I can’t even count how many times I’ve typed some variation of the phrase “This is the perfect film for the coronavirus moment.” When an event so imbues itself into the day to day consciousness, it begins to color the way we see the world. Art takes on a new, perhaps unintended, meaning. Dick Johnson is Dead, a moving piece of personal filmmaking under any circumstance, becomes something much more profound in the context of a global pandemic.
C Richard Johnson, Dick for short, is so full of life. Within the first 5 minutes of Kirsten Johnson’s documentary of her father, it becomes crystal clear that Dick is defined by his gentle, genial nature. He’s the kind of guy who would allow his filmmaker daughter to make a docu-comedy about his death, that tells you all you need to know. That duality provides compelling thrust for the film. Dick is a vivacious guy at the center of a documentary about death.
Dick Johnson is Dead is fairly formless, sometimes frustratingly so. At times it’s a meandering but personal journey through the Johnson family’s history. Other moments play like a movie version of a Penn and Teller act, dissecting the magic of stunt work. Still other times it’s a broad dissertation on death and religion. For a lot of films, these inconsistencies could be roadblocks, for this one they’re entry points.
In case the title didn’t make it clear, Richard Johnson is dying. Alzheimer’s is starting to set in and his memory has begun to deteriorate. Both Dick and his daughter know what’s coming, they’ve been through this before. The dementia caused death of Dick’s wife, Kirsten’s mother, is still fresh in their minds. This time they’re determined to hang on.
More than anything, Dick Johnson is Dead is about saying goodbye while it’s still possible to do so. In time Kirsten’s father will be unable to remember who she is and so she’s set out celebrate those shared memories before their gone. The film is a long cinematic farewell.
As personal as this documentary is, what the Johnson family is dealing with is something that millions around the world have experienced en masse over this last year. In that way Dick Johnson is Dead transcends its grimness and becomes an incredible expression of catharsis. Over a million around the world have died alone, apart from their families. Taken with that context, watching a family document their journey through grief is eminently relatable.
Death isn’t something we’re good at talking about. We avoid it while the people we love are alive and when confronted with it we struggle to cope. Dick Johnson tells us not to fear the end, rather to prepare for it. Dick Johnson will die one day, but now his memory will live on. That genial, generous man can rest assured that he’s left something behind for his family.
Does that mean Dick Johnson is Dead is the movie of the coronavirus era? Maybe, maybe not, but it does feel important right now. This pandemic has changed the way we look at the world, at death and at art. It’s changed the way we grieve. Either way, long live Dick Johnson.
Dick Johnson is Dead is an essential expression of grief in a time where so many are grieving alone. 8/10