Dick Johnson is Dead

“Imag(in)ing Real Grief”

Shira Segal (University at Albany, SUNY)

In an attempt to grapple with the eventual loss of her father, Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) offers a humorous yet poignant contemplation of death, loss, and the meaning of family in the face of dementia and declining memory. With her father’s cooperation and collaboration, Kirsten stages various accidental deaths for the camera as well as an imagined, celebratory reunion of Kirsten’s parents in an anticipated afterlife of a post-judgment Seventh-day Adventist heaven. The morbid humor is frank yet oddly optimistic, and the staged scenarios are interspersed amongst Kirsten’s informal interviews, interaction, and documentation of daily life with her father as he retires and moves in with her and her children in their Manhattan apartment. The desire to show him happy even amidst physical and mental decline – how many chocolate cakes is he filmed eating? – is mixed with Kirsten’s contemplation and depiction of their changing parent-child relationship. While the documentary provides a collection of fearful or fantastical scenarios realized on screen for comic relief, Kirsten’s filmic portrait of her father in decline also implicates and misdirects the viewer to the very end and renegotiates the blend of fiction and “reality” in the film’s narrative structure and form. As viewers we participate in the film’s playful premise but also share in its imagined grief, especially in the moments when the documentary functions as a cinematic memorial for our collective mortality and the losses we each face.

A group of famous people sitting around a dinner table in the heaven imagined in Dick Johnson is Dead

Unlike films in which a filmmaker makes sense of themselves through multiple perspectives of those around them, such as Sarah Polley’s collective storytelling by family members and friends in Stories We Tell (2012) or Gwen Haworth’s similar approach in She’s a Boy I Knew (2007), Johnson’s project is instead couched mostly within her own experience. This is evident formally through her voice-over narration and occasional inclusion of herself in front of the camera as she engages with the crew or records post-production sound in her closet. While the documentary primarily features Kirsten’s relationship with her father, the film’s subject is also Kirsten’s relationship to the filmed image itself (or, in the case of her failure to capture images of her mother prior to an Alzheimer’s diagnosis, the missing image). The film perhaps also functions as an antidote of sorts to the missing images of her mother by providing an abundance of footage of her father and their endearingly close relationship. Over the course of the film, Kirsten shifts from “daughter” to “big kid sister,” and she situates Dick as both father and best friend. The anticipated loss of him is, she states, unbearable.

While viewing this film, I can’t help but think of other familial documentaries in which the camera is used to lovingly interrogate or explore one’s parent, such as Lynne Sachs’ Film About a Father Who (2020, and which features Kirsten’s children’s grandparent) or films that anticipate a parent’s demise. Alan Berliner’s Nobody’s Business (1996) concludes with the presentation of a birthday cake to Berliner’s aging and obstinate father, Oscar, who functions as the film’s reluctant subject while Berliner attempts to trace his family lineage through combative interviews and a trip to Poland in search of his great grandparents’ graves. Berliner’s insistence on documenting and celebrating his father despite his objections and obstinance seems overt in the final shot of Oscar blowing out candles on a birthday cake, just as that shot also anticipates the limited number of years Oscar may have left. Similarly, Ruth Ozeki interviews her mother about her grandparents in Halving the Bones (1995) and structures the intergenerational subjects through Ozeki’s personal quest – what should be done with her grandmother’s remains? – and stories imagined by the filmmaker in the form of fictional journal entries by her grandmother or recreated home movies from her grandfather’s phantom point-of-view. Even as Ozeki misdirects us to initially read these artifacts as authentic before revealing them as her own constructions and imagined recreations, we also don’t know whether we can trust the images near the film’s end in which Ozeki is seen in the distance throwing her grandmother’s remaining bone fragments into the ocean along with her mother’s ashes, all while hearing her mother’s voice-over narration expressing these very wishes. The final sequence skips ahead to the assumed loss of her mother even as we hear her mother’s voice and is followed by new information about her father and the question of what potential stories might result from a similar investigation of his life.

Like Berliner and Ozeki, Johnson’s project is rooted in the present tense when her parent is presumably still alive. In a manner reminiscent of Ozeki’s sleight of hand, viewers of Dick Johnson is Dead are tricked overtly and implicitly through the film structure. Most of this is revealed within the film itself, but the fictional nature of presumably unstaged moments is also evident in the film credits. As viewers we expect to be manipulated and playfully lied to given the film’s premise and despite documentary’s overarching (and often false) claims to truth or truths. At the same time, Kirsten skillfully wields our suspension of disbelief when faced with what appears to be real grief and real loss. The sobbing of her father’s best friend at the memorial is true, just as the feeling of our own hearts that drop with (presumably real) footage from inside an ambulance near the film’s end. Kirsten thus inflicts and evokes her anticipated grief and loss onto the viewer, asking us to share in her imagined loss, whether it is currently true or merely imminent.

“Ends of Life”

Alicia Puglionesi (Johns Hopkins University)

I’ve been thinking about dying alone, which is not an unusually morbid fixation these days. Dying alone is widely understood to be a bad fate, even among people with a firm belief in the reality of the afterlife. Certainly, arranging for a good death serves the emotional needs of the living, but it’s also a recognized prerogative of anyone leaving this world – if most often honored in the breach. At the terminus of experience as we know it, experience still matters. “Life is good,” says the 86-year-old Dick Johnson, facing into a camera held by his daughter, director Kirsten Johnson, and eating a scoop of chocolate ice cream. The Victorian version of the good death, still a popular one today, involves reaching an old age and expiring at home surrounded by family and friends. Other versions include perishing on the field of battle or in quest of a brilliant discovery. The Johnsons toy with the idea that the good death might be one that’s at least good for a laugh.

Dick is entering a familiar fade at the beginning of the film, showing signs of feebleness, his memory starting to erode. The premise is that we will see his death elaborately rehearsed by his loving daughter: a morbid joke that they’re both in on, a compulsive projection of their worst fear. Dick has just retired from a long career as a psychoanalyst. The dull progress of dementia will be transposed into grotesque sudden accidents. Instead of grim inevitability, chance; instead of a long struggle with the weight of forgetting, release.

Even more engaging than Dick’s slapstick staged deaths is the heaven that Kirsten creates for him. On a low-budget soundstage she exuberantly surpasses every trope of heaven as wish-fulfillment: haloes, buckets of glitter, gauzy clouds, ethereal weightlessness. Jesus shakes his long, luxuriant hair in slow motion while washing Dick’s feet. The Johnsons belong to the Seventh-day Adventist Church, which holds that the saved only enter heaven after Christ’s second coming; until then, they wait in their graves. This creates another temporal displacement: strictly speaking, the scenes of Dick’s ascension don’t anticipate the near time of his death, but the end of time.

The Johnsons comfortably set aside doctrine in their irreverent collaboration. Dick mugs for the camera, lifted out of time by the artifice of performance and recording. His wishes are fulfilled without judgement: born with abnormal toes, he wants them made perfect. Are his “birth toes” the ones God meant him to have? Should he accept himself as whole? That’s not the purpose of the ritual. Just as camerawork allows him to die again and again, it restores his toes so that he can dance across the stage into his wife’s arms. Body doubles stand in for the reunited couple as they leap and pirouette, wearing blown-up black-and-white photographs as masks. The handmade charm of these scenes, the reflexive humor mingled with longing, again assert the possibility of encountering death on one’s own terms.

Dancing in heaven as imagined by Kirsten Johnson in Dick Johnson is dead

This idea of a personal heaven was once highly unorthodox by the standards of most Christian denominations. It swept American popular culture with Elizabeth Stuart Phelps’ 1868 novel, The Gates Ajar, which painted the afterlife as a joyful family reunion in a domestic eternity. Though decried as heretical by members of the clergy, Gates had an unstoppable appeal, offering consolation to many, like Phelps, bereaved after the Civil War. From the outset, Gates was also satirized as a sentimental, desiring fantasy. This critique underestimates both the author, who clearly laid out her therapeutic goals, and readers, who recognized the role of artifice: after all, the medium of communication was the novel.

The tropes of heaven were endlessly elaborated in subsequent writing, reinforced by spiritualist mediums and by people who claimed to have come back from clinical death. They still occupy a cultural niche marked as sentimental and credulous. Kirsten Johnson doesn’t so much satirize these tropes as celebrate the crafting of a shared imaginary – part of a good death is having someone who wonders where you’re going. The camera captures Kirsten and Dick as they perch on the periphery of the heavenly soundstage, choreographing the fantasy which their mutual care makes real.

Kirsten approaches her father’s death(s) with the same maximalist attention. A stuntman has been hired and equipped with jars of fake blood. Backstage shots assure us that this is camp, that Dick Johnson was not harmed in the death of Dick Johnson. He’s in on the joke, but as he grows weaker and less cogent, we’re supposed to wonder, is he? Dick’s heavily-rehearsed deaths have a ritual quality, like the harvest-season sacrifice of John Barleycorn. Kirsten brushes against the idea that performance can keep death at bay, but also uses performance to displace the anger and sadness of loss onto its object through fantasies of harm.

Moments of gory death and heavenly delight lead us through a film that mainly documents the end of Dick Johnson’s career as an autonomous, productive individual, the condition that many Americans equate with life itself. He moves into his daughter’s one-bedroom apartment in New York City. This becomes a sort of rebirth into family, into an intimacy missing from the ideal of “aging independently.” The grueling women’s work that made possible the wholesome Victorian deathbed scene stretches indefinitely, as Dick’s mind, rather than his body, flags. Yet as she documents and probes, Kirsten’s caregiving is also a taking. She lovingly collects the traces of his personality as it passes into a form that she can’t recognize. She marks the strain of this new intimacy: her father is already haunting her, waking her in the middle of the night as he circles in loops of memory. The viewer is also caught in a loop. When we finally see Dick Johnson’s funeral, we’ve forgotten that it already happened at the beginning of the movie. The stage is set for a good death, but the actor refuses to appear on cue.

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