Have you ever wanted to kill your parents? Throw them down a flight of stairs? Hit their neck with a two by four and let them bleed out? Or maybe drop an air conditioner directly onto their head from thirteen stories above? Well Kirsten Johnson does all this and more to her father Dick Johnson, in her new documentary that has these fictional death scene elements to them, but they are done in a playful joking matter. She lets us in on the joke right from the beginning when these death stunts start happening in the film, by showing us the process of how they’re actually done and how they are being filmed, intercut with the finished filmed scenes themselves. It not only brings a needed dark sense of humor to the film, but also ties into the question of death and more specifically a parental unit’s death.
Ms. Johnson has already had one of her parents die in real life, her mother, who suffered from dementia in her final years of life. As Dick Johnson puts it, it was a “long goodbye”. We initially see Kirsten’s mother in her first documentary film ‘Cameraperson’ from 2016. Kirsten was a director of photography on documentary films for fifteen years before she helmed her directorial debut. ‘Cameraperson’ is comprised of extra footage or b-roll footage that she had from her miscellaneous documentary shoots, each told in mini segments throughout the course of the film. Because of this “leftover” element there is a novelty component to ‘Cameraperson’ in a way, but what makes it significant is that it provides a unique, documented perspective, of the various shoots and film sets that a crew member or film person ends up working on, unlike a producer or director who generally work on just one film for a set amount of time per year, etc. Kirsten reprises the footage of her mother in ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’, regretfully reminding us that it is the only footage she shot of the woman. In this second feature length documentary, Kirsten rises to the challenge of making a film about a single subject matter, and achieves success with her four year efforts of bringing Dick Johnson to the screen.
Dick Johnson, the man, the myth, the legend, was a psychiatrist. When we end up meeting him in the film, he is retiring from that practice, due to things like double scheduling patients or writing them the wrong prescriptions. Old age has caught up with him. So the family decides that it would be best for him to move into their apartment complex where Kirsten lives with her two sons and their two dads (one of them being filmmaker Ira Sachs), Kirsten and Dick each have their own apartments while the two fathers share one, the parents split days between children, while also meeting for breakfast every morning. Dick is a man of true warmth; you see it in his face and in the glimmer in his eyes. He has had these adorable up-grown toes since birth, which have given him a stumbling walk, like The Monster from Frankenstein, which I’m sure, has provided his life with their own forms of setbacks and letdowns.
With documentary films there is always a certain sense of potential exploitation. Filmmakers are “exploiting” their subject matters in a way while they are also exploring them. And then when a filmmaker is making a personal film such as this, there is a line that is straddled between what could be perceived as self importance and wanting to tell a story. But in doing so, with this exploitative personal nature, if done right—or in some cases done wrong, it can teach us or show us something about ourselves, and maybe help us learn or grow in a way, and isn’t that kinda what life is all about?