by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Kirsten Johnson
Cast: Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson
My Rating: 7/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100% Certified Fresh

PLOT: A documentary filmmaker helps her father (and herself) prepare for the end of his life.

It’s been said that, to understand what a movie is really about, examine how the main characters have changed, and there you go.  When it comes to knowing exactly what a documentary is about, I would say: describe what you’ve learned after it’s over, and that’s what it’s about.

So, what did I learn when Dick Johnson Is Dead was over?

…that’s not so easy to describe.  Several years ago, documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson lost her mother to Alzheimer’s.  Not long after that, her aging father, Dick, started to show signs of memory loss.  She realized she was unprepared for how to deal with the reality that, one day, her father would die.  In the film, she describes how important he is to her daily life how the concept of losing him is “unimaginable.”  To help her process this looming fact of life, she decided to make a film about it.

But not just any film.  Aside from the expected footage of conversations with her father and her children and friends and family, Kirsten Johnson stages fictional scenes depicting her father dying or being killed.  Several times.  Starring Dick Johnson himself.  (And the occasional stuntman.)  In one scene, an air conditioner falls from an apartment building onto his head.  In another, he trips down a staircase, winding up at the bottom with a broken leg and blood pooling on the floor.  My personal favorite, adding a nice mystical touch, shows Dick napping in his favorite chair and ottoman…and he simply rises off the ground and out of the frame, chair and all.

What is going on here?  Kirsten’s father is naturally willing to go along with nearly anything his daughter asks him because, you know, it’s his daughter.  But how is this helping Kirsten?  How is this helping her father?  What am I, the viewer, supposed to get out of watching those scenes staging his death?

Most of them are clearly fake.  Kirsten sometimes leaves the camera and sound running while she shouts direction from just off camera; when the scene is over, you’ll often see assistants run on and help Dick stand up and clean the blood off him, or remove his costume, or help him back to his favorite chair between takes.  But a couple of them took me by surprise and were mildly unsettling.

This is hard for me to explain.  I felt as if Kirsten was somehow taking advantage of her father’s developing dementia to help her deal with his passing.  It seemed…unseemly.  Of course, he is a volunteer, and he was never put in any danger or forced to do anything uncomfortable.  But…something about it felt wrong.  It felt self-indulgent in a way.  “I am having a problem dealing with your death, so let me put you in a coffin in a church so I can feel what it’s going to be like when it’s for real.  This will help me with my process when you die.”  I am probably being completely unfair with that analysis, but I would be wrong to omit how I felt at times during this film.

But.  On the other hand…

There are scenes of such lyrical beauty that I was glued to the screen.  One scene Kirsten stages is her father arriving in heaven.  Dick finds himself surrounded by actors wearing big black-and-white cutout masks of people like Bruce Lee, Farrah Fawcett, and Sigmund Freud.  (One wonders if she asked Dick who he would like to meet in heaven.)  And then, in a wonderful moment, a door opens, and in walks his wife, Kirsten’s mother…again, just an actress wearing a big cutout mask, but the picture is of her from when she and Dick first met.  And they dance together.  (With the help of some fancy editing because Dick is not as nimble as he used to be.)

Dick was born with deformed toes, a fact of which he was ashamed for his entire life.  In another wonderful fantasy scene, Jesus Himself anoints Dick’s feet, and presto, his toes are normal again.  The look of shocked delight on Dick’s face is priceless.  …even though, you know, it’s not real, but still.

Interspersed with all this are scenes showing Dick’s slow decline in the real world.  He was once a successful psychiatrist, but he was finally forced to retire when he kept double-booking clients and not showing up for appointments.  He closes his office in Seattle, packs up, and moves in with Kirsten in her New York apartment, which is just a few doors down from the apartment where her two children live with their father and his husband.  (That scenario deserved, I thought, more explanation, but I got none…sounds like the setup for a long-running sit-com.)  Kirsten hires a caretaker with experience in caring for patients in their last stages of life.  Dick starts waking up in the middle of the night thinking he has to catch a train to work.  Multiple times.

These scenes are undeniably powerful because of the extraordinary access we get via Kirsten’s camera.  We see the amused confusion on Dick’s face when she asks him if he remembers getting up in the middle of the night…he doesn’t.  But he laughs.  “Oh, my, your father’s a wreck, sweetheart.”  It’s all doubly poignant because of how his wife succumbed to Alzheimer’s.  And here he goes down a similar road at the far end of his own life.  Powerful stuff.

…and then two extraordinary scenes occur.  I won’t spoil them.  They’re not exactly “extraordinary”, I guess, but the manner in which they occur and what we discover after they happen makes them extraordinary, to me.  And it’s here at the end of the movie that I really started feeling torn.  Yes, it’s a somber, effective look at Death with a capital “D” and how we choose to deal with it.  But…but…a part of me felt like it was shamelessly manipulative, especially those last two scenes.

Perhaps I’m the wrong audience for this movie.  Both of my parents are still alive.  I have not yet experienced that kind of loss.  I’m fifty-one years old as of this writing.  To paraphrase Indiana Jones, I’ve reached the point where life stops giving and starts taking away.  I’ve lost both sets of grandparents, two uncles, and more theatre friends and acquaintances I’d care to think about.  But I still have Mami and Papi.  I am blessed.  And I cannot for one second imagine how my ability to deal with either of their deaths would be improved by filming my mother in a coffin in a church, or by filming a scene where my father is killed after a fall.

I dunno.  It was profound and well made, and it clearly resonated with critics.  Maybe I’ll watch it again in ten or twenty or whatever years when I’ve lost at least one of my parents.  Maybe then I’ll be more in tune with Kirsten’s frame of mind.  Until then…I recommend Dick Johnson Is Dead if for no other reason than it’s one of the most unique documentaries I’ve ever seen.

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