One of the most profound films I’ve ever seen is 1998’s After Life, a Japanese film (original title Wonderful Life) directed by Hirokazu Kore-eda, the auteur behind 2018 Palme d’Or winner and Oscar nominee Shoplifters. In this glorious exercise in self-reflexive cinema and existentialism, a group of social workers operates a way-station between life and death, where the recently deceased determine the most important memory of their lives. Recreations of those memories are staged and filmed in a studio and screened for the departed souls. Upon watching them, the dead cross over to live in that memory for eternity. I saw it almost 20 years ago, and it still weighs on me to this day. I can still see the major scenes vividly when I close my eyes, and I’ve spent the years since then wondering what I would choose as my forever moment. It’s powerful in a way few films are.
In 2020, we got a massively creative documentary that serves as almost a spiritual successor to that work of art. Kirsten Johnson, in her second feature as director (the first being the wonderful Cameraperson), gives us the darkly humorous and deeply personal Dick Johnson is Dead, a truly essential film that confronts mortality in a fashion equal parts heartbreaking and inspiring. After a year where nearly every American had to face death in one form or another, this film provides a momentary solace in the midst of an ongoing tragedy, daring us to mourn while giving us permission to laugh.
Having already lost her mother to Alzheimer’s, Kirsten takes it upon herself to film the slow progression of dementia on her father, Richard, once he begins to show symptoms. However, the deep rapport they have with one another leaves a mere detached documentation as too simple of a plan. Kirsten wants to experience life with her father for as long as possible, and for as long as he can remember it. With camera in hand and crew behind them, Kirsten and Dick Johnson – who is just so loveable I can’t even snicker at his name – decide to stage Dick’s funeral in advance, give him a soundstage and a set to live his vision of Heaven (Dick is a devout Seventh Day Adventist), and most importantly, film elaborate death scenes for him, so that he can see himself dying in any way he cares to imagine.
These moments of morbidity are shocking and hilarious, even when we know they’re coming. From mundane accidents like falling down the stairs and bleeding out, or a completely random air conditioner dropping on his head from a window, they’re expertly staged with fake blood and stunt actors to look as realistic as possible. And yet, here’s Dick off to the side giggling with a macabre glee mixed with genuine concern for the safety of the players. His smile lights up every moment he’s on screen, which only enhances the gallows humor unfolding mere feet away. We’ve all had that conversation of how we’d want to die if given a choice. Well, Dick has an entire reel of options, and you can see the catharsis it gives him as he approaches the end of his days. His almost saintly nature lets us in on the gag and allows us to channel our own grief through him.
Interspersed throughout these set pieces is a good amount of biographical history (clinical psychiatrist, how he wooed his wife, how religion informed home life, deformed toes, etc.) and slices of his current life. There are a lot of happy moments of him just being a dad and a grandpa, playing with kids and delighting in chocolate cake. But there are also a lot harsh moments to counter and bring us back to the reality of what dementia takes from all of us, not just the one afflicted. One morning, Kirsten interviews Dick bright and early, informing him (and us) that he was up multiple times in the night screaming and calling out for people that weren’t there, because he had a memory lapse and didn’t recognize his surroundings. When Dick prepares to move in with Kirsten, he learns he has to sell his car. The heartbreak in his eyes is palpable as he tries his best to come to terms with giving up something so precious as the freedom to drive. It’s very affecting. You just want to jump into the screen and hug everyone and try to tell them it’ll be alright, even when you know it won’t.
This hit home pretty hard for me, as I’m dealing with the same situation with my mother. After a series of medical emergencies over the first half of 2020, including a stroke, heart attack, and COVID, she was diagnosed with vascular dementia. I visited briefly in April to try to get her set up with some visiting nurses and proper equipment so she could maintain some semblance of normalcy and independence. Four months later we had to put her in a nursing home, at least for the time being. It’s soul-crushing to talk to her, because she constantly forgets where she is, convinced she’s in a hospital waiting to be discharged home. Her short-term memory is basically shot to hell. She might as well be Guy Pearce in Memento for how often she forgets new information. My sister and I are still working with government officials and social workers to find some fluid treatment plan and let her go home just for the morale boost, but there are obstacles everywhere we turn.
Before her diagnosis, she took her car in to a mechanic, as the transmission was failing. During a memory lapse she agreed to several thousand dollars worth of repairs without realizing it, and my sister and I weren’t informed until after they were done and couldn’t be cancelled. We scrounged up the money (mom’s retired on Social Security) to get her car back from the mechanic, who at least waived the three months’ worth of storage fees after the repairs were done. We did this just to put the car back in the driveway and let it sit there, because we thought that would buy her some peace of mind, one less thing to stress about and make the situation worse. It didn’t help. When her registration expired along with her license, she switched gears to dwell on that, convinced the state would literally confiscate her car just to get the plates back (which is ludicrous and illegal, but try convincing her of that), and despondent that she’ll never be allowed to legally drive again. I haven’t been in the same room with my mom in almost a year, but seeing Dick try to hold it together while handing over his keys, I was basically clutching my phone to my chest, doing my best not to cry.
I don’t want to make this about me or my family situation, but this is the type of film that necessitates that level of engagement. Hundreds of thousands of families deal with this stuff every day. Whether it’s dementia, cancer, COVID, or any number of other illnesses that threaten life or the quality thereof, we know the heartbreak that Kirsten is going through, as well as Dick. We all know it’s going to end for us one way or another. It’s that full comprehension of our own mortality that separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom, a crucial step in our evolution. But when the time comes for those nearest and dearest to us, it comes hard, and it’s all we can do to try to keep up. That struggle is thankfully given the proper space and oxygen, both in front of, and behind the camera.
Some of these themes have been explored before. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn aren’t the only people who get to watch their own funeral just to see what people would say about them. Dick won’t be the last one to do it, either. But it’s that shared moment of grief that ultimately gives it meaning. Like Kirsten and Dick, my mother cares more than anything about experiences, about memories, about feelings in the moment, which is why their collective fate is so cruel. The very thing that brought them the most happiness, their minds, are being slowly stripped away. They’re dying – and we’re mourning – long before their bodies actually shut down. That’s why a film like Dick Johnson is Dead is so crucial. It’s a record. It’s a history. It’s proof that a jovial man with endless joy and good humor existed, even when he becomes unrecognizable. He’s an experience, and that’s what really matters.
And if it turns out he really does get randomly killed in the middle of the street, he will indeed have that all too rare last laugh. We should all be so lucky.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What’s the most unique documentary you’ve seen? How do you want to go out? Let me know!