Director: Kirsten Johnson
Cinematographer: Kirsten Johnson
Editor: Nels Bangerter
Streaming on: Netflix
In Dick Johnson Is Dead, documentary maker Kirsten Johnson kills her father. Violently. Vividly. Repeatedly. She films her old man in a series of staged accidents. A piano falls on him while he’s walking down the street. A rod pierces his neck at a construction site. He tumbles down a staircase and shatters his spine. Most of these scenarios are imaginative, morbid, playful. But all of them are abrupt, physical, painful. All of them involve his body dying before his brain. They involve his heart stopping before his spirit breaks. All of them are unnatural acts of fate.
There’s a reason for this. Richard “Dick” Johnson is a retired clinical psychiatrist. He is trained to resuscitate the human mind. But now his own mind is dying – slowly, sadly, surely – with the onset of dementia. Soon, Dick Johnson will be dead while being alive. Kirsten Johnson can’t bear the irony of a psychiatrist losing his head. It’s cruel: to lose the one power you are defined by, to lose your identity before your life. She also can’t bear the tragedy of yet another parent forgetting what they mean to the world. Midway through the film, we learn that Kirsten’s mother, Dick’s wife, had died of Alzheimer’s. She was a photographer, an artist with a visual memory, yet she was afflicted with the one disease that preys on memory. The pictures inevitably faded, and there was nothing Kirsten could do except lament this twisted – but natural – act of fate. She realizes that she had never shot a single video of her mother in her prime. All Kirsten had were clips of her remnants: a frail lady disappearing from the photographs of her own album.
Once Dick’s thoughts begin to fade, his documentarian daughter embraces fiction to lend his dying the dignity it deserves. There’s nothing more deflating than seeing the gatekeepers of the human mind succumb to the very malady they are equipped to repair. The fake accidents imply that, in the case of psychologically gifted people like Dick, an unnatural death is more honourable – it is often equated to a bright life cut short. Such accidents might fool her into believing that Dick Johnson had so much more to offer. That his head was so sharp, it had to be betrayed by his eyes. That his mind will live on long after his body is buried. That’s precisely how most of us would like to remember our parents. We hope that our grief is inextricably linked to the light of their living rather than the process of their dying. A sudden mishap, as opposed to a prolonged illness, restores the purpose of the dead. It dilutes the wholeness of death.
One might say that Dick Johnson Is Dead is an artist’s selfish way of preparing for the demise of an ailing parent. It is her way of celebrating the human he was before she mourns the man he will become. It is her way of remembering to forget before he reaches the stage of forgetting to remember. But one might also say that this documentary – one that fantasizes about the gruesomeness of fate – is an artist’s selfless way of preserving our faith in mortality. The film is Kirsten Johnson’s way of making her dad’s fragmented mind sense a farewell, in a condition where every passing moment becomes an undocumented goodbye. It’s her way of reframing the intangibility of decline as the tangibility of demise. She wants him to know that, as a mental health professional, his participation in her project is perhaps his final act of therapy. And she wants him to understand that, as a creator, her storytelling was destined to give him the privilege of living through his own death: its physics, math and aftermath.
The film is Kirsten Johnson’s way of making her dad’s fragmented mind sense a farewell, in a condition where every passing moment becomes an undocumented goodbye
Across the film, Kirsten Johnson makes sure we see the strings of her mental puppeteering. She makes sure we notice the filmmaking equipment: the boom mics, the stuntmen, the cameraperson, the crew, the elaborate sets, the suspension of disbelief. At one point, we hear her beautifully worded voiceover, followed by a bubble-bursting shot of where it’s being recorded: Kirsten is in the closet of her tiny New York apartment, blocking out external sound, speaking into her iPhone. She finishes, exits the closet and Dick Johnson – like a son greeting his mother after a long day’s work – is excited to see her. By showing us the story and the storytelling at once, the writing and the eulogy simultaneously, Kirsten Johnson refuses to excuse herself from the vulnerability of inking an intimate letter. She wants us to see that she’s nervy and emotional, fragile and clumsy. That she, too, is baring her soul. We, the viewers, become an integral part of her experiment; after all, nakedness is merely a futile state of comfort if nobody is watching. In doing so, she also conveys the randomness – rather than divinity – of creation. The style suggests that life, at its core, is nothing but a long-form prelude to death.
In its most moving moment, Dick Johnson attends his own funeral. An empty coffin lies next to the stage. After his best friend makes a teary speech, and after some loved ones fondly pay their tributes, Dick Johnson walks down the aisle. All heads turn in unison. They smile, stand up and applaud. They’ve known, and yet they feel. Even a staged event triggers genuine emotion. The image is impossibly lyrical. While most men walk their daughters down the aisle at their wedding, a daughter walks her old man down the aisle at his funeral. This, too, is a new beginning – of the end. It’s his special day: the day of his transitioning from man to myth. It’s the day everyone else vows to remember him while he starts to forget them.
By showing us the story and the storytelling at once, the writing and the eulogy simultaneously, Kirsten Johnson refuses to excuse herself from the vulnerability of inking an intimate letter. She wants us to see that she’s nervy and emotional, fragile and clumsy
After moving Dick into her New York apartment, Kirsten Johnson never visually reveals her darker moments with him. She speaks about the nights he tries to escape, the times he lashes out, hallucinates and loses control. But she doesn’t film them. It’s a conscious decision. It’s unnerving when adult children must turn caregivers for sick parents. It’s hard to unsee our parents’ suffering, their delusions, denials and stubbornness. It’s hard to recall their rational, respectable versions: the versions that taught us how to care, love, empathize and grow. Our vast history with them feels diminished, and our reduced futures with them loom large.
I’ve spent the last week with my ailing father, who has looked frailer than ever before. He has also been angrier, lonelier and more resentful than ever before. He has defied and dismissed. Perhaps his abrasive personality has something to do with him feeling let down – and abandoned – by a son who has been too busy romanticizing him rather than being present. Consequently, we’ve had showdowns and screaming matches. Bitter, irrevocable words have been exchanged. At times, I’ve suspected that our relationship has reached a point of no return. I barely recognize his attitude. I rage at how much he’s changed, and fear that his previous self will never come back.
Most of my personal essays and columns revolve around my father because maybe I’ve needed to preserve – and immortalize – happier, healthier memories before mortality takes over. I’ve needed to protect our attachment
While watching Dick Johnson Is Dead, it dawned on me that I’ve always expected this moment to arrive. The moment where the idea of a person dies before the person. It is inevitable. It is natural. But it also dawned on me that, in many ways, I’ve been subconsciously making my own documentary for years. Most of my personal essays and columns revolve around him because maybe I’ve needed to preserve – and immortalize – happier, healthier memories before mortality takes over. I’ve needed to protect our attachment. I’ve long written about our ups and downs as a form of self-therapy and acceptance, and crucially, as a sign of evolution and forgiveness. Maybe I’ve hoped that he reads them from time to time so that he knows just how much of my mind he has occupied, and how much I’ve learnt and unlearnt from him. Maybe, if they’re immersive enough, the words can be his way of attending his own funeral. He may not be as modest and sporting as Dick Johnson, but his head too was a wonderland on the verge of becoming a wasteland.
My most recurring nightmare features my father falling off a balcony. Sometimes he falls into an elevator shaft. It feels frighteningly real – and now I know why. These are unnatural acts of fate. They feature his heart stopping before his spirit breaks. They involve his mind being snuffed out rather than his head disintegrating. The tragedy of vanishing, as opposed to dimming, preserves his proud identity. Maybe the nightmares were actually dreams all along. Dreams of hopeful, honourable ends – ends that precede heavenly jigs with John Lennon and P.G. Wodehouse. Perhaps pianos and bookshelves were invented so that, one fine morning, they could fall on him while he’s walking down the street. Being crushed by music and words: Is there a more illustrious way to go? Was there a more painless way to live?