Veteran cinematographer and documentarian Kirsten Johnson follows one directorial masterwork — 2016’s Cameraperson — with another. Stylistically different from the director’s previous production, Dick Johnson Is Dead captures the filmmaker’s relationship with her father, a longtime Seattle-based psychiatrist whose declining health necessitates retirement and a move across the country to Kirsten’s place in Manhattan. During the physical and metaphorical journey, the Johnsons talk candidly about the Alzheimer’s disease that has now begun to erode Dick’s neurocognitive abilities and in 2007 led to the death of his wife Catherine Joy, Kirsten’s mom.
The creative enterprise, which combines Johnson’s instincts for investigation and her eye for memorable visual storytelling, operates with a sleight-of-hand premise misdirected by the movie’s title. Dr. Johnson is most definitely not dead, but his mortality looms large, reminding the moviemaker and audience members alike of the impermanence of our lives on earth. Johnson places her dad, who is always cheerful and game, in a series of elaborately-staged gags dramatically depicting Dick’s potential demise(s). The results, including the hilarious implausibility of an air-conditioning unit dropping, cartoon-like, from an apartment window, are paired with a gorgeous diorama of Dick in heaven — a heaven complete with Buster Keaton, Bruce Lee and a number of other artists and historical figures.
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The several gruesome vignettes in which Dick meets his end are reminiscent of the imaginative mock suicides in Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude. Both films examine big picture considerations, including the philosophical standard often referred to as “life and how to live it,” and anyone who has experienced the cruelties of seeing a once vivacious loved one succumb to dementia will recognize the catharsis that can come from laughing in the face of an utterly impossible set of circumstances. Kirsten and Dick refuse to reject content that some will argue is undignified. They make a great team.
Assuredly, the bond between daughter and father here is strong and special, and Dick Johnson Is Dead resonates as a kind of intimate therapy for both Johnsons. Dick, even as the sharpest elements of his mental acuity and short-term memory capacity dissipate, recognizes the closeness to Kirsten afforded by their strange collaboration. And Kirsten exorcises the unthinkable by anticipating what it will be like to ultimately lose her beloved parent. One of the movie’s most compelling motifs revolves around the role of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the personal history of the Johnson family — along with the ways in which they were, and were not, bound by that theology.
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Johnson brilliantly arranges and organizes the vignettes that account for her unique “living obituary.” These constructions, which are routinely exposed via cutaways to wide shots of sets that contextualize Johnson’s intentions, move in a deliberate and inevitable direction. I love the way Johnson intersperses the more quotidian milestones. Dick packing up his office is just as poignant as the aftermath of a harrowing Halloween sequence, for example. And the best scene in the movie might be one that takes place while a camera is tipped on its side at floor level. It is every bit as good as any of the show-stopping resurrections.
Greg Carlson (@gcarlson1972) is an associate professor of communication studies and the director of the interdisciplinary film studies minor program at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. He is also the film editor of the High Plains Reader, where his writing has appeared since 1997.