In ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead,’ father and daughter confront death on their own terms

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Dick Johnson, a kindly octogenarian and recently retired psychiatrist, strolls down a quiet street in Manhattan. He passes by old buildings; their red brick walls have discolored with age. It’s a mild day, and sunlight shines through the towering tree branches. Dick is smiling.

Then, an air conditioning unit plummets from a high windowsill above, hitting an unsuspecting Dick in the head and instantly killing him.

(Photo: Netflix)

Cut.

Members of the production crew help Dick to his feet. We have exited the world of this film-within-a-film. Dick Johnson is still the same elderly, warmhearted M.D. he was a moment ago. But he is not dead — yet.

“Dick Johnson Is Dead” is director Kirsten Johnson’s beautiful tribute to her father, a profession of love for her best friend. The movie, which won the Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival, chronicles Dick’s life following his dementia diagnosis. No longer able to operate his private practice in Seattle, he relocates to New York to move in with Kirsten. Having already lost her mother to Alzheimer’s — but with little video footage of the brilliant woman she once was — Kirsten decides to immortalize Dick through the cinematic form before it’s too late. She proposes an idea: to repeatedly “kill” him off using movie magic. Dick complies.

What follows is a raw, intimate hybrid of documentary and darkly humorous fiction. Kirsten stages a series of bizarre, “accidental” deaths: a misstep down the stairs, a faceplant on the sidewalk, a falling air conditioner. Through this systematic desensitization, both father and daughter find a sense of control over the inevitable and unknowable road ahead. They can face their fears while doing what they love. Kirsten can operate from behind the camera; Dick, no longer able to take patients due to his deteriorating memory, now has the opportunity to help his daughter on a venture he knows will be cathartic for her.

For each “death,” Kirsten allows viewers behind the curtain, revealing every meticulously planned aspect of the filmmaking process. We see her talk with stunt performers, set up camera angles and consult with the makeup department. We also see the progression of Dick’s illness as his geniality gradually turns into disorientation and discomfort.

But while “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is premised on these fictional freak accidents, the bones of the movie are the everyday interactions Kirsten records with her father. At times, these conversations feel so intensely personal that we, as spectators, question if we should be privy to them. We question if Kirsten should let the camera continue to roll.

These in-between moments — not the glossy, absurdist ones — make the film. In fact, the fake deaths, while compelling, seem slightly out of place. Kirsten concocts a fantasy heaven as well, where chocolate fountains abound, confetti falls from above and Dick and his late wife dance like Astaire and Rogers. These scenes are joyous but dispensable. Although tonal shifts can be effective, here they rarely gel into a coherent tragicomedy.

I would also be remiss not to mention the documentary’s strange depiction of BIPOC. Toward the beginning of the film, before Dick has left his Seattle office, he chats with Mike, a Black man — presumably a close friend. Kirsten asks him how his father passed; Mike replies that he drowned in a boating accident. A few invasive personal questions later, we learn that Mike is the maintenance worker who is tasked with helping clear Dick’s office space for the next tenant. Meanwhile, in heaven, three Black women serve as back-up singers — not included among the luminaries who sit with Dick at his divine dinner table. Even if the Johnsons’ social circles don’t include many BIPOC, it feels slightly exploitative to mine a serviceman’s trauma or cast Black women to fulfill an aesthetic (another track plays over their singing), even if that wasn’t Kirsten’s intention.

Ultimately, the movie’s biggest shortcoming is its overreliance on exposition. In her previous film, the extraordinary “Cameraperson,” Kirsten compiled footage from her decades-spanning career as a cinematographer on projects including “Citizenfour” and “Fahrenheit 9/11.” By weaving together many different vignettes with little explanation, she not only crafted a poignant memoir on the ethics of documentary filmmaking, but she also assumed her audience was intelligent enough to draw connections between the episodes.

In “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” Kirsten’s use of exposition either explicitly states (what would have been) subtext or raises further questions that she does not answer. Though she presents this information in visually creative ways — even her use of voiceover has a nice payoff — it is not necessary.

The images she creates and the emotions she evokes through these images already convey so much. Kirsten’s children giggle with their grandfather as he swats at a stubborn fly. “I think this is their first killing, Dad,” Kirsten says as she films her daughter, who looks on, enraptured. Later, the kids bake him a chocolate cake as a surprise for his birthday. Dick walks in on the preparation, and Kirsten’s son, initially disappointed, realizes, “But lucky … lucky he won’t … He will forget, right?”

“Dick Johnson Is Dead” is a wonderful ode to life and loss and how we narrativize our tragedies to make sense of them. But sometimes it gets too wrapped up in inventing these narratives for its own good.

About halfway through the documentary, Dick Johnson stands on the subway platform at West 4th Street station. An F train comes into view, but stops for no one. Dick takes in the breeze as the subway cars whiz by. For a moment, we wonder if the train will stop — even if deep down we know it won’t.

Long live Dick Johnson.

“Dick Johnson Is Dead” is now streaming on Netflix.

Contact Jared Klegar at jkklegar ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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