In her exquisite 2016 documentary “Cameraperson,” director Kirsten Johnson explored footage she had amassed during her years as a sought-after cinematographer, assembling a powerful collage of images from around the globe as well as a touching memoir of her mother, who suffered with dementia. In “Dick Johnson is Dead,” Johnson turns the camera on her father, Seattle psychiatrist Richard C. Johnson, who is beginning to show signs of memory loss himself.
Filming her dad as he clears out his light-filled aerie of an office, sitting with him in the woodsy mid-century house she grew up in, Johnson is dreading what’s to come: the agonizing glide-path wherein the father she loves will begin to fade and eventually die. It’s “the beginning of his disappearance,” she says in the intimate narration that gives this thoughtful, wistfully funny film its structure. And to prepare for the inevitable, she involves her father in an alternately bizarre and touching exercise of rehearsing that loss.
What ensues is a mix of therapy and performance art: Kirsten decides to visualize Dick’s demise in all manner of ways, “killing him off” in a series of imaginary accidents, and at one point putting him into a narrow coffin in the Seventh Day Adventist Church where his funeral will one day be held. Jolly and accommodating, Dick goes along with the idea, evidence of the “open, accepting person” Kirsten describes at the beginning of the film. There are nuts-and-bolts scenes that will be familiar to anyone who has cared for an elderly parent: Dick undergoes a memory test strikingly similar to the one President Trump was so proud of acing; and he moves into Kirsten’s one-bedroom New York apartment, with all the challenges and unexpected gifts such physical closeness entails.
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Although “Dick Johnson is Dead” relies on candid verite conversations about loss, mortality and grief, this is a surprisingly ambitious piece of filmmaking, involving stunts, special effects, dream sequences and clever on-screen graphics: Kirsten decides to stage her father’s idea of heaven, which involves a chocolate fountain, dinner with Frederick Douglass and a small gesture of physical healing that carries surprising psychic weight. There are moments in “Dick Johnson is Dead” when viewers might question the ethics of Kirsten pushing her father into set pieces that look increasingly exhausting and upsetting to stage. But it becomes clear that they also offer Dick crucial opportunities for the kind of mental engagement, physical activity and social connection he needs more than ever.
“Dick Johnson is Dead” ends on a shockingly maudlin note, one that initially seems like it has crossed a line of good taste that Kirsten has been tiptoeing throughout the curious enterprise, but that results in an emotional catharsis that is powerful and enormously gratifying. Plenty of movies are wish-fulfillment fantasies, but Kirsten Johnson has created a first: a dread-fulfillment fantasy that brims with love, humor and, of all things, life.
PG-13. Available on Netflix. Contains thematic elements and macabre images. 90 minutes.
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