Documentary Review: ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’

Greetings again from the darkness. Hal Ashby’s 1971 cult classic HAROLD AND MAUDE takes a comical look at death, and in the process shows us the importance of living, and the jolt delivered by dying. Documentarian Kirsten Johnson (CAMERAPERSON, 2016) makes this a more personal project by involving her dad in a series of staged deaths for her film. Initially the purpose was to help him begin to deal with an end that could be coming soon, but it evolved into something altogether different.

Dick Johnson is an elderly psychiatrist. He’s a charming and lively man, boasting a nice sense of humor and a twinkle in his eye. His daughter Kristen is “a camera person”, and suggests to him that they make a film about him dying. He’s on board. Kristen then stages various “deaths” for her father. These scenes include getting crushed by a falling air-conditioner, getting hit by a car, taking a horrific fall down stairs, and a construction site mishap. The more we get to know Dick, the more we like him. We learn it’s been 30 years since he had a heart attack, and 7 years since his wife died. She suffered from Alzheimer’s for years before she passed. We learn he’s a Seventh Day Adventist, and loves chocolate fudge cake. My how he loves chocolate cake.

Initially gung-ho for his daughter’s idea, and fully supportive of the situations she puts him in for her art, Dick begins to show signs of forgetfulness and confusion. At times we have our doubts that he fully comprehends what’s happening – not just in the film, but in everyday life. The comical elements shift to wistfulness, as we are present when Dick has to shut down his practice, sell his car, and ultimately box up his belongings and move out of his beloved home. Kristen moves him to her one bedroom New York City apartment, which is right next door to that of the two fathers of her children.

In addition to the staged deaths, we also meet a stuntman who gets involved, and we are on set for the filming of Dick’s “Heaven” which includes chocolate and popcorn, and his “Last Supper” featuring, among others, Bruce Lee, Frida Kahlo, Farrah Fawcett, and Frederick Douglass. There is also a family trip to a beach in Lisbon, and a reunion with Dick’s college girlfriend in California. The strangest bit is the staged funeral, replete with Dick in a coffin, and friends offering tributes. We also celebrate Dick’s 86th birthday, and see many family pictures and home videos.

Leonardo da Vinci is quoted: “As a well spent day brings happy sleep, so life well used brings happy death.”
Watching Dick’s spirit fade along with his memory is anything but happy. His daughter Kristen tries to remain sensitive to his changing state, but the feeling we are left with is anything but happiness towards death. Her film is likely structured much differently than she originally intended, but has so much value for discussion with loved ones and a reminder of just how precious life is for those who appreciate it.

Now showing on Netflix

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