Streaming: ’Dick Johnson’: Dead and loving it!
With “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” filmmaker Kirsten Johnson continues her bold habit of walking us to a dramatic precipice and making us look over with her. Her must-see 2016 documentary, “Cameraperson,” includes many death-defying moments from her long career as a cinematographer on documentary projects. One especially memorable scene features a small child wielding a large ax — it’s so anxiety-producing you want to reach through the screen and snatch away the weapon.
While her latest film is a gentler one about her father, Dick, Johnson continues to agitate and engage us in a similar way. After decades spent as practicing psychiatrist, Dick retires and says, “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies” with a big smile. He’s been diagnosed with dementia and must move from independence and a big house in Seattle to a one-bedroom apartment with Johnson in New York. He gets to spend more time with his grandkids, even if he now really needs their help to pull him up when he finds himself on the floor.
To pass the time, Johnson and her dad stage scenes of Dick’s sudden death. In one, an a/c unit falls from an apartment window and smashes his skull, in another a construction worker nicks Dick’s jugular and causes him to bleed out in the street. While silly, the dramatizations are good preparation for how quickly calamity can arise when every trip down a staircase is excruciatingly fraught.
Cataloging her dad’s fading memory reminds Johnson of her mother’s death from Alzheimer’s, but the film is often quite funny. When the Johnsons make a trip to Loma Linda, California, to see an old flame of Dick’s called Lolita, she references all the “shagging that’s been going on here.”
Dick, a devout Seventh Day Adventist, cheerfully waits for his ascent to heaven, but Johnson is less patient, so she makes a heaven on Earth and films Dick frolicking under lots of sunshine and sequins. Dick is a remarkable man, incredibly good-natured in the face of oblivion and still maintaining an evergreen ability to share a blazing insight from the recesses of his mind. He’s also a champion napper — at one point he sleeps happily in his own coffin at a practice funeral.
The documentary shows how we, even the non-professionals, become photographer and cinematographer of our own parents’ and grandparents’ declines. With its creativity and lack of sentimentality, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” can perhaps provide genuine help for those supporting loved ones in similar situations.