When we first meet C. Richard Johnson, he is very much alive, and gloriously so: He’s an effortlessly charming presence, with a sweet smile, a generous laugh and eyes that twinkle with merriment. Sometimes those eyes fill with tears, especially when he’s sharing a tender moment with his daughter, documentary filmmaker Kirsten Johnson, who occasionally steps out from behind the camera to hug her father and best friend. “Just the idea that I might ever lose this man is too much to bear,” she says by way of introducing the premise of this strange and beguiling new work. When her father began showing signs of memory loss a few years earlier, she proposed they make a movie together about his death.
The title of “Dick Johnson Is Dead” can thus be interpreted as many things: a prophecy, a spoiler, a worry, a joke. Perhaps above all a joke. Laughter may have no power to hold death at bay, but it might — in concentrated, memorable doses — help ease a little of its sting. On one level, the film exists to test this theory; Kirsten confronts the prospect of her father’s passing with sly visual wit, structural playfulness and a few brilliant slapstick fatalities. The first time we see Dick keel over in the street, he’s been brained by a falling air conditioner; later, he’ll get smacked in the head by a large wooden beam. We see the preparation that went into the shooting of these and other freak accidents, complete with sound recorders, stuntmen and a pouch of fake blood.
One of this documentary’s many weird, disarming pleasures is the obvious delight both Johnsons take in repeatedly faking Dick’s often-ghastly demise — an eccentric undertaking that brings two close family members even closer together. You can also sense the satisfaction Kirsten takes in pulling back the curtain on her process, showing us how a not-infrequent occurrence in the movies — a character’s senseless, violent death — is blocked, staged and photographed into being. From start to finish, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” revels in the art and artifice of filmmaking — and a notably different kind of filmmaking from the documentaries Johnson has shot over nearly three decades, among them hard-hitting geopolitical dispatches like “Citizenfour,” “The Oath” and “Darfur Now.”
Four years ago, she wove snippets of footage from those and her numerous other credits into a collage-like feature called “Cameraperson,” a photographic memoir that doubled as a philosophical treatise on the ethics of viewing the world through a camera’s lens. Among the more intimate treasures of “Cameraperson” were brief glimpses of Kirsten's late mother, whom we see again here, some time after she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. This footage is one of the few cinematic records Kirsten has of her mother, a wrenching admission that suggests another motivation behind the movie. She wants to create a lasting portrait of her surviving parent, whose own battle with Alzheimer’s is well under way.
If that were the only reason, it would be reason enough. If “Cameraperson” compelled us to adopt Kirsten's eyes as our own, then the camera here becomes an even more direct conduit, emotional as well as visual, between the filmmaker and her audience. You feel the affection coursing through every shot of Dick, a retired psychiatrist, as he moves out of his Seattle home and into her Manhattan apartment. You also register his gradual decline and the complicated feelings his situation engenders: the joy of getting to spend his final years with his daughter and two grandchildren, but also the attendant loss of memory, mobility and independence. This too explains the movie, which is nothing if not an act of reclamation. It’s an assertion of control over the manner of one’s passing, and even one’s mourning, that Kirsten and her very game dad push to increasingly giddy, sure-why-the-hell-not extremes.
The movie’s wildest moments imagine Dick in heaven, visualized here as a riotous explosion of color and confetti, chocolate and popcorn, with cardboard cutouts of Frederick Douglass, Bruce Lee and Farrah Fawcett among those attending his welcome party. It’s a dazzling, decidedly unorthodox vision of the afterlife, and it feels all the more subversive when you learn that Johnson was raised in the Seventh-day Adventist Church, with its strict ideas about the afterlife and its warnings against alcohol, dancing and movies. That latter restriction clearly backfired in Kirsten's case, and “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is, among other things, a playfully surreal engagement with religious faith, culminating in a scene of Jesus washing Dick’s feet. That’s a biblical allusion, of course, but also a personal one: Dick was born with deformed toes, a lifelong source of shame that is magically healed, at least for a moment, through the power of cinema.
And this, even more than the universal inevitability of loss and grief, may be the true subject of “Dick Johnson Is Dead”: the specific ability of movies to illuminate and sometimes subvert the realities of human experience, whether through extravagant fantasy or vérité observation. Your eyes will be tickled and seduced by Johnson’s flights of visual fancy, but the most pleasurable, meaningful moments here are in some ways the simplest and least adorned: a father and daughter’s startling embrace; a reunion with a long-lost love; a shot of Dick, with his legendary sweet tooth, enjoying a slice of chocolate cake. This is a funny film about death, which is to say it’s a wrenching film about life.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.