship before his memory and sense of self falter irretrievably. More provocatively, father and daughter collude to cheat his demise through cinematic artistry and forgery, enabling Richard to “die” and rise again on his own conscious terms — and in doing so, to prepare both of them for the less controlled inevitability of his passing. Increasingly elaborate accidental deaths are devised and repeatedly staged with stunt doubles; a kind of heaven is built and set-dressed to gaudy extremes; his most detailed preferences for the ideal afterlife are considered and realised with a flourish. (If you can’t have the toe deformities that have bothered you all your life repaired by a foot double when you die, when can you?)
There’s spry comedy in these games and fantasies, but also a sly note of spiritual defiance. Johnson was raised in a conservative Seventh-Day Adventist household, with its austere restrictions on everyday pleasures (no dancing, no alcohol, no movies) and its firm belief in Christian mortalism: the notion that, rather than ascending to the afterlife, the souls of believers remain unconscious between death and resurrection, to be awoken only when Christ returns to Earth.
Johnson delicately negotiates a conflicted relationship to this faith, first contravened in childhood, when Richard took her to see “Young Frankenstein”; that she became a filmmaker herself represents an emphatic completion of that arc. Richard’s own religious status is never clearly pinned down, though the joyous designer heaven they build together — an anti-Adventist environment by virtue of its very existence, even before you get to its jazzily choreographed dance numbers and movie-star cutouts — suggests a willingness to define his faith according to his particular values and passions. “The Bible says we’ll be resurrected, and that’s good enough for me,” he concludes with a smile, knowing full well that he’ll soon forget such finer theological distinctions.
For there it is: As wildly unhinged and exuberant as Johnson’s film often is in the face of glummer realities, the sense of a ticking, unforgiving clock in the background is never entirely shed. Editor and co-writer Nels Bangerter gives proceedings a firm chronological backbone amid its parallel-universe flights of fancy. The incremental deterioration of Richard’s physical and mental strength, as he moves from the family home in Seattle to his daughter’s New York apartment, is tracked with occasionally heart-stopping perceptiveness by Johnson’s ever-keen, always-on camera.
“He’s so rarely himself anymore,” she says, with the knowing resignment of one who’s already endured the pain of losing a parent twice: first to Alzheimer’s and then to the Reaper. At least this audacious, inventive elegy for a father makes it clear to any viewer who she means when he says “himself”: At once a celebration and a lament, simultaneously jubilant and ineffably sad, it’s a film worth sticking around to see.