Dick Johnson Is Dead is an unusual documentary in which director Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) imagines her father’s death over and over, and her dad, Dick, participates in staging his many fatalities. This exercise in impermanent mortality is way for Kirsten and Dick, who seem very close, to come to grips with his dementia diagnosis and the inevitable loss of Dick piece by piece to dementia. By staging and re-staging her father’s death, it is also a way for Kirsten to memorialize Dick and for him to “live forever”, at least in cinematic memory. This film is extraordinary because it sounds like a total bummer, but it is moving, uplifting, and frequently very funny.
It’s Dick himself that makes the film so special. A psychiatrist with a GREAT laugh, Dick is immediately likeable and the more we come to know him through Kirsten’s intimate photography and especially his good-natured participation in his death scenes, the more tragic his diagnosis becomes. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are the thieves of joy, and they take our loved ones away bit by bit, it’s death by a thousand cuts. Kirsten, having already experienced this with her mother, who had Alzheimer’s, understands this and documents the years following Dick’s diagnosis, particularly the time around his relocation from Seattle to New York, when he moves in with Kirsten. Though Dick seems like a really cool dude, you can see him wither a little as his car is sold, the excuse of “not needing it in New York” only a pretense to the loss of independence it represents. His upset at not recognizing acquaintances is so sincere you just want to hug the guy.
There is a tremendous amount of humanity in Dick Johnson Is Dead, especially for those who have watched family members suffer through dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dick’s imaginary deaths become increasingly bizarre and brutal, as if directly proportionate to the level of inevitability and despair one may feel at watching a loved one go through this. The hopelessness brought about by dementia, the inability to just make it stop are never directly addressed within the film—Kirsten and Dick both seem determined to maintain good spirits as long they can—but those feelings are palpable as Kirsten stages ever more gruesome death scenes, until finally Dick becomes disturbed by one especially bloody death and Kirsten cuts the scene off.
Generally, though, Dick is amiable and interested in the process, talking to stuntmen, makeup artists, and the sound operator, genuinely concerned with their craft and excited to be making a movie with his daughter. It’s sweet and cathartic to experience his deaths along with Dick. A false funeral, though, reveals that not everyone can be so lighthearted about Dick’s inevitable demise, as his friend Ray weeps inconsolably after the pretend memorial service. Johnson does not quite resolve this moment satisfactorily, but Ray is a reminder that Dick will be missed by many when he does eventually die—as of the release of the film, he is still alive—and what the real stakes are of Kirsten’s Groundhog Day-like experiment with her father.
This is one daughter hoarding joy with her beloved father, but it’s also a love letter to families. It’s a documentary unlike any other, at once macabre and hilarious, intimate and universal, and a beautiful, imaginative tribute to a man adored by his family. But it is also a unique framing of the ongoing grieving process forced by dementia which steals pieces of our loved ones until there is nothing left of them, only a shell. When a loved one has dementia, you lose them again and again, in some ways incidental and in others staggering, monumental losses. Dick Johnson Is Dead turns that repeated sense of loss into a celebration of life and now. It captures that feeling of continual loss, big and small, and also the impulse to cling to every moment because tomorrow it could be gone, forgotten forever. This is a strange documentary, but a perfect memorial to one man and the millions of families touched by dementia. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a deeply personal film, but anyone who has lost or is losing someone to dementia or Alzheimer’s will recognize the common struggle within it.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is now streaming on Netflix.