|Director Kirsten Johnson|
DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD B USA (89 mi) 2020 d: Kirsten Johnson
Because I could not stop for Death, He kindly stopped for me.
—The Chariot, by Emily Dickinson from Poems: Series 1, 1890
In the spirit of Chantal Akerman’s No Home Movie (2015), yet defiantly different, sometimes film crosses the line into bad taste, and many may find this film overly indulgent, a kind of home movie that takes plenty of wrong turns, all designed to familiarize viewers with the idea of death before it happens. Documentarian Kirsten Johnson, maker of Cameraperson (2016), lost her mother to Alzheimer’s disease in 2007, where dementia plagued the last few years of her life, unable to recognize her own family members. Unfortunately, the same fate awaits her 86-year old father, Dick Johnson, a successful psychiatrist working in Seattle, developing concerning memory symptoms, where it’s only a matter of time before dementia kicks in as well. Sensing the inevitable, she asks her father if he wouldn’t mind filming that last years of his life, using several pranks to create death scenarios before they happen, allowing her father to participate in his own death while he can still remember, where there’s a rather ghoulish parade of deaths reminiscent of Hal Ashby’s HAROLD AND MAUDE (1971), but it’s all make believe, with the filmmaker killing off her father in multiple scenarios, but he’s always brought back to life, usually celebrating with a delicious piece of chocolate cake, as the man has a thing for chocolate, even though his most unpleasant memory was a heart attack brought on by over-indulging after eating an entire chocolate layer cake. Many involve violent accidents and the use of stunt men, such as getting hit by a falling air-conditioner, falling down a flight of stairs, or being struck in the neck by a wooden board near a construction site and bleeding out, but none are more elaborate than simulating his own funeral at his lifelong 7th Day Adventist church, surrounded by friends and parishioners, with an immobile body double in an open casket, hearing the tributes and tearful farewells, and then walking down the aisle saluting all who came to celebrate his life. While poignant and moving, it’s also a bit much, where at least one member, his best friend Ray, is having a hard time playing along, lost in a death spell, perhaps unable to separate fiction from reality. In addition to mock deaths, there are also highly stylized heavenly creations, like recreating a surrealist Last Supper in the company of friends one might choose from history, like Frederick Douglass, Sigmund Freud, Buster Keaton, Frida Kahlo, and Bruce Lee, meeting in a personal setting, creating an everlasting memory while he’s still alive. While these are meant to be light-hearted tributes, engaging in a bit of sardonic fun, the exaggerated garish artifice may also be off-putting for some, as they’re sensationalizing death, poking fun at it while you’re still alive, which can be challenging, to say the least. While much of this is meant to be therapeutic, but nothing hides the encompassing fear of losing one’s memory, and with it all identification of one’s self. The agonizing process of watching someone you love slowly disappear before your eyes is utterly devastating.
Winner of a Special Jury Award for Innovation in Nonfiction Storytelling at Sundance in the Documentary Competition, one thing is certain. Dick Johnson is a pleasant soul who cares deeply for his patients and his family, always willing to lend a helping hand, where he’s simply a nice guy, extremely sympathetic before the camera, but it’s also clear he’s being used by the camera, like when we see him left alone on a street corner of a busy street, huddled against a street lamp, complaining he’s cold and wet from the fake blood, where at times it seems his daughter has taken things a bit too far. Over time, he seems more lost and distant, completely aloof, where he’s used to sleeping more. Among the hardest adjustments was moving him from his Seattle home to his daughter’s one bedroom apartment in New York City, which happens to be adjacent to an apartment with her two kids and their two fathers (filmmaker Ira Sachs and his husband painter Boris Torres). This little arrangement is much tougher than it seems, and it takes a toll on her father, as his beautiful home offered peace and serenity. Selling his car is equally heartbreaking, knowing he may never drive again. Giving these things up to be with her is a major sacrifice, as it removes the tranquil meditative aspects of his life, replaced by the jarring noise of a big city where traffic and new construction is a constant. We never really see him in a bed, as he spends all his time on a living room couch or sitting on his favorite recliner. It’s clear he’s completely dependent on his daughter for food and shelter, having given up anything that resembles his own life, now in a completely unfamiliar environment. While he constantly says the right thing, saying he would never trade these precious moments with family, clearly it also weighs on him, as there’s literally nothing for him to do, bogged down by guilt, where the last thing his wants is to feel like he’s a burden, but that’s exactly what he’s become, as he’s sacrificed his independence. This change of scenery is exactly what happens to so many families when a parent ages, and it’s never easy, as the role of the parent completely reverses, no longer the authoritative force they once were, now completely reliant upon their children, eventually requiring full-time care. We meet a nurse who’s been brought in to assist, where among her credentials is the fact she’s accompanied nearly a dozen others to their deaths, developing a uniquely intimate experience with the families, a no-nonsense caregiver who’s been brought in to do much of the dirty work the family is unable to provide, still working, kids going to school, leading active and productive lives, which includes travel to various places around the world, leaving him alone where he has to make the best of it.
Despite all the attempts to celebrate his life with phantasmagoric production numbers, each more wildly decorative and absurdly ridiculous, the most haunting aspect of the film is just how far removed and separated her father becomes from his own life, having left it all behind in Seattle, now subject to more doctor visits and memory tests, where he’s treated more like a patient than a human being capable of deciding things for himself. That aspect of his life is simply gone, with very little spoken about it, with viewers obviously pained by his decreasing mobility and independence, as he really can’t share in the events of his family’s life. When she takes her kids trick or treating for Halloween, she leaves her father in the home of a friend watching TV, a place he’s unfamiliar with and doesn’t recognize. This turns into a Halloween sketch that’s scarier than it looks, as we realize the extreme degree of fright this causes him, as he has no recourse but to wait to be rescued, lost and alone in a no man’s land, like a place of purgatory before he dies, as he views it as a waiting place. In one room he sees his future if he were placed in a home, like his wife, where nothing is recognizable, all left to the soothing sounds of elevator music that has no distinct meaning, but may instead reflect the loss of all meaning. In another he sees the ghost of his dead wife, wearing a recognizable photograph for a face, while he has his own photograph for a face, and the two are animated bodies happily dancing, but her body becomes a contortionist, able to move in ways that aren’t possible, becoming more and more inhumane, losing all contact with reality. Stuck in this strange house with these strange and mysterious rooms, he’s simply afraid, lost in the unknown, not really knowing what to do, shivering in fear. When they finally come and rescue him, it’s as if he’s been transformed into a different identity, no longer recognizable to himself. With his daughter narrating much of the film in a purely objective manner, there’s some question how much of this is sinking in with her, as she remains largely offscreen, a distant presence. While this is an exercise of love, pure and unconditional, it also takes us into the sunken places hidden away that few are capable of ever recovering from, as we’re literally knocking on death’s door from the outset. The film includes heartbreaking footage of her mother, made sometime after her initial diagnosis, already having difficulty with speech, or remembering those around her, including her own daughter. The feeling may best be described by the beliefs of the 7th Day Adventist church, where the souls of the chosen are waiting for the return of Christ to be elevated and ascended into Heaven for eternity, but the unasked question is what about the ones not chosen who are left behind? What kind of loneliness must they endure? It feels indescribable and eerily unimaginable, to be separated from loved ones for all of eternity.