By Bradley Lane
Kirsten Johnson has been a cinematographer for documentary films for nearly 30 years and just recently began to direct films herself in 2016 with her debut feature film, Cameraperson. This was a self-reflective work focused on how the process of filming a documentary affected the subjects of those films she had worked on throughout her career. Johnson’s newest film continues her meta-textual streak while injecting a healthy dose of personal vulnerability into that equation, with a killer elevator pitch to boot. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a film, about making a film, about the death of her best friend and father, C. Richard Johnson as he suffers with memory loss in his twilight years in real life.
The fictional film being made about her father dying is framed not as a serious look back on his life, but rather a morbid slapstick comedy. We do learn about Dick Johnson as the film goes on, but the fictional sections are entirely invented. Kirsten Johnson creates elaborate set pieces involving stunt work, special effects and movie magic to repeatedly film her father dying in increasingly funny ways. However, as the movie plays out it becomes apparent that the seemingly silly content of the fictional scenes begins to carry layered meaning both to Kirsten and her father. Where the genius lies in the film is the way the documentary is edited to slowly reveal the different aspects of its themes and ideas to dazzling emotional effectiveness.
The film opens straight forward enough by introducing the characters and the premise in as plain as terms as possible. One thing becomes abundantly clear in these first few minutes and that is that Kirsten loves her father dearly and is terribly heartbroken to see him go. This early revelation sets up the question that leads to all others as the film plays out: why make a fictional movie about a real person? Why not just make a documentary about his life? I would never spoil your good time by answering this question for you, but the film delivers a gut punch of an answer about halfway through that gives way to one of the most complex documentaries I’ve ever seen.
Johnson is grappling with so many ideas in this film on paper that from the outside it might look like it is a purely academic exercise. Her examinations of the nature of memory versus documentation, the cruelty of loss and mental degradation and the ethics of documentary filmmaking are directly addressed in ways that are sure to inspire rigorous debates amongst her audience, but Johnson’s greatest trick is that every moment of Dick Johnson Is Dead is teaming with humanity and warmth.
It’s a wonderful magic trick that Johnson can pull off being so emotionally open to her audience while simultaneously working to layer in complex ideas about the nature of what it means to be documented, all the while making a meaningful and loving tribute to her father. It’s a special film that is endlessly ambitious and accomplishes everything is sets out to do and more. Dick Johnson is Dead is available to stream on Netflix. – 4.5/5 stars