Director: Kirsten Johnson
This year has seen a lot of people lose elderly relatives to the ongoing global pandemic and most families have been unable to say a traditional goodbye through funeral ceremonies. Reduced gatherings, social distancing… these things and more have been barriers at times, stopping us from communing when we most feel the need to. The funeral ritual doesn’t mark the end of grief but a kind of initial acceptance of the finality of things, but it is so ingrained as part of the process that without it, we feel unmoored. Grief is an alien planet anyway. Taking away one of the few landmarks feels doubly cruel.
Confronting the reality of death is something we’d all rather avoid but here renowned cameraperson Kirsten Johnson puts a morbidly humorous spin on things. Her father Dick, diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, agrees to be the subject of a film in which he accidentally dies in a number of ways. Car accidents, heart attacks, struck by falling office equipment etc. It may sound like an incredibly inappropriate project, but the process as documented is an extraordinarily intimate portrait of family bonding and acceptance. It winds up seeming not only playful but healthy.
A career psychotherapist, Dick is warm, witty, has a crafty streak to him. He is affable and charming on screen, game for everything, from trying out a coffin for snugness, or partaking in a delirious slow-motion fantasy of heaven, awestruck beneath a rain of confetti.
Along the way Johnson and her father reminisce on the loss of her mother – also to Alzheimer’s – and we are even ‘treated’ to Johnson’s only footage of her, sadly forgetting her daughter’s name. It speaks to the bracing directness of the feature, redefining what we mean when we say a filmmaker’s work can be ‘personal’.
Johnson has a knack for bringing her own identity into the work. Her celebrated feature Cameraperson – comprised wholly of unused footage from a career of projects – has the feel of a collage or mood board; disparate elements that unveil the person behind said camera. Dick Johnson is Dead, however, is on another level entirely. Even though Johnson by and large keeps the camera on her father rather than herself, we’re being invited to see this man as she does, with a familiarity and a shorthand that is incredibly affectionate.
This also makes some of the film exceedingly moving without – for the most part – feeling particularly manipulative. It mostly captures the two at play, laughing through their wacky scenes, but there are tears, too. In these moments, Johnson retains a sense of privacy and has the camera turned away. Close as Dick Johnson is Dead gets to confronting death, some things are too personal for our presence, and this feels right, too. Tears of joy, meanwhile, are allowed contemplative screen time.
An anecdote about self-consciousness midway through the film brings up touching truisms about how we often hide parts of ourselves from others out of shame, and how nonsensical these preoccupations can seem from the outside. The point being that these are often self-imposed barriers to living our fullest lives. In an unsurprising dichotomy, this film about death becomes a celebration of life.
“Real life is often a lot more fascinating than what you can make up”, Johnson herself says while in conversation with her father at one stage. As playful as the make-believe scenes are, it is the authentic relationship between these two that sustains and defines the film and gives it such poignancy, mirth and strength. It winds up playing as the warmest dedication to a loved one seen in recent memory. If the methodology feels like a warped spoof on Joshua Oppenheimer’s high-concept documentary The Act of Killing, the resulting film has an entirely different feel.
I mean, it helps that Dick Johnson isn’t a remorseless war criminal…
That both Johnsons take such glee in coming of up with gory, slapstick accidents to end Dick’s life speaks to a wish for escapism from the long goodbye they’re ultimately both facing. This sense of distancing comes out perhaps most tellingly when Dick speaks of himself in the third person during an emotional moment, saying, “Your father’s a wreck”. The film at large is an exercise in relieving the pressure. Gallows humour? Most definitely. But it also appears therapeutic. In this way Dick Johnson is Dead makes a case for being more candid about death; still one of the most taboo subjects we have in society.
Some might call it gauche. I call it brave. An audacious act of sharing.