Ever since the first cave paintings, we humans have been using art to try and make sense of the world. What is storytelling but an attempt to create order out chaos, imposing a narrative structure upon life’s random and often cruel events to instill them with purpose and meaning? Art is how we cope. It helps us heal, and I’m not sure I’ve seen a more beautiful exploration of this process than DICK JOHNSON IS DEAD, Kirsten Johnson’s prankishly funny and enormously moving documentary about caring for her father as he struggles with dementia and their family prepares for the inevitable.
Sounds like barrel of laughs, I know. But trust me on this one. Johnson’s a world-renowned cinematographer who has been shooting documentaries for decades. Her extraordinary 2016 directorial debut “Cameraperson” was an autobiographical collage of sorts, demonstrating a knack for innovative structures and an almost overwhelmingly compassionate worldview. That movie also included heartbreaking footage, shot over several years, of her mother slowly succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease. So when her beloved father Dick recently received the same diagnosis, the news was too brutal to bear.
Now here’s where the art comes in: Kirsten wondered if this all might be a little easier to process if she could kill her father herself, on her own terms, behind the camera. And not just once, but over and over again, as a way of using make-believe to try and inoculate herself against the reality of what’s coming. So “Dick Johnson Is Dead” begins with her dad walking down the sidewalk and an air conditioner falls on his head. That’s just the first of many elaborate, grisly accidents that will befall the folksy fellow over the next 90 minutes. We watch the director and her dad working with professional stuntmen and movie makeup experts to come up with one spectacular death scene after another, repeatedly sending him to a gorgeously gaudy soundstage heaven where Dick can cavort with Jesus and cardboard cutouts of celebrities like Bruce Lee.
Will watching her father die over and over again make what’s coming any easier? Will directing his fake funeral ease the pain of having to planning a real one? Probably not. But it’s her way of asserting an artist’s agency over what cannot be controlled. And besides, it’s a fun project for the two of them to share, making the most of the time they have left. A ringer for character actor Ken Howard, Dick’s a real charmer, beaming with pride at his little girl and all her accomplishments. He’s game for anything and seems to get a big kick out of the gallows humor inherent in these proceedings. It’s a blast watching them work together, even as we notice Dick’s eyes starting to cloud over with confusion more and more often as the movie wears on.
It probably isn’t fair to reveal much more about a film this full of surprises. With a spirit so playful a “One Year Later” time transition is spelled out in a bowl of the subject’s alphabet soup, “Dick Johnson Is Dead” tackles tough topics in a gentle, warmly humorous way. Blurring the lines between art and life, it shows us how saying goodbye can be both silly and sad at the very same time. Long live Dick Johnson.•••
Over the past two decades, Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality.