The church is crowded enough and some in the pews recount memories. But after filming the service, it’s time to remove the casket. It’s then that the film crew notices that Dick Johnson has fallen asleep inside it.
“Dick Johnson is Dead” is a zany, unexpected dark humor documentary that toys with the nature of death and works to help us all make light of our own eventual end.
The filmmaker, Kirsten Johnson, has a creative time filming her father, a successful Seattle-area psychiatrist who, in his ’80s, has ever increasing dementia. Waking up from a dream of a spoof on death starring her father, Johnson asks her dad if he’d be interested in making a movie like this. With a like-minded sense of gallows humor, he answers in the affirmative without hesitation. Using him as her focus, and humor as her means, Johnson creates a documentary like no other.
“Dick Johnson is Dead,” shortlisted by the 2021 Academy Awards, won the Online Film Critics Society Award for Best 2020 Documentary and I predict it will be the winner at the Oscars as well.
I’m not saying it truly is the best doc – “The Dissident” has that honor – but I will say it is the most creatively constructed doc I have ever seen. Frankly, it shows a master filmmaker taking the genre beyond expectations in an explosion of artistic genius.
Johnson tackles some universals: love, death, and aging. She uses a variety of novel effects and tricks to propel her story. Whether it’s a levitation or the use of an unsuspected stunt double, we are taken on a magical trip past the foundational grief of losing someone you love. Johnson uses a whimsical, surreal scene of Heaven as well as a mundane walk down the street (into an abrupt construction accident) to desensitize us to the inevitable.
When Johnson began filming, she explained some scenes to people to get their reactions. As they would stare back at her in shock, she would rationalize, “It’s a film about never wanting my dad to die and figuring out as many ways to kill him off as possible as a form of pre-traumatic stress therapy.”
To others she would reveal, “It’s gonna be the ultimate throw down on smashing the boundaries between the real and the invented, documentary and fiction, the filmer and the filmed, laughter and pain, life and death.”
“Dick Johnson is Dead” is a bizarre journey covering a sober subject, dying with dementia. But it is also a love poem about a beloved father and psychiatrist whose new purpose, in the end, is allowing others to see his deteriorating psyche in order to help them, as he did as a psychiatrist, confront their own fears.
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Writers: Nels Bangerter and Kirsten Johnson
Featuring: Dick Johnson, Kirsten Johnson, Michael Hilow, Ana Hoffman, Kevin Loreque, Mary Page Nance, and Ira Sachs
Producers: Katy Chevigny and Marily Ness
Executive Producer: Megan Ellison
Cinematographer: John Foster
Editor: Nels Bangerter
Website and where to watch: https://www.dickjohnsonisdead.com
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