DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD. Netflix, as both bellwether and arbiter of contemporary taste, has long led the drive to popularize and, at least to some extent, legitimize documentary movies in the mainstream. Not that the medium needed legitimizing among movie nerds, of course, but established norms have traditionally pushed all but the noisiest documentaries to the fringe. They were (are) rarely shown in theaters, at least on any meaningful scale, were generally deemed unworthy of investment by studios because they were unlikely to generate profits on the usurious scale such enterprises so covet and were generally treated as a sort of shy, awkward relative of scripted movies. Nevermind the fact that the documentary form is, in fact, the truest root of cinema, the beginning of the beginning. A person pointing a motion picture camera at something and documenting it is an act that transcends fatuous distinctions; it is cinema.
Admittedly, I’ve generally been drawn more strongly to elevated stylization and imaginative fancy of scripted movies. This may be due as much to the socialization and conditioning we have all been subject to as to aesthetic preference. It could also be because real life has often seemed like a real son of a bitch to contend with and works of fiction, even at their most brutal and interrogative, feel like a soothing refraction of reality, if not an outright escape. So like so many of us, I’ve been guilty of shortchanging the cultural value of the documentary, even while I’ve enjoyed some notable examples down the decades.
During those decades, Kirsten Johnson has been behind the camera on dozens of projects, both short form and feature length, but primarily documentaries. She released her feature-length directorial debut, Cameraperson (currently streaming on the Criterion Channel), in 2016. In it, she cut together footage from projects that had taken her all over the world to create a memoir via montage, a curated collection of moments that express not only her fascination with camera and image, but also her sense of wonder, justice and empathy. It’s a quietly revelatory and revolutionary movie, as it debunks the notion that documentary should be about objectivity and observation. It speaks to the fundamental truth that, in observing something, in documenting it, we participate in that thing, and that selecting it is both an editorial and artistic act.
With Dick Johnson is Dead, she delves even further into the subject-object-observer relationship, with her own life squarely in the center of the frame. Having lost her mother to Alzheimer’s disease some years ago and with very little footage with which to memorialize her, Johnson confronted her father’s dementia diagnosis with the full force of her artform. He, Dick, a retired psychiatrist, came on as accomplice and the two embarked on a project that would celebrate his life and their relationship, while also contending with the inevitably of death and our utter unpreparedness for it. It’s also a slapstick comedy.
Johnson, with help of a full crew and Netflix money, uses this time with her dad, during which he moves out of the woodsy family home outside Seattle and into her one-bedroom New York apartment, to meditate on his big-heartedness, his transparent love of life and his family, and the vitality and strength of their father-daughter bond. It’s also a time of heartbreaking grief, as his deteriorating mental state is a reminder to both of them of the process of losing Mom. In and among the more conventional, almost too intimate stuff of a compelling documentary, though, Johnson seizes on an opportunity to push the boundaries of the form. Using stunt performers, she stages and films a number of pretty dramatic death scenarios for Dick, including one wherein his jugular is accidentally slashed on a New York street corner. She constructed a Bollywood influenced, near-psychedelic vision of heaven and, as coda, held a funeral for Dick while he was still alive and capable of participating in and remembering it.
Pretty heady stuff, really, but one of Johnson’s formidable talents as a director is to leaven the fear and contemplation with her own kindness and curiosity. The result is something that shouldn’t work: a document about end of life that is also a fantastical musical comedy. I think that is the great innovation here. Dick Johnson is Dead is a movie about death that, on paper, doesn’t really make sense. But very few among us have made sense of our relationship to death, at least in any meaningful way, and so are left with our collages of memories, wherein joy and sorrow, the absurdity and horror and all of it are inextricably mixed. Kirsten (and Dick) Johnson render the collective struggle with the unknowable, the immense tragedy inherent in the experience of life, as a funny, thought-provoking, frequently heartbreaking celebration. PG13. 89M. NETFLIX.
John J. Bennett (he/him) is a movie nerd who loves a good car chase.