Dick Johnson is Dead (2020)
PG-13 for kinda sorta gruesome imagery coupled with a morbid sense of humor. The movie really goes out of the way to remind you that all of the gore is fake. The conceit of making a film chronicling the way that the titular character could die and how they're going to pull that off really destigmatizes any kind of violent imagery. But the movie is bleak. G movies can be bleak, but that doesn't mean that I want to show some bleak stuff to my kids. It also could be seen as blasphemous in some lights, but I don't really view it that way. PG-13.
DIRECTOR: Kirsten Johnson
What is with me and dead father stuff? Like, I can't stop. It's such this neurosis that I should probably get it checked out. But my inherent biases plus obsession with finding a nanosecond of free time has stopped me from getting this checked out. So instead, I decide to watch documentaries about dead parents and the dying parents. It's probably not just a me-thing, but I am definitely part of that thing. I mean, I know that my wife wasn't exactly interested in watching something like this. It doesn't mean she didn't enjoy it, but we are definitely coming from different places when it comes to confronting loved ones' mortality through cinema.
I don't know if I completely get Johnson's mission statement for this movie. As an experimental filmmaker / documentarian, I get that not everything is supposed to be "gotten". There's always going to be room for interpretation. Heck, if she's doing her job right, there's going to be a lot of room for interpretation. The goal of the film is very clear: It is a way for both the dying and those who love the dying to come to grips with the fact that death comes for us all. And tenuously, I kind of get the logic. By filming Dick's death many ways, it forces us to talk about it. It destigmatizes the whole thing and makes us adjust to some harsh realities. It brings us context for our daily lives. After all, few of Dick's deaths actually were natural or pathetic. He gets hit on the head with a falling air conditioner. He gets stabbed in the neck by a two-by-four. He keeps encountering these gory deaths that are so sudden and instant that it gives meaning to the slow progression of dementia that is taking over. For all of those instant deaths, with their avoidance of suffering and deterioration, there's no goodbye. There's no prep or coming to terms. Kirsten Johnson and her father wouldn't have had the insight to make this movie if any of these things actually happened. Instead, Alzheimer's becomes a sort of double-edged sword. Because Dick is fading slowly, she has time to process all of the things going on with him.
I mean, we all want Dick Johnson to be our dad. Despite the fact that, not once, did the movie reference the fact that he has to have the most innuendo-laden name imaginable. It's probably avoided out of respect. After all, Dick is such a nice old man and he was raised pretty religious. There's no need to shame him. But Dick has been through a lot. The truly tragic element of the whole film is the fact that his wife went through the same thing. The cruel irony is that he's had to play both roles in this story. He's had to be the observer of Alzheimer's and dementia. He, as a psychiatrist, knows what is logically and emotionally happening for the family that is seeing a loved one slowly slip away. But then he also is the victim of the same disease. He is both sympathetic and sufferer. That's a weird place to be. Yet, he takes it with this absolute grace. Every moment in this movie, I kept wanting to give this old man a hug and I wanted to thank him for his courage and wit in the face of something so darned miserable.
But all this also makes me suspect of the tone of this film. This movie is meant to be a living tribute to a man. When Dick actually dies, this film will serve to be the perfect remembrance of him. He's happy and he's charming. He tells jokes and is mostly with it for most of the movie. He's an active participant in his own story and it's great for a mourner to have this. That being said, I know that dementia can't be as easy as all this. I've always questioned tribute stories that idolize their subject matter. I don't know why I always relate to stories better that are warts and all. I get it. There's something selfish (in a good way) about making a perfect tribute movie for a dying man that you love. That's the way Kirsten Johnson wants to remember her father. It stems out of knowing that the only footage she has of her mother is completely riddled with dementia and that it isn't an accurate representation of the emotional person that she carries in her heart. That makes sense. I don't know if it is Kirsten Johnson's responsibility to teach people about the turmoil that surrounds Alzheimer's. Instead, she is making a movie for two people. I'm just grateful that the film was shared with me through Netflix.
Perhaps that's being a bit too generous. I think that there was an active attitude to say, "The audience for this movie are people who knew and loved my dad." Cool. Kirsten's coldness as a director in this movie sometimes makes me think that perhaps she got too comfortable with death at times. It's got to be weird. People deal with death differently. She isn't doing anything right or wrong. But I also think that it's good to be sad. For all I know, she's weeping her eyes out every moment that the camera isn't on. It's entirely possible. We saw his best friend bawl his eyes out at a fake funeral, so there is a real emotional stake to what's going on here. But I wonder if it is supposed to hurt. Perhaps this movie is too fun at times. Maybe there's supposed to be a little death each time we see him get hit by something, causing a squirt of fake blood to cover the sidewalk. It's nice that she has this time with her dad, but is the brief working the way it was supposed to. I think it never gets more distant than when they make these stylized heaven sequences. While Dick is adorable and hilarious during these sequences, I get that Kirsten is just doing her artsy-fartsy thing. It doesn't feel like it is adding to the emotional resonance of the film, but it is simply an excuse to show what Johnson can do creatively.
But all that being said, it did get me. I know that the movie was for them, but I can still be moved by this kind of stuff. This loving portrait of a dad is sweet and nice. He's this guy who lives a genuinely good life, according to what his daughter laid out. His grandkids seem to love him genuinely and that's what really matters. I'd love to have something like this for one of my family members.
Leave a Reply.
Film is great. It can challenge us. It can entertain us. It can puzzle us. It can awaken us.
Mr. H has watched an upsetting amount of movies. They bring him a level of joy that few things have achieved.