[Fair warning – many spoilers ahead, and as documentaries go, Dick Johnson is quite spoilerable]
That something as nonstop morbid as Dick Johnson is Dead dropped during a year when the world faced losing loved ones on an accelerated scale is either unfortunate or appropriate, depending on the shade of your sense of humor. The movie provides a macabre balm for disorienting times, a eulogy with a standup’s timing that could have been subtitled or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Grave.
Kirsten Johnson’s conceit, to stage the death of her father C. Richard Johnson with Dick himself as accomplice, is driven by premature grief. It’s a nasty trick of memory, to be saddened by a loss that hasn’t happened yet. The brilliant maneuver of Dick Johnson is Dead is to double this mentality back on itself until we see the title’s unspoken corollary: Dick Johnson lived.
And to think as late as March we thought the story of the year would be an election.
At True/False, one of the last festivals before the year’s real story took over, my wife and I watched Boys State from the back of the top balcony, among the last of the 1200 people allowed into the auditorium. The crowd emptied the bottles of hand sanitizer placed by the restrooms then climbed over each other into the few remaining seats. We cheered and applauded the twists of the faux election of ambitious teens and on Saturday morning the film was the talk of the town. Easily the most relevant film of 2020. That afternoon we stared perplexed at our phones when the announcement came that next week’s South by Southwest festival would be cancelled.
“You know not the day nor the hour,” the Book of Matthew notes. He refers to the return of Christ, a preoccupation of Seventh Day Adventists, the faith in which Kirsten Johnson was raised. Her voiceover notes that – along with a kibosh on dancing, drinking, and movies – the religion offers the promise that believers will ascend to Heaven after death after Christ’s return. They will wait, asleep in their graves for as long as necessary. Johnson describes her family as devout in her childhood, but also the time Dick made an exception for a showing of Young Frankenstein. He’s the guy who will test all things, hold on to what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21).
Dick Johnson is Dead also recalls Old Testament scripture, specifically the thoughts of another morbid philosopher who might have gotten a kick out of the movie, King Solomon. “There is a time for everything,” he observes in the book of Ecclesiastes. “A time to be born and a time to die,” as well as “a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance.” Now we are happy, then we will be sad. Dick Johnson is alive. Dick Johnson will be dead.
Quite practical, but it ignores the imperfections in the barriers between experiences. We don’t always acknowledge the way sadness in the future bleeds into the present. A moment later, Solomon observes that “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before.” King Eeyore, making sure we don’t get excited and think something in our lives is special or unprecedented, also suggests an alternative to the one-way track our lives appear to be on: if it happened, it may as well have been inevitable. If it’s inevitable, it may as well have already happened. Mourn the living. Dick Johnson is already dead.
The Dick Johnson is Dead screening, just as crowded as Boys State the night before, only exists as a memory and a couple snaps on my phone of the effusive and generous Kirsten Johnson conducting a Q&A. Now she hops down from the stage the better to look the Q-ers in the eye while they share their own memories and thoughts. Johnson stands as close to audience members as politeness allows. A week passes and we’re all instructed to keep our distance.
In her first film, Cameraperson, Johnson assembled discarded footage of documentaries across her multi-decade career to make an autobiography. The editing frees personal reflections from the time they occurred and allows Johnson to order her experiences thoughtfully without the yoke of chronology. If Cameraperson is the text of Johnson’s experience of time, Dick Johnson is Dead is the reconciliation of that experience with the promise of her family’s faith. It’s a life that happens in an order that creates more meaning.
Dick Johnson’s editing gets herself and her father unstuck in time. Violently unstuck. The staged deaths of Dick begin with the movie’s second scene when Dick ambles down the block and a random air conditioner falls on him. Johnson and the film crew enter the frame and uncover Dick from the wreckage and help him off the pavement. Dick Johnson lives again.
Later he falls down the stairs of his home (an even more gruesome gag for following a conversation about a devastating fall his late wife had on the same stairs). Then Dick trips and bleeds out on the pavement. He takes a board of nails to the neck. It’s violence on the level of Looney Tunes, but the suddenness puts the audience on guard for the next death as they watch Dick cross the street, get into a car, or pick up a box of books from his office. Now we’re anticipating Dick’s death at every moment. Welcome to Kirsten Johnson’s life.
The death scenes mingle with behind-the-scenes footage of the stunt work and fake blood. Johnson also films scenes of Dick in Heaven, with puffy clouds suspended from ropes and enough bright light to support extremely high frame rates. Dick’s club feet, a confessed lifelong source of embarrassment, miraculously gain defined toes. There is a banquet of Dick’s beloved chocolate cake shared with Bruce Lee, Buster Keaton, Frida Kahlo, Frederick Douglass and Farrah Fawcett. Also: Jesus. It’s a traditional afterlife that preserves our earthly forms outside of time – like a camera.
Laughter in the crowded theater. A scene where Dick visits an old college flame – and speculates on the superiority of a wrinkly nude body to a young one – brings down the house.
My wife and I rewatch the movie on our couch on Netflix. Our laughter is muted, missing the boost of the crowd. Our town’s theater has been closed for months. Unknown if it will open again.
Dick’s faltering mental state becomes more and more evident. At the beginning of the film, the warmth and focus he practiced as a psychiatrist are evident in his conversations (witnessing his cogency is crucial to our buy in – it was his compos mentis self that agreed to the project) but now he forgets names and his expression drifts into foggy stares. He raises his glass to somebody then asks if the person they’re toasting has died. No, they were just born.
Hell shares a soundstage with Heaven. The set recreates a friend’s house where Dick stayed to watch TV on Halloween while Johnson and the kids trick-or-treated. Johnson approximates Dick’s confusion and fear at being left alone. In the scene he recoils at a glimpse of a nursing home and calls out for Kirsten. His mute yells appear as silent movie intertitles. In the context of the documentary footage around the scene, it’s hard to read how much of Dick’s performance is recall and how much is real confusion. Nothing in this scene hits as hard as the candid footage of Dick’s real panic from that Halloween night cut with Kirsten comforting her father on the set.
The set pieces have become representations of Kirsten’s fear as much as Dick’s. What Kirsten Johnson fears isn’t that moment when Dick gets crushed by an air conditioner or hits the floor at the base of the stairs or stops breathing in his sleep. It’s the reverse of the old joke that you don’t mind falling, but you hate the sudden stop at the end. Dick Johnson’s sudden stop can be imagined and mocked, but the heartache during the fall gets little relief. Dealing with decline requires a reordering of time suggested by Kirsten Johnson’s son after Dick walks in on his surprise birthday cake. “That’s all right – he won’t remember it soon,” he says, delighted that the surprise will be preserved.
Back to Heaven after the latest ignominious death. Slo-mo delight creeps over Dick’s face as shimmering pom-poms reveal his latest reward: his wife, young again and hoofing it beside his own younger self. Heaven, in defiance of an eye-rolling Jesus next to a “No Dancing” sign, breaks out like Bollywood. Like the other guests of Heaven, these versions of Kirsten’s parents are portrayed by lithe dancers with oversized cardboard cutout faces. This gives the conceit a cartoonish quality, but it’s still very strange to see a pageant where a daughter presents her father with a living stand-in for her dead mother. Joyful and touching, but nonetheless weird.
The movie breaks the unspoken storytelling rule about finding happiness with the resurrected dead. It’s the kind of wish that stories from “The Monkey’s Paw” and Pet Sematary have warned against. The dead are to be dredged up in fond, wistful memories, not in any kind of corporeal form. This sort of supernatural is to be dealt with on a Biblical level, and even for those who believe in an afterlife, for all time on Earth the deceased are no more. Dick Johnson will stay dead.
The camera has been abandoned to the floor more than once during Dick Johnson is Dead, when Kirsten Johnson prioritizes her own nearness to her father over the camera’s needs. When the camera sits at shoe-level and focuses on sensible loafers and the aqua pant cuffs of scrubs, it’s the scene we’ve dreaded. The voices of the first-line workers sound rushed and not hopeful. Cut to the heartfelt tributes and tears at a funeral service for Dick Johnson.
We recognize the church from earlier hijinks in the film, when Dick and friends joked about the price of his coffin. But the significance doesn’t sink in until Johnson cuts to herself and Dick watching the tributes from the church’s atrium. It’s actually the year prior and a lucid Dick is there to shake the hands of the guests at his own funeral. Conspiring with an elderly man to prank a movie audience is its own reward but this also sets up the film’s final pattern of deceit that knocks us finally off the one-way track to grief.
I’m thinking of this scene while my wife and I sit at the funeral for a relative who died of COVID. The pews are necessarily empty. The theater seats are full. Dick Johnson is the crowd’s shared relative, the avuncular father of the audience.
Now Kirsten stands in a cramped closet where she records voiceover on her phone. “Dick Johnson is dead,” she announces. She repeats the phrase again, then a third time in different takes and angles. “Dick Johnson is dead, and all I want to say is long live Dick Johnson.” She finishes, the music swells and the film will end as a tribute to the deceased. Johnson turns and opens the door… to reveal a smiling Dick Johnson. They embrace.
Dick Johnson’s mortal status defies an either/or answer. He’s Schreodinger’s Dad and his ability to be both alive and dead feels right in a year where the world also felt suspended between states, a mishmash of past regrets and imaginings of joy to come.
What is has already been. Dick Johnson is Dead severs the link between time and loss and merges the time to live and time to die, to mourn and to dance. Someday Dick Johnson will have already been dead, which is another way of saying he will always have been alive.
After the screening, my wife and I enjoy beer and a meal without realizing it will be our last dinner out for the foreseeable future. I can see my wife and I remembering Dick Johnson while we watch the other decline, struggling to pull ourselves out of chairs and blanking on the names of old friends. I can see friends and family at their own funerals even where the footage leading there is missing. That we will grieve is cause for celebration. We will edit our lives and they will live again.