'Dick Johnson Is Dead': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Dick Johnson Is Dead - Sundance - U.S. DOCU - Publicity - H 2020
Courtesy of Sundance
A uniquely wonderful film about family, film, life and death.

Kirsten Johnson's new work is a playful documentary in which she and her aging father grapple with his impending death in highly creative fashion.

Dick Johnson Is Dead is one of the craftiest and funniest love letters ever composed, and it’s all the better because it’s on film and the recipient stars in it. Ace documentary maker and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) has crafted what might be called a premature or anticipatory filmed obituary of her very lovable father, who more than willingly goes along with the gag or memorialization; it’s a bit of both. Brilliantly original in every way, this Netflix venture deserves to be seen in every possible sort of venue.

Even though the subject here is death, every one of the film’s 89 minutes represents an impudent momentary defiance of it. Gallows humor abounds, as does a great degree of mutual love, adoration and enjoyment between father and daughter. Technically, this is a valentine, but it’s also a serious attempt on a child’s part to not only share some meaningful final moments with her father but to delay the inevitable by repeatedly imagining and even enacting it for the camera. 

And having it all on film creates the opportunity for eternal, albeit second-hand, resurrection.

Every parent should have such a great child, and every child such a parent. There is footage of Johnson’s mother, who died in 2007 of Alzheimer’s, but the father, a good-natured, even jovial psychiatrist, kept working until finally closing up his Seattle shop in 2017 after 55 years and moving to Manhattan, where his daughter lives. 

As glorified home movies go, this one had a huge crew (as the end credits testify), and part of this involved stunt people of a rather rudimentary kind. Johnson stages some rather alarmingly violent “accidents” designed to maim or kill her old man for film purposes, and even when they involve some quite awkward physical contortions and discomfort, he obligingly cooperates; anything for the movies and his wonderful daughter, it would seem.

Still, there is the looming awareness that Dick, his spry behavior and quick wit notwithstanding, has begun feeling the effects of Alzheimer's. This persistent reminder that the true end of the film lies ahead in the not-so-distant future cannot be ignored and yet it is on a daily basis; father and daughter (and the viewer) have wonderful times together in a lovely demonstration of human beings’ inclination or talent for putting burdensome issues to the side when more fun or frivolous distractions are available.

On the basis of what we’re shown in the pic, it’s hard to imagine that a widower in his mid-80s has had a more enjoyable time than what we see Dick Johnson provided with herein. At the same time, there’s serious intent and good lessons in terms of keeping death’s door shut as long as possible, of remaining close to loved ones, staying active, laughing and having fun.

In this particular case, there is the added bonus of not only working with a (very imaginative) child but of being around the creative process; in the case of Dick Johnson, thoughts and memories that might have been lost forever are sometimes retrieved or maintained by virtue of having been captured on film.

Dick Johnson Is Dead is a funny, touching and, to be sure, unique movie, and the Johnsons are a very fortunate father and daughter.

Production company: Big Mouth Productions
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Writers: Nels Bangerter, Kirsten Johnson
Producers: Katy Chevigny, Marilyn Ness
Executive producer: Megan Ellison
Director of photography: Kirsten Johnson
Editor: Nels Bangerter
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (U.S. Documentary Competition)

 

89 minutes