As Kirsten Johnson watched as her beloved father’s mind slip away, she decided to grapple with the welling sorrow in the way that felt most natural and apt to her. She did it through her art. After years shooting documentaries, Johnson made her directorial debut with Cameraperson, an exceptional cinematic memoir largely assembled from stray footage leftover from earlier projects. It was personal and professional reflection presented in the abstract, revealing a fiercely creative mind with a knack for finding new ways to exploit the grammar of film. In reckoning with her father’s decline and looming demise, Johnson brings those same qualities to a project she could do with him as both subject and game, yet wary, collaborator.
The title Dick Johnson is Dead refers to Johnson’s conceit of repeatedly staging her father’s final mortal moment in scenes of gruesome slapstick. There is also a hallucinogenic rendering of the afterlife, a supposition of what Dick’s funeral might be, and other devious imaginings. These fanciful sequences are intercut with the grueling and mundane mechanics of caring for a loved one struggling with dementia. There are doctor appointments, bittersweet family gatherings, and the heartbreaking process of moving out of a longtime home. Johnson is unguarded in her depiction, showing her frustrations in the unexpected role of caretaker and acknowledging her occasional misgivings about tugging her father into this offbeat project as his capacity for understanding crumbles like the surface of an ancient edifice. At its heart, the film is a celebratory sendoff. It is far more complicated than cheery, teary remembrance, though. It is as complicated as life itself.
Johnson crafts the film masterfully, heightening emotions and embedding truths both exhilarating and heartrending. She has such a sharp understanding of cinematic narrative that she can lean into expectations as a means of delivering wondrous surprise. In its power and ingenuity, Dick Johnson is Dead astonishes at every gentle, cunning bend of perception. Johnson sees her father as a special man, and she transfers her certainty to the viewer. In the manner best suited to her, she’s created a lasting, loving eulogy that is worthy of his evident kindness and grace.