Dick Johnson made his movie debut in Cameraperson, the exceptional documentary directed by his daughter, Kirsten Johnson. The earlier feature is a memoir rendered through spare footage, mostly material Johnson shoot in her capacity as a cinematographer on dozens of documentaries. But there are also a few home movies, captured with the elegance of someone who points a camera for a living. Mainly, Johnson shared film of her mother, then in later stages of Alzheimer’s, looking at old photographs or surveying the Wyoming landscape. The heaviness of what she’s lost — what she’s still in the process of losing — is poignant and heartbreaking. Dick Johnson’s quick cameo in Cameraperson is something quite different, but mortality remains the preoccupation. Interacting with his rambunctious grandchildren, Dick disposes of a dead bird found near his house, doing so with pragmatism, kindness, and an aura of good cheer that clearly never leaves him entirely.
For her second feature as a director, Kirsten Johnson gives her father a star turn for the saddest of reasons. Dick, now in his eighties, has been diagnosed with the same ailment that he saw wound his wife’s soul. As the film begins, the deterioration of his faculties seems to be fairly mild, but Johnson, in voiceover, recounts increasingly problematic reports she received from Dick’s friends and acquaintances in Seattle, most troubling an instance when he idly drove through a construction site and unwittingly continued home several miles, every tire on his vehicle flat. Johnson goes to Seattle to help Dick move out his house so he can live closer to her in New York City and be under her care and watchful eye. These moments are delivered in the film with a brutal honesty and a devastating ache. Any risk that it might grow maudlin is completely short-circuited by the devious streak that runs through it in the form of an odd project Johnson undertakes with her father. As a way of giving Dick a unique method of raging against the dying of the light, Johnson uses her filmmaking skills to stage several cinematic deaths for her pops, often with a morbid comedy. That effort explains the film’s title: Dick Johnson is Dead.
Johnson’s film is a spectacular feat, melding jarringly open familial reflection with fanciful creativity. The bizarre nature of Johnson’s endeavor isn’t lost on her, and she sometimes seems to be struggling with it in real time, especially in the rare instances when her father’s defining joyfulness flags. The concocted catastrophes never lapse into mere gimmickry, mostly because there’s a clear bond between Johnson her dad, a strong sense that getting an opportunity to work together on this project is a blessing. It’s a way of dealing with a topic that is too often shunted aside, which only makes the grieving process more punishing. With the rare, wonderful combination of crackling of crackling humor and resonant empathy, Johnson gives her father a kind of immortality, a way to always be with her — and, as it happens, with a bevy of discerning film fans — preserved in his gregarious, gentle being. Dick Johnson is Dead is vividly alive.