As an adult, loving your parents holds a certain amount of tension, one that only grows with age – yours and theirs. You start to think about time a little differently, taking less of it for granted. You start to imagine what life might look like after they’re gone, how that loss might feel. It’s a feeling we tend to avoid engaging with, for obvious reasons, until suddenly that impending loss is so real you can’t avoid it any longer, and it becomes the only thing you can think about.
Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary memoir about going through this process with her father Dick, as he experiences decline from Alzheimer’s Disease. It’s a creative, funny and deeply moving portrait of loss-in-process, one that celebrates Dick’s life and impact on his friends and family, and lives with the feeling of loss that decline has already begun, all while the subject himself is still alive.
Johnson, whose previous work was the masterpiece Cameraperson, collaborates with the lively, mischievous Dick on an art project to take the anticipated sting out of his memory loss and eventual passing. Johnson films a series of short scenes depicting Dick’s accidental death: her dad is crushed by a falling air conditioner, dies in a car wreck, falls down a set of stairs, breaks his neck, and gets whacked by a board full of nails. Johnson contrasts these hilariously brutal scenes with her joyful approximation of the afterlife, where Dick is reunited with Johnson’s mother, who also died of Alzheimer’s, eats lots of chocolate cake, and has his club feet miraculously healed by Jesus as cardboard cutouts of dead celebrities look on.
Between these moments, we follow Johnson and her dad in reality as they deal with the end of his life. We see Dick retire from his psychiatry practice, moving from Seattle to Johnson’s apartment in New York. Johnson incorporates these transitions with as much creativity as the fake death scenes. Dick’s arrival in New York is heralded by an airplane banner. A recollection of a difficult incident around Halloween is filmed on a creepy set meant to mimic Dick’s mental state.
There are a couple of emotional elements at play here. One is mourning for Dick’s decline. The other, constantly at war with the first, is a bittersweet sense of how much good we desire for those we love. It’s easy to see why Johnson loves her dad so much; he’s warm and funny, and the two of them share a natural curiosity about the world. As the film continues, we see Dick’s bright-eyed interest start to dull into fatigue and confusion, which is heartbreaking. Johnson’s determination to make the most out of her time with her father is clearly appreciated, but also limited. They both know they can’t escape what’s coming.
Ultimately, Dick Johnson is Dead argues that the form our devotion takes doesn’t matter as much as our presence. It’s telling that as impressive as the movie’s grand moments are, they don’t feel any more or less important than smaller ones like spending time with grandkids or visiting friends. The common factor is intentionality. The film is an accurate emotional record of preparing for profound loss, but it’s also a reminder to cherish the close relationships we have, and to tell the people we love how much they mean to us, while we still can.