Sunday, October 4, 2020


In Dick Johnson is Dead, cinematographer/documentarian Kirsten Johnson, whose 2016 cine-memoir Cameraperson is one of the great modern masterpieces of the form, confronts inevitable age old old age questions. What does it mean to lose a parent? And what does it mean to die? She does this with charm and high spirits in a cleverly experimental, yet tenderly, achingly personal way, by casting her own octogenarian father to star in fatal tableaux: sprawled at the foot of the stairs, bleeding against a mailbox, thumped on the head by a falling widow-unit air conditioner. It’s a film about its own making, reflexive with scenes of makeup artists, stunt men, boom mikes, and more moving the necessary pieces into place. It’s also a film of home movies, scenes of Johnson, her father, and her children vacationing, baking cake, playing games, and singing songs. Stitching the two together is a patchwork of memories shared and memories made. She moves him across the country, takes him to the doctor, or to visit an old crush. Along the way, they confront mortality in the way we often do when speaking to beloved family members of a certain age: glancingly, carefully, aware of the deep wells of fear and finality that can be summoned up by staring too long into the lonely abyss. Alas, as Elizabeth Bishop reminded us, many things seem filled with the intent to be lost.

She grants her father immortality the only way she can: through her art. He comes alive in this film, an interesting and charming man doting and delighting while his faculties slip and fade. Captured on film thusly, he’s always there to be remembered. And yet her best moment of grace as a filmmaker, and as a daughter, come in the film’s most fanciful moments—some of pure spirituality and whimsy, and the last a deeply moving privilege. She casts him in heavenly moments—sequences of ecstatic afterlife shot in color and slow-mo, in fantasies of restoration, reconnection, and resurrection. Dancers wear over their heads large cut-out-style black-and-white photos of his idols, or dearly departed ones. Confetti falls. How grand to imagine a moment of pure ecstasy that surmounts the pain, the fear, the loss. And how moving, then, to end the movie by staging a funeral, one he can watch from the back door, like he’s Tom Sawyer seeing how deeply he is loved, and how kindly people will remember him when he’s gone. The final moments of the movie reach beyond the film’s warmly nervous conceit and surreal touches into this deep well of simple human beauty. Such a gift.

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