The title of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” doesn’t lie, but it’s not exactly truthful, either. Dick Johnson dies many times in his daughter Kirsten’s poignant and personal documentary, starting with the opening credits. And yet he’s very much alive the whole time, playacting in an elaborate form of cinematic therapy with his filmmaker offspring as she wrestles with the anxiety of losing him.
That concept could easily devolve into a navel-gazing exercise, but Kirsten Johnson — the veteran nonfiction cinematographer who directed 2016’s wondrous collage film “Cameraperson” — enacts a touching and funny meditation on embracing life and fearing death at the same time. Oscillating from intimate father-daughter exchanges to surreal meta-fictional tangents, the movie lives within its riveting paradox, reflecting the queasy uncertainty surrounding its subject’s fate.
It helps that Dick makes quite the centerpiece. “I’ve always wanted to be in the movies!” he cries in the opening moments, toying around with Kirsten’s two young children, before tumbling over in the midst of a play session that gets a touch too rough. Dick’s fine, but a little winded, and it’s the first indication that this bubbly, affectionate grandpa has been showing his age.
Many will follow. Entering his mid-80s with decades as a successful psychiatrist behind him, Dick has been flying solo in the seven years since his wife’s death from Alzheimer’s and not eager to give up his individuality. But as Johnson narrates, Dick has grown forgetful to a point that mandates he close up shop out west and move in with his daughter in New York.
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While that premise could fuel a zillion overwrought family dramedies, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” takes the form of an elaborate essay film, as Johnson’s narration sets the scene and the movie careens off on several unexpected tangents. The filmmaker credits her father with the idea for “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” and within the opening minutes, fulfills the promise of the title — an air conditioner crashes down on poor Dick’s head as he wanders the streets, leaving him motionless in a pile of blood. Minutes later, he meets the same fate at the bottom of a staircase, and an even gorier fate awaits him later on. Time and again, Johnson reveals the behind-the-scenes process, as stuntmen and effects artists assemble to give the gimmick a convincing edge. It’s a savvy means of inviting viewers into the queasy nightmares playing out in her head.
Johnson takes the device one step further with the movie’s most ambitious feat, following Dick to heaven itself for a slo-mo Fellini-esque tableaux of chocolate and popcorn, where Jesus heals the deformed toes plaguing Dick since birth. But as Johnson returns again and again to the set, recalling her upbringing as a Seventh Day Adventist where Heaven waits for no one until the Second Coming, the absurdity of the concept takes on its own complex connotations: Is Johnson using the filmmaking process to make peace with her father’s inevitable death, or as a quirky excuse to avoid that very confrontation?
Johnson’s too savvy a director to ask these questions outright, though it’s fascinating to watch her tackle the challenge of injecting herself into the center of the story. In “Cameraperson,” Johnson’s presence was felt but never seen, as she lingered outside the frame observing dozens of subjects in a freewheeling collection of moments. However, that movie turned toward similar questions of mortality and what it means to capture reality before it changes for good, and its later passages included footage of Johnson’s mother during the final stages of her life. As the filmmaker reveals in “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” she never captured her mother during her healthier, pre-Alzheimer’s phase; to that end, her new project is a quasi-sequel determined to avoid her past mistakes.
Despite its melancholic underpinnings as Dick’s mental state deteriorates, Johnson’s restless style works well as a means of keeping the material entertaining, from the moment her slumbering dad suddenly begins to levitate to the playful scene transitions — an airplane message announcing one passage of time, and another written out in alphabet soup — that make it clear she’s always controlling of every second of the frame.
At the same time, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” belongs to that familiar brand of personal documentary storytelling where the shaky camera ventures alongside the director for various confrontational scenes, and sometimes doesn’t end up in the most elegant of places. On more than one occasion, the camera ends up on the floor as the pair engage in tearful exchanges just outside the frame. In some situations, this might interfere with the emotions on display, but Johnson’s self-aware approach benefits from constant reminders of the camera and its limited ability to take charge of the situation — no matter how much she tries to change that.
As Johnson’s father follows her to New York, his situation grows more precarious, and the movie goes there with him. Johnson lives next door to her children’s two dads (including the filmmaker Ira Sachs) but the movie doesn’t explore the unique nature of her setup so much as the way bringing her dad closer to her world falls short of ameliorating her fears. While the recurring fantasy sequences run dangerously close to devolving into a prolonged music video, Dick Johnson’s face becomes the movie’s greatest special effect: As Kirsten drives her father to the doctor, her camera rests on his face as he professes an ability to live in the moment. The movie lingers on what that means at such an advanced stage of life.
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” gets darker as it moves along, with a nightmarish Halloween sequence signaling the possible beginning of the end for Dick in ways no measure of movie magic can control. But Dick’s daughter remains in charge, and her ability to find new methods of rescuing her father become a recurring punchline rich with feeling. “As much as I’m trying to kill you off,” she says, “I’m not trying to get rid of you.”
The movie’s final moments bring that observation into its most advanced stage, with a shocking emergency from last summer that gives way to a sophisticated twist at once beautiful and morbid in its implications. Johnson can’t save her father for good, but by preserving him in the most powerful medium at her disposal, she’s found the next best thing: Nobody lives forever, but the movies are a different story.
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in its U.S. Premieres section. Netflix releases it later this year.