Dick Johnson is Dead

 

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With tears and comic sketches, a filmmaker chronicles the slow death of her father from Alzheimer’s.

 

Dick Johnson is Dead

Heavens above: the Son of God and Dick

  

Dick Johnson is Dead is, without doubt, the year’s most loving and macabre documentary. But the title is misleading. It should be called Dick Johnson is Almost Dead. C. Richard Johnson M.D. was suffering from Alzheimer’s and his daughter decided to chronicle his decline. And if that sounds harsh, her film is also playful, funny and deeply affectionate. Kirsten Johnson's mother Katie Jo also perished from Alzheimer’s and the latter’s demoralising illness is openly discussed on camera by her daughter and widower. As such, then, Dick Johnson is Dead is a deeply personal, startling and bizarre private journal preserved on film.

 

If nothing else, Kirsten Johnson has a sense of humour. With her father’s permission, she re-enacts a variety of grisly deaths for Johnson Sr, from being crushed to death by a falling air conditioner to just tripping down a flight of stairs, the latter ‘skit’ recreating the actual death of Dick’s wife. All in the best possible taste. There’s even a segment set in Heaven, where both Dick and his late wife share a celestial dinner table with Sigmund Freud, Buster Keaton, Billie Holiday and Farrah Fawcett. Nothing seems to be off limits, not least the scene in which Old Dick tries out his own coffin, before falling asleep in it. Dick Johnson nods off quite a lot, as it happens.

 

One suspects that Kirsten Johnson hopes her public will both laugh and cry. But if her document fails to wrench at the heartstrings, it’s because the narrative trajectory is a given from the get-go. Another problem is that Kristen Johnson, in spite of her experience as a documentarian, is not a very slick director, with many scenes furiously trying to find their focus, while others see her abandon her camera completely, leaving us to stare at her father’s feet. Presumably she is anticipating our forbearance as it’s all so extremely personal. Of course, we do, but not without an iota of suspicion that it’s all a set-up. As a character, Dick himself is a jovial old codger, and is obviously much loved. His ordinariness, then, is an advantage, but also a setback. At times, the film’s banal padding makes us wish for a shorter running time, although the concept is so unique that, indubitably, we are gripped until the bitter end. All the same, one has to ask if we would spend good money to purchase the Blu-Ray of Johnson’s home movie for our own personal collection.

 

JAMES CAMERON-WILSON

 

Featuring  Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson, Katie Jo Johnson.

 

Dir Kirsten Johnson, Pro Kirsten Johnson, Katy Chevigny and Marilyn Ness, Screenplay Kirsten Johnson and Nels Bangerter, Ph Kirsten Johnson and John Foster, Pro Des Nathan Fisher, Ed Nels Bangerter, Music Syzygys, Costumes William Mellette.

 

Big Mouth Productions-Netflix.

89 mins. USA. 2020. Rel: 2 October 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 12A.