Review – ‘Dick Johnson is Dead’: the Power of Father and Daughter in the Face of Doom and Gloom

How do you document something that hasn’t happened yet?

Most documentaries are about what happened right there – at that moment – in that space. Yet, how do you make a documentary about an event that will happen? How about someone’s death? With Dick Johnson is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) invites us into the life of her father, Richard “Dick” Johnson as he approaches the tipping point in his battle with dementia. In a series of darkly comic sketches and heavenly sequences, Johnson converts the thought of an ominous death rattle into the absurd hilarity of a functioning whoopie cushion.

This film is an alternative documentary. What I mean by this, is that in some ways, it is a documentary about a movie being made. No, this isn’t a Hearts of Darkness situation, the ‘shorts’ being made are *in* this movie, but the real heart of Dick Johnson is Dead comes from just hearing about what he’s gone through, and what he will go through. Yes, the fictitious segments of Dick Johnson dying in a smorgasbord of increasingly morbid ways (falling down the stairs, punctured and bleeding to death) are humorous. Still, they serve more like a breadcrumb trail to the film’s real conclusion. Be warned, this is no comedy, it’s an undoubtedly teary-eyed watch, and there are multiple moments where you will inevitably find yourself reaching for the Kleenex. 

In a way, the sketches do take away an element from this feature. I was far more interested in hearing about Dick Johnson’s life than seeing what new way they were preparing to “kill him”, but they sort of enable the initial gateway conversation into Johnson’s own thoughts on his dementia and his own thoughts on his demise. Additionally, they always lead into these fantastic scenes where Kirsten has constructed an interpretation of heaven on a set. There are singers, a chocolate fountain, glitter, Bruce Lee, and Jesus. As I said, this is a genuinely bizarre and alternative doc with a heart beating in its centre. 

German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche once said “if you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you”, which would seem far too melodramatic from Kirsten Johnson’s perspective. Why do we have to ‘stare’ in the abyss, she asks us, why can’t we just celebrate who the chasm is about to swallow? The memories of time and happiness, the experience of life is far too precious to spend worrying about death, and Dick Johnson is Dead embraces the concept with wide-open arms. When father and daughter reminisce over the death of ‘mom’ – who died from Alzheimer’s in 2007 – you begin to see them laugh through their sobs. When you’ve already witnessed this tremendous loss, Kirsten recognises that the abyss has no power left to give. As Dick Johnson climbs into a coffin, he lets out an exasperated, relaxed sigh as Kirsten chuckles: “that is brutal”. If you can look existential pain in the eyes and laugh, you are the strongest person alive.

Viewers will be tricked into a state of shock multiple times whilst watching this film, but there are no puppet strings to the bond these pair have, and the love they have for each other. Dick Johnson is Dead is a supremely unique documentary, and I doubt I will see another just quite like it in my lifetime. 

DJ: “You have this little brother that you need to take care of. I’m your little brother who’s now demented, you know (laughs). I’m your little brother. I’m no longer your father. I’m your little brother.”

KJ:  “Little brothers are fun.”

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