Midway through Dick Johnson is Dead, Richard “Dick” Johnson asks his daughter Kristen why she aspired to become a documentarian in lieu of fiction films, which are generally associated with higher fame and financial substance. Kristen responds by saying real life is relatively more entrancing than what someone can fabricate in fiction. She’s right. In fiction films, the characters and circumstances are created to instigate a specific emotion; they are not pre-existing. Conversely, in documentaries, the vehemence of reality is longing to be captured. Documentary filmmaking is more about seizing the existing emotion and ensuring its immaculate transference to the viewer than the replication of moments. That’s precisely what two of the most humanistic and intimate documentaries of the year, Dick Johnson is Dead by Kristen Johnson and Circus of Books by Rachel Mason, gloriously effectuate.
Dick Johnson is a lovable father and cuddly human. However, he might not be the same anymore; dementia is consuming him piecemeal. Memories, perhaps, deserve more appraisal, since they are the facets distinguishing the otherwise structurally homogeneous human bodies. Kristen arbitrates to face up to her father’s imminent death by preserving his memory in the form of a movie, recreating the possible ways the endearing person meets his end, and she goes on to ‘enact’ fatal accidents, ranging from tripping over the stairs to a bloody puncture in the neck. All the deaths are designed to be violent and macabre in an everyday sense; something that can be the cause of his death in the very near future. Kristen’s love for her father doesn’t let her stop with death – she organizes a funeral in the presence of friends, family, and Dick himself. As Dick walks through the aisle greeting people who are in attendance to pay their last respects, it is the most stimulating moment of the film, since we know this event will recur in due course, but Dick won’t be present then.
The thought of a parent’s death deeply haunts and agonizes even the brawniest of humans, and we often try to give a cold shoulder to this perturbing notion. Kristen overpowers the apprehension because she discerns that death is, probably, the only once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The filmmaking approach she chooses to come to grips with the flustering reality of Dick – a commendable psychiatrist by profession – gradually sinking into the murky vagueness of life becomes her healing process. However, it’s not ‘how Dick died’ that she envisages capturing; it is ‘how Dick lived’. We learn this while watching a home video of her mother, a victim of Alzheimer’s, during the thick of the condition, and Kristen shares that she has no footage of her mother being her true full-of-life self. The lack of tangibly preserved memory becomes the rudiment of this film. Moreover, Kristen yearns for a dazzling afterlife in heaven for her father and recreates the same, where Dick is reunited with his wife and shares a table with deceased icons such as Frida Kahlo, Sigmund Freud, and Bruce Lee.
In a way, Dick Johnson is Dead breaks the convention of documentary filmmaking, because its fundamental aim is to recreate events – the kind we see in historical documentaries. But the emotional exigency behind it makes the filmmaking process a commemoration, and the finished film is a glorious farewell party from a daughter to her dear dad, both literally and figuratively, as Dick, being someone she knew all her life, starts becoming a different person. Contrarily, Circus of Books is about a daughter on the path of discovering the side of her parent’s lives that was kept concealed through her childhood. While Kristen Johnson used Dick Johnson is Dead as a medium to absorb grief, Rachel Mason uses Circus of Books to perceive her parents. Rachel’s parents Karen and Barry Mason ran the eponymous gay-porno store for more than three decades, through varying regulations on obscenity and the gradually increasing acceptance of homosexuality, only to arrive at the present day, when running the store isn’t financially feasible anymore. The core themes that bind the two films are acceptance and change. Dick Johnson is Dead is about a daughter accepting the impending death of her father, while Circus of Books is about a religious mother learning the vitality of acceptance when she learns her son is homosexual, seen through the daughter’s perspective – literally, as she is the one holding the camera. Similarly, the change in Kristen’s life alludes to the different person her father is becoming, while in Rachel’s life, the change is positive as her family and world grow more empathetic towards the LGBTQ community.
As a child, when Rachel and her friends learn about the family-owned gay-porno business, they start to see the composite layers of the seemingly simple people. That applies to the film as well. On a level, it is a daughter capturing the fall of a business that has remained their source of income for decades. It’s sad, but also a fairly uncomplicated conflict, especially when pitted against the conflict in Dick Johnson is Dead, death. On another level, it’s about the evolution of perception concerning homosexuality from obscene to normal. At a point, even Karen wonders what is so unique about the film that her daughter is shooting. “It happens to all small businesses,” she says, unaware of their store’s cultural significance. Had the film been made by an outsider, they might have managed to capture the rise and fall of a business through fluctuating political and societal climate, but it’s Rachel’s inner-gaze that welcomes us into the family, through their heartfelt and even simpler moments. We learn about major happenings in her parents’ life, such as the rise in the world of pornography, and tinier aspects such as their discomfort when they have to let go of their employees as the closure of their store approaches.
Both the stories are intimate yet universal; they can be heart-wrenching but not disheartening. If truth be told, the playfulness is intact among the daughters and parents, although they have major conflicts facing them. Buried under Kristen’s unadulterated smiles and mellow hugs is the fear of losing a loved one and consequently, a part of herself. In front of Rachel is her bygone childhood that she is now trying to come to terms with. Like in every family, the dinner-table conversations in both the films are sweet in essence and dark in composition, like the chocolate delicacies Dick is fond of. In Circus of Books, Rachel’s brother recalls the casual family dinner when he came out as homosexual, making it the most personal and profound moment of the film. Both documentaries are suffused with such tiny yet potent moments that prove that family will aid us through the toughest of the conflicts, from coping with something as physical as death or cognitive as mental trauma, or both. In a year that required copious emotional will to sail through, Dick Johnson is Dead and Circus of Books are as soothing as movies can ever be.