Alzheimer’s is often described as a “long goodbye.” It’s a progressive disease which slowly robs the individual of their memories and facilities, up to the point of loss of all communication skills and the inability to engage with anything around them. For those who are diagnosed with it, it means a loss of self and agency. For their loved ones, it can mean so much more. In her latest documentary, Dick Johnson Is Dead, director Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) explores both sides of the loss created by the illness via surreal humor which never loses any sense of poignancy as she records her father, C. Richard Johnson, as they begin their goodbyes. Via a combination of staged sequences, home footage, raw footage, and endless cinematic trickery, audiences are invited to get to know Dick Johnson as he is before he leaves his loved ones for good.
As you can guess from the title, the film explores Dick’s death more than it does his life, but it does so by exploring what Alzheimer’s takes away and how we have to celebrate what we can while we can. Johnson conveys this in a multitude of ways that keep a truly devastating tale from ever feeling that way. She utilizes staged sequences in the form of creating heaven, or a version of it, filled with dancers, a flowing chocolate fountain (he does so love chocolate), and even a few miracles that Dick can engage with. One might accuse such a scene of being too fanciful or immature as most of the figures in the heaven sequence wear giant photographs of primarily famous faces. Until, that is, Johnson explains how she was raised by her parents as a Seventh-day Adventist, which means they weren’t allowed to do things like watch movies, yet her father sneaked her and her brother into a screening of Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Suddenly, the fact that faces of Buster Keaton, Bruce Lee, and Farrah Fawcett, along with Frida Kahlo, Sigmund Freud, and others takes on an entirely different meaning in this representation of Dick’s heaven. They aren’t just a random assortment of famous faces, but people significant to Dick’s life. How is a mystery to the audience, yet it’s clear from the presentation and organization that it matters to Dick. Something about seeing his face light up with joy (yes, even in the staged segments) makes it truly feel like we’re sharing in some celestial event that only he is meant to be privy to. The whole of Dick Johnson feels like this as Johnson both creates scenarios for the audience to be a part of as well as presents more personal somber moments on which we are essentially eavesdropping thanks to her camera and mics. Impressively, there’s not a single moment captured real or staged which (a) feels inauthentic or (b) creates a sense that we, the audience, are not where we belong. Rather, in moments like the above creation of heaven or in showing us a private moment, Johnson does not separate the audience from Dick. She wants us to know this warm, loving, funny man as she does.
There’s a moment within Dick Johnson Is Dead that’s simultaneously brilliantly hilarious and inconsolably tragic. As with other aspects of the film, Johnson uses a mixture of staged and heavily choreographed sequences and raw footage to communicate the varying moments of life with her father. In this one, its Halloween and Dick is wearing a costume that makes it look like he’s carry his own head in his hands having been lopped off at the neck and he’s trying to leave a dilapidated room in the vein of The Munsters. The tv offers no comfort and when trying to escape via a side door, it’s revealed to be a portal to a nursing facility. After standing their taking it in, he shuts the door and returns to the couch despondent. Johnson then enters the room, herself in costume, and eats candy with her dad. The entire set-up is comical, but the truth is Johnson’s sequence is making a farce of a real event on Halloween where Dick was left behind to rest and forgot where he was. In discussing that moment, Dick describes the fear of being left behind and it lingers in the air and with the audience.
“Left behind” means different things in a variety of contexts. As a member of the Seventh-day Adventist Church, it’s not death which is feared, but that one might be left in their resting place after the resurrection comes. As a man of 86 years, it means not being able to keep up. As a person living in a new city, it means having no sense of location. As a person coming to terms with a loss of self, it means being unable to learn and grow as was once able. Taken individually, these contexts are upsetting. Taken together, they are downright debilitating. Using the raw footage from Halloween night, the audience can see and hear Dick discuss what happened with Kirsten. They can see the concern take shape on his usually smiling and relaxed face in the form of teary eyes, mouth agape, fingers gently pressed to his lips. As with the dream-like sequences, Johnson doesn’t hold back here either, inviting the audience to see the struggle of the illness upon the afflicted. Via the footage Johnson presents us with, she makes it clear that what her father possesses is that fear of being left behind, of missing out, of not being present — mentally, not physically — and that it weighs on him daily.
For all of the film’s splash, and it has so much wonderful splash, Dick Johnson is a story about humanity first. Even as Johnson creates staged situations wherein her father dies over and over in particularly gruesome ways, the fact that the audience knows it yet is frequently surprised when they occur just goes to show how much we care for Dick so soon after being introduced to him. By the way, no spoilers here, but every time you think you won’t be fooled by Dick’s death, Johnson pulls the rug out from under you time and again. It’s emotional manipulation of the highest order, yet so much of it feels like it’s born out of the comedy of Brooks and Keaton, where what you see and what you hear isn’t always what is. Considering the documentary is an exploration of loss of self, that kind of repeated trickery is both devilishly mean and absolutely necessary to honor the memory of Dick Johnson, a full human whose hopes and dreams, whose many accomplishments, may not go with him into the next life, but will certainly be missed by those he leaves behind.
Dick Johnson is dead. Long live Dick Johnson.
Available for streaming on Netflix October 2nd, 2020.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.