' ' Cinema Romantico: Dick Johnson Is Dead

Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Dick Johnson Is Dead

There is a moment in “Dick Johnson Is Dead” when we meet director Kirsten Johnson’s mother, deceased seven years ago. She is on camera, in the throes of Alzheimer’s, trying to recall her daughter’s name, really trying, and coming up empty. It’s brutal to watch, for multiple reasons, and betrays why Kirsten Johnson must have wanted to make a documentary about her father, Dick, in the first place, to freeze his image and to preserve his voice on camera. If that was it, though, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” might just be a moving photo album and not much else. Kirsten, though, pushes far beyond that simple idea. Indeed, the title, like so much else in the film, is a sleight of hand; Dick Johnson Is NOT Dead. He is very much alive but his daughter has thought to stage his death, over and over. He’s walking down the street and an air conditioner falls on top of him. He falls down the stairs and hits his head. In the latter, the camera looks down from above, made doubly eerie later when he learn his wife fell down the stairs too. But then Kirsten starts talking from just off camera, coaching him on how to look, both shattering the illusion and raising the dead, speaking to the nimble middle ground that “Dick Johnson Is Dead” occupies, a complexity belying its title. A longtime cameraperson, Kirsten has spent most of her life looking through a viewfinder and it only makes sense that in the face of her father’s impending earthly demise she might want to look through it to come to terms. And yet if the ensuing documentary reveals her far-reaching imagination, it also betrays the camera’s limitations. 

Kirsten is not only imagining her father’s resurrection, innately tied to his Seventh Adventist beliefs, that the righteous will be revived upon Christ’s return, but the afterlife too. She recounts these moments  with a virtual explosion of imagery in dreamlike slow motion. She even imagines his deformed toes, which Dick confesses to having bothered him all his life, being healed by water from Jesus, a filmmaker’s imagination rectifying life’s discomforts. But Kirsten’s cinematic healing powers are even more mundane and profound than imagining the great beyond. Her voiceover explaining how one frightful day when Dick unwittingly drove his car through a construction site signaled the early stages of his Alzheimer’s is set to a scene of Dick piloting a convertible down a sun-dappled freeway, as if returning to him the power to drive.

The camera in the backseat suggests not just safety protocol but the movie’s specific point-of-view, daughter looking over father’s shoulder and about her as much as him. Indeed, a moment in which we literally see Kirsten recording voiceover dialogue innately suggests just how personal this documentary is. And though Dick’s manifestly affable presence is willing to go along with this variety of stunts, one intimate moment of ostensibly behind-the-scenes footage forces Kirsten to reckon with what she is putting her father through, calling wrap on shooting for a day, as if her unnatural demands suddenly dawn on her. It suggests that despite these fastidious enactments of death and resurrection, she might not quite have control over everything. Later in the movie, when Dick briefly becomes separated from his family and lost, the setting, Halloween night, evoking a horror movie is entirely incidental rather than intended, making it doubly distressing.

Dick’s own backstory is mostly incidental too. This is not a deep dive into his personal history and the manner in which Kirsten inserts details of his backstory demonstrate what he’s losing, like having to shut down his practice as a therapist to move in with his daughter, standing at his office door one last time, taking a look around, like a piece of his already completed life puzzle being removed. Kirsten and Dick confront his looming death together and Kirsten freezes her father on film but she can’t stop what’s coming, a shot framing her father in a window with lightly falling snow bringing the fogginess of dementia to terrible, moving life. 

There is a moment when Dick rides in the passenger seat of Kirsten’s car as she ferries her kids to school. After the children are gone, he’s talking things through, saying he’s always been pretty good at living in the here and now. But then Kirsten holds the close-up. Look at him. He looks so far away.

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