In an episode of the sitcom Friends, Monica and Chandler host a memorial service for their brother/friend Ross. Except Ross is very much still alive. He just wants to see who will show up to mourn his passing when he actually dies. When the doorbell rings, he gets excited. “My first mourner!” he exclaims, before running and hiding behind a door. But when barely anyone shows up to pay their respects, Ross is disappointed. “I tell you, when I actually die, some people are getting seriously haunted,” he says.
The recently released Dick Johnson Is Dead features a similar scene. A funeral is being hosted for Dick Johnson, who is still alive. Like Ross, Dick too is listening to the service from behind the door. Except this is not a sitcom, it is a documentary. And while the scene is not funny (although the rest of the film is darkly comical), it is very poignant.
All the attendees at the service know that Dick is alive and this scene is being shot for his daughter’s — filmmaker Kirsten Johnson’s — film. But they still get emotional as they speak about losing a man who has meant a great deal to them. Clearly, all of it feels very real to them. After all, in many ways, they are already losing Dick.
He is moving to New York City to live with Kirsten, and he is closing his practice as a clinical psychiatrist. He is also suffering from dementia, and is starting to lose his memory. The next time Dick’s friends and loved ones see him, he may not remember them. Or worse, they may never see him, or only see him again at his actual funeral.
Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead is a tale of familial bonds, friendship and loss that will resonate universally
Dick Johnson Is Dead is Kirsten’s attempt to process the inevitable. In this genre-pushing documentary, Kirsten directs Dick as he enacts potential death scenarios. During the course of the film, he falls down a flight of stairs. He is struck in the neck and bleeds out. He is walking down the street and an air conditioner falls on his head.
Death is a constant presence in the film, which reminds one of the Final Destination movies. Viewers of those films would be constantly on the lookout for potential creative deaths. Kirsten also appears to be in a similar frame of mind all the time. Thoughts of her father’s death are constantly with her. She sees death all around them. When Dick is clearing out his office, she says to him, “This is actually looking like a good situation for a heart attack.”
Dick goes along with most things his daughter says. Watching him get into the process is enthralling. He sits through interviews of potential stunt doubles for the reenactments. He dozes off in the coffin being used for his pretend funeral. He speaks to the crew in between takes, and laughs at the absurdity of the situation.
Of course, Dick gets tired too. But he is doing all this to help his daughter prepare and process. At the centre of it all is Dick’s relationship with Kirsten. It shows just how far a father will go to provide his child whatever support they may need.
The film is many things. In some ways it is a meditative experience, with quiet moments between bursts of laughter and witty exchanges between the father and daughter duo. It is a celebration of life, and an exploration of ideas of death, the afterlife and paradise. But, ultimately, it is an exercise in letting go. While Dick lets go of many things during the film — his clinical practice, his house, his car — Kirsten struggles. She finally learns to let go of what she cannot control, by directing her father’s death over and over again.
It is perhaps too obvious to compare Dick Johnson Is Dead to Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing (2012), which also used reenactments by its characters as a storytelling device. Of course, the stakes are very different in the films. Oppenheimer’s critical darling featured former Indonesian death-squad leaders reenacting their mass-killings. But both films manage to uncover some emotional truths by asking regular people to act. They also raise some pertinent questions about the documentary filmmaking process, and performing for the camera.
This is far from Kirsten’s first foray into experimental storytelling. In her critically acclaimed autobiographical documentary Cameraperson (2016), she used footage that she has shot across her career. Much of the footage was from existing documentary projects on which she was a cameraperson. With that film, Kirsten introduced the audience to new ways of looking, and she does so again with her latest feature.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is a must watch for anyone interested in the evolution of the documentary genre. But, more importantly, it is a tale of familial bonds, friendship and loss that will resonate universally.
Published in Dawn, ICON, November 1st, 2020