I’ve always wanted to be in the movies.
A steady stream of phone calls about Dick Johnson‘s growing forgetfulness eventually forced his daughter to admit a sad truth: it wasn’t safe for him to continue living alone. Anyone who’s seen Kirsten Johnson‘s previous documentary Cameraperson knows this reality will hit even harder considering she’s gone through similar circumstances before. It’s only been seven years since her mother Katie Jo passed away after a long bout with Alzheimer’s, so to turn around and have to watch her father suffer from dementia now is a tough pill to swallow. But that shared experience and this disease’s differences also provide them an opportunity. This time they’ll be able to face it head-on together with eyes open, a wealth of humor, and the memory of what was alongside what is.
We can tell from Johnson’s voiceover of footage depicting her mother’s inability to remember who she is that she deeply regrets never having filmed her before the illness took hold. These moments that ostensibly depict a stranger light years removed from the woman Katie Jo was are all she has—all her children have to know a grandmother they never really did. So when the decision is made to move Dick from Seattle to New York City in order for her to take care of him from her apartment, so too is the idea to document this chapter in their lives while simultaneously preparing themselves for the inevitable. How do you prepare for death? By enduring it … over and over again. Welcome to Dick Johnson Is Dead.
It’s an ingenious conceit. Fabricate multiple ways in which Dick might die. Stage them, film them, and blur the line between fact and fiction in a way that might just steel their nerves enough to enjoy every second they have left before the real thing occurs. There’s the random and absurd with a falling air conditioner landing atop his head on the sidewalk below and the tragic potential of slipping on the stairs to tumble down into a bloody mess, limbs akimbo. And all the while they can confront their emotions, remember the past, and laugh. There’s so much genuinely warm laughter. We need it too since there’s also a large amount of tears. Some are joyful (the love they share is unshakeable) and some are absolutely devastating.
Both are cathartic, though. Kirsten decides to stage a funeral wherein Dick can stand at the back of his church to watch and listen as his friends and family eulogize him. It’s a beautiful gesture that proves mutually beneficial considering the tough road ahead, but also one steeped in the sorrow of knowing the real one isn’t as far away as many would hope. That Dick’s friend can break down so completely despite knowing he’s standing a few feet away is thus the epitome of love through loss. There’s an existential profundity in this performance that goes beyond fantasy to expose the pain a diagnosis such as his carries. While Johnson isn’t dead per se, he also isn’t “fully” alive. The man they all knew is disappearing.
And unlike Katie Jo, Dick knows it. Kirsten and he have conversations about 3:00am attempts to catch a train that he has no recollection of having happened a few hours later. He laughs at how unbelievable that discrepancy is because the alternative is to lament the decline and let depression close him off from the happy times clarity still brings. We smile too because of how inspiring his reaction to it all proves. Whether it’s enjoying these hijinks he himself unknowingly ignites or playacting a wild scene in Heaven with cardboard luminaries, dancing, and a reunion with his wife that he prays will occur when Jesus returns to shepherd his Seventh-day Adventist disciples, there’s simply too much life on display to let us get bogged down by sadness.
That’s not to say it’s all sunshine, though. Not when the things Dick agrees to do begin to hit too close to home. Where he was game for pretty much anything at the start, the film eventually sees him becoming withdrawn and increasingly confused. Suddenly a line must be considered (if not fully drawn)—especially since Johnson knows her father will do anything she asks out of sheer trust despite the potential emotional and psychological ramifications. Farce makes way towards introspection as escapism transforms into acceptance. So even though they strive to excise taboo and meet what’s coming with objectivity as a means to cope, melancholy can’t help but set in nonetheless. More than an exercise for today, Dick Johnson Is Dead becomes a time capsule for tomorrow.
[1-3] Dick Johnson in Dick Johnson is Dead. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix / 2020