‘Dick Johnson is Dead’ embraces immortality through documentary

Photo from the Netflix movie, "Dick Johnson"
Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 5.0/5.0

“Dick Johnson is Dead” defies description. It’s the most recent project from Kirsten Johnson, a cinematographer with years of industry experience who has only recently developed name recognition for her 2016 “Cameraperson.” As Johnson reports in the opening sequence of her new documentary, she conceived of the project when her titular father began to show signs of dementia. In order to prepare for his inevitable passing, the two decided to apply Kirsten’s skills as a documentary filmmaker to record his final years.

Contrary to what the title might suggest, “Dick Johnson is Dead” doesn’t accept the notion of Dick’s death. If anything, the film utterly rejects it. At the end of its opening sequence, Dick is struck on the head by a falling air conditioning unit. Twenty minutes in, he trips and falls down a flight of stairs and later, on a crack in the sidewalk. With each staged variation on Dick’s fatal incident — the illusion shattered as stagehands and camera crew help him get back on his feet and Kirsten calls out directorial feedback — “Dick Johnson is Dead” refuses its own titular claim and robs death of its finality.

There’s a mad genius to be found in the Johnsons’ filmic pre-grieving. The film’s irreverent style is a blend of witty and joyous filmmaking, spoken word poetry and performance art. Dispersed between conventional, unfiltered documentary sequences are the younger Johnson’s short narrative essays, each as insightful as they are deeply empathetic. Reflecting on their family’s history with Alzheimer’s disease, Seventh-day Adventism and shared love of film and photography, Johnson’s essays alone carry staggering emotional weight, but paired with the film’s meticulously crafted visuals, they reach profound heights.

In the same breath, “Dick Johnson is Dead” seamlessly blends unsuspecting sequences of b-roll with marvelous and candid visual effects. At one point, Dick’s Eames lounge chair, treated with the reverence of a holy artifact throughout, levitates off the ground with a slumbering Dick in tow. Elsewhere, Dick meets Jesus and dines with a troupe of dead artistic iconoclasts to an upbeat pop soundtrack.

The pure craft of these sequences deserves to be praised. The sets are campy, flamboyant and gorgeous, while the effects are seamless and convincing. But Johnson pulls the curtains back on the process, often giving more screen time to behind-the-scenes footage of the actors, art department and stunt doubles than to the stunt itself. The emphasis isn’t on the visuals themselves, but the people involved in them.

In effect, the film becomes less about Dick’s death than the process of unpacking it, of coming to terms with it. In Kirsten’s case, it’s a documentation of the final creative project between father and daughter.

The ease with which Johnson bounces between these brimming-with-camp fantasies and deeply moving statements of purpose is nothing less than technical mastery. The assembly of its narrative may not be strictly chronological, featuring intercutting footage that was shot years apart, as Johnson explains through narration. But the effect is that death becomes an escape from the conventional — an idea that the film seems to ultimately critique itself for. As “Dick Johnson is Dead” nears its conclusion, it strips back on its filmic gimmicks in favor of a direct emotional confrontation. The fantasy sequences that remain, such as the haunted house framed by Johnson’s narration as a metaphor for Dick’s confusion, reflect a self-awareness that propels the film to new heights.

This is most clear in the film’s final sequence, a “rehearsal” funeral that was actually one of the first sequences shot. Some in attendance embrace the absurdity of the event, while others treat it as if it was the real thing; either way, the film recognizes the emotional gravity for everyone present.

Don’t let its crude and irreverent sense of humor fool you: “Dick Johnson is Dead” is a masterwork in deeply empathic filmmaking and a film entirely unlike anything else — but nowhere can it be described as somber. Indeed, it is the unadulterated joy and compassion accompanying every scene that marks it as so profound. Dick Johnson isn’t dead: He’s immortalized in this incredibly unique love letter to cinema, family and everything else that makes life worth living.

Olive Grimes covers film. Contact her at [email protected]. Tweet her at @ogrimes5.