MESSAGE IN THE MOVIES
Dick Johnson Is Dead - Streaming on Netflix
Documentary directed by Kirsten Johnson
There are probably a good number of folks who will opt out of watching Dick Johnson Is Dead, including adult children caring for parents and/or grandparents with dementia or Alzheimer’s disease, persons who have lost loved ones recently to Covid-19 or other illnesses, and – most of all – those who find the idea of staging reenactments of death scenes with an ageing father to be in poor taste.
I have listened to several film critics openly share their discomfort with this film. I get it.
However, there is also a good chance that you may find yourself deeply moved and inspired by this brilliant, funny, and life-affirming semi-documentary. I know that I was.
Kirsten Johnson is an award-winning documentary filmmaker of international acclaim. Her first feature was 2016’s Cameraperson, a compilation of several projects from her past. In that film Johnson mostly stayed in the background, but the movie included a few scenes with her late mother, who was confused and disoriented while struggling with Alzheimer’s.
The genesis of this project began when Kirsten noticed early signs of dementia in her widowed father, Richard Johnson. He was a retired psychiatrist and living by himself in their family home in Seattle. Things were changing very quickly and the slow daily signs of early dementia were beginning to show. Kirsten pitched her dad the idea of filming fake death scenes. She would hire a crew of stunt persons, makeup artists, and cinematographers to set up the scenarios, including death by blows to the head, falls down a long flight of stairs, and even a Looney Tunes inspired death by a falling object. Just to keep things positive, they would also film a few scenes in heaven, also starring Dick Johnson.
Her dad was cautiously enthusiastic about the idea. The main motivation for both of them would be the opportunity to spend more time together. But the movie is much more than this; it’s about all of the other ways that life begins to shut down in the final stretch. Dick’s medical practice is now over and his office cleared out; he moves from the lovely house filled with memories to a small New York City apartment where Kirsten can help take care of him. With the move, he is advised to relinquish his car keys since there will be no need to drive in the city. Fortunately, there is always this movie to make.
The film is incredibly specific, focusing on Dick himself, a positive person with an infectious laugh and a ready smile. But Dick Johnson Is Dead is also universal in depicting the inevitable stages of life that we all have to face, and the opportunities we have to walk alongside of those who we love.
Kirsten’s movie is a love letter to her father. We are also blessed.
Halo and Pitchfork Rating:
Five halos: A film about mortality and death that is mostly about life and joy.
One pitchfork: Some bloody death scenes.
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Rev. Bruce Batchelor-Glader
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