It’s one of the few life events that each and every one of us has in common, but death remains a taboo topic in Western culture. Clearly hoping to break that trend is acclaimed documentarian Kirsten Johnson (“Cameraperson”), whose Sundance award-winner “Dick Johnson Is Dead” tackles the subject with openness, understanding and no shortage of wit.
Dick Johnson is the director’s father; we meet him as an octogenarian psychiatrist in the process of retiring, leaving his longtime home in Seattle to move in with Kirsten in her one-bedroom New York apartment. Over the course of the film, we get to learn two very important things about Dick: one is that — like his wife and his own mother before him — he is beginning to deal with advancing dementia. The other is that he’s got a great sense of humor, and he’s game for his daughter’s ideas about the movie she’s making about him and his eventual demise.
Those ideas include: Hiring stuntmen to act out various scenarios in which Dick is killed in a terrible accident, like having a window-unit air conditioner come crashing down on his head; portraying Dick in heaven, where he’s reunited with his wife, sits around a dinner table with the likes of Buster Keaton and Frida Kahlo, and miraculously has his deformed feet made whole by Jesus; and re-enacting a Halloween night where Kirsten parked Dick in a friend’s living room so she could take her young children out trick-or-treating, only to have Dick grow confused and frightened over where he was and whether she would come back to get him.
These scenarios wouldn’t work if it ever felt like Kirsten was exploiting her father, but this is one of those documentaries that is its own making-of featurette, so we see the conversations between director and subject, where she lovingly explains what’s going to happen and brings him into the process of production.
These behind-the-scenes moments only underscore the brilliance of what Johnson and her editing team Nels Bangerter (who also co-wrote) and Arielle Davis (“Mr. Soul!”) accomplish here: “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is constantly reminding us that it’s only a movie, and that the extreme events Dick undergoes aren’t real, but when those events transpire, it’s still a shock until the camera pulls back and reveals the illusion we’ve been let in on all along.
Of course, not everything that happens to Dick along the way is make-believe; we see him take a cognitive test, and the results aren’t great. We see him reckoning with the fact that he is losing his faculties, and we watch as he worries both that his memories will slip further away, and that he will become a burden to Kirsten. (This is the kind of movie where Kirsten periodically has to put the camera down mid-conversation so that she and Dick can hug and cry together.)
For all its clear-eyed representation of the fears and horrors of aging, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is nonetheless an ultimately joyous experience. Father and daughter clearly have a great relationship, one with a substantial amount of humor and very little b.s. between them. What might seem like an extended morbid prank is actually a way for both of them to deal with and to address what they know is coming.
Early on in the film, Kirsten films Dick inside of a coffin on the altar of his church, as his best friend and future eulogist looks on. The friend finds it all odd and amusing, but then suddenly gets upset and broken up over the thought of Dick one day dying.
By the end of “Dick Johnson Is Dead,” viewers are likely to feel that gallows-humor amusement, and that sadness, not just for Dick but also for anyone we care about. And for ourselves. But better to face it now, Kirsten Johnson and her father Dick seem to be saying, than to pretend like it’s never going to happen.