Netflix documentary “Dick Johnson Is Dead”, which won the US Documentary Special Jury Award when it was shown at the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, is a funny, sad, and touching personal tribute to remember. While clearly recognizing that melancholic sadness of mortality, the documentary often joyfully bounces along its main subject as giving us a number of cheerful and loving moments, and you will be alternatively amused and moved by its intimate mix of humor, pain, and endearment.
The main subject of the documentary is Dick Johnson, who is the father of director/co-writer Kirsten Johnson and was previously shown a bit along with his wife in their daughter’s previous documentary film “Cameraperson” (2016). Although his wife died after suffering Alzheimer’s disease for several years, Dick was still a cheerful grandfather to his daughter’s kids, and the opening scene of the documentary shows him having another jolly time with his grandchildren at his residence.
Around 2017, Dick started to show the signs of memory loss as well as cognition problems, and, not so surprisingly, he was subsequently diagnosed to be in the early stage of dementia. As a result, he had to retire from his long and respectable medical professional career, and he also had to say goodbye to his longtime residence for moving into an apartment in New York City where he was going to live along with his daughter.
As trying to process the fact that her father will be fading away bit by bit until death finally comes, Johnson suggested to him that they should make a documentary about his death and life, and, as a jovial man with lots of sense of humor, Dick willingly put himself in front of his daughter’s camera. We see him spending the final day at his office. We see him meeting and talking with some of his close friends. We see him becoming quite nostalgic as looking around his longtime residence before moving to his new residence in New York City. And we also see him reminiscing about several things in the past including his bittersweet memories of his diseased wife.
However, Dick is not someone who is merely going to dwell in the past at all. Sure, as shown from his routine medical checkup, his mind is getting more deteriorated day by day (he struggles to remember five words which he just heard only a few minutes ago, for example), and that makes him more aware of the impending end of his life, but that does not suppress his usual cheerfulness at all. He still talks lively with his daughter and others around him, and his face is always brightened more whenever he is with his grandchildren, who are currently being taken care of by their two biological fathers living on the apartment right next to Dick and his daughter’s apartment (These two dudes are Ira Sachs and his husband Boris Torres, by the way).
In addition, Dick also actively participates in his daughter’s unorthodox artistic approach to his upcoming death. Throughout the documentary, we see him performing several different kinds of death scenes including the one where he gets suddenly killed on a street by an air conditioner falling right on his head, and the documentary sometimes looks into how he and Johnson prepare for shooting those morbidly funny moments along with a small bunch of crew members working for her.
Although death still remains an inconvenient subject for both Dick and his daughter even during these fun times of theirs, they come to accept it with more openness than before at least, and Johnson goes all the way along with her father while shooting a fantasy scene of his sweet hereafter on a small tacky set. The overall result may be a little too silly, but we cannot help but smile as watching a moment associated with his certain physical deformity.
Nevertheless, Dick’s mortality comes to feel more immediate as time goes by, and he comes to depend more on his daughter and others. There is a small scene where Dick and his daughter talk a bit with a professional caregiver working for them, and this caregiver certainly has a few things to tell as a person with lots of professional experience. When she is about to leave for Israel because of her work, Johnson cannot help but worry about her father’s wellbeing during her temporary absence, and he assures her that he will be all right, though both of them know well that nothing is certain due to his ongoing mental deterioration.
In the end, there later comes a moment for which Johnson has feared, but she sticks to the calm and casual overall tone of the documentary as before. In case of the following scene, I will not go into details at all, but I can tell you instead that this scene caught me off guard while never feeling sappy or manipulative at all. As shown from the very last scene of the documentary, Johnson really tries her best for her father as well as the memories of him shared among her and many others in his life, and she surely pulls it off well.
On the whole, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” is Johnson’s another fascinating documentary after “Cameraperson”, and she did a skillful job of making an honest, sincere, and affectionate tribute to her father. After many years of working as a cinematographer for a number of notable documentary filmmakers including Michael Moore and Laura Poitras, she is now advancing further as another exciting documentary filmmaker to notice, and I am certainly looking forward to watching what may come next from her in the future.