'Dick Johnson Is Dead': Director Kirsten Johnson Returns With A Witty, Bright-Eyed Doc [Sundance Review]

During 2019’s Best of the Decade listicle blitzkrieg, amid all the rancorous wrangling over rankings, a few truths emerged: Paul Thomas Anderson needs to clone himself; a depressing number of people are willing to die on the “the new decade begins in 2021” hill; and Kirsten Johnson’s “Cameraperson” is absolutely one of the pinnacles of the recent and ongoing “Golden Age of Documentary” (it’s a top 10 title on our own Best Documentaries of the Decade list). In “Cameraperson” Johnson’s own story emerges through a mosaic of memories of the stories of others — the men, women, and children she encountered in two decades as a cinematographer and camera operator on some of the highest-profile non-fiction films of recent years (“Fahrenheit 9/11,” “Citizenfour“). 

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But the globe-spanning footage of war survivors, disgruntled boxers, famous philosophers, and tired-eyed Nigerian midwives is shot through with more personal moments too – snatched images of Johnson’s young children, and her mother, grown heartbreakingly vague with late-stage Alzheimer’s, her absence later highlighted by the appearance of a modest urn bearing her name. There is so much life in “Cameraperson” but it is also permeated with death: the film pivots on this beloved woman’s passing, which Johnson’s inquisitive and compassionate camera is powerless to prevent or redeem. It’s a helplessness that Johnson’s mischievous and metafictional follow-up, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is determined to address, this time taking her wonderfully scampish aging father, retired psychiatrist C. Richard Johnson, and with his full complicity, rehearsing the moment of his death over and over again, “Harold and Maude“-style. It’s not the dying that’s the point, it’s the endless resurrections that bring him back to life each time, as if together father and daughter —self-identified best friends— can prepare each other for the time he won’t come back at all. 

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That, at any rate, is the premise of the film, and Johnson père et fille have infectious fun hiring stuntmen and makeup artists and staging elaborate, convincing, and hilariously gruesome trick-deaths, by falling air-conditioner, careless construction worker or slippery stairwell. Dick even gets to check out heaven, although, as a Seventh Day Adventist, it’s supposed to be strictly off-limits prior to the second coming of Jesus. Perhaps that’s why here it’s imagined as a whimsically artificial, gaudy stage set adorned with feather-clouds and glitter guns where mannequin cutouts of Buster Keaton and Frida Kahlo rub shoulders with Farrah Fawcett and a handsome, accurately middle-eastern-looking Christ. 

As colorful, lightly blasphemous and inventive as all that is, it’s when Johnson strays from strict adherence to the concept that the most profound insights come — into Dick’s motivation for taking part in such a fate-tempting project, and into Johnson’s own agenda for putting herself and her father through an amusing but arduous round of coffin shopping, soul-searching, and fake-funeral-arranging. Dick’s worsening dementia is taking him away from Kirsten in almost exactly the same, wrenchingly tragic way that she lost her mother — piece by piece, memory by memory. It’s as though beneath Johnson’s calm, wry demeanor, and her sporadic voiceover — recorded inside a closet where hanging clothes absorb echoes to give her unadorned words a gentle, pillowed quality —  there’s a wild panic, which can only be quelled by picking up a camera. But if the idea behind “Dick Johnson is Dead” is to cheat death, to skip merrily back and forth across The Great Divide as though toggling the FWD and RWD buttons on life itself, it really serves to highlight how, outside the artificial bubble of the 90-minute feature film, time only ever moves in one direction.

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Within it, though, nestles a deeply moving, lovelorn tribute to a lovely man, with his unflagging cheerfulness, his devotion to his daughter and his late wife (which is not so devout it stops him having a joyously frisky encounter with an old flame late on). Yet the unusual frankness, from both subject and director, about the usually taboo subject of death —not as an abstract, general concept but a hard, fast-approaching fact— also gives it an edge of ferocity. Sometimes that sharp edge manifests when Johnson’s duties as director eclipse her duties as a daughter, like when she pushes Dick for one more take of the accidentally-sliced-jugular death even when he’s evidently tired, or when she leaves her camera running uncomfortably long while an old friend of Dick’s (who is fully in on the ruse) sobs uncontrollably in a corner alone after delivering his fake eulogy.

If there wasn’t such feeling here these moments could seem cruel, but then dabbling with cruelty is maybe the whole point: to try to build a callus on the exact spot where grief resides so that the real thing won’t hurt quite so much. Whether it will work is an unanswerable question, but the impulse to try has given us 89 witty, scattered, bright-eyed minutes of Dick Johnson in a state of suspension between life and death — a kind of Schrödinger’s Dad experiment — and that itself is a treat: Dick Johnson is dead; long, long may he live. [B+]

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