It’s been said that a person lives forever when they’re in the movies, and the subject of the intimate documentary “Dick Johnson is Dead” will certainly be remembered by all who see the film. Directed by Dick’s daughter Kirsten Johnson, this part documentary / part fantasy is a creative way of dealing with the impending demise of a beloved family member. Through old home movies and cinema vérité realism, Kristen makes a movie about her father dying from and suffering with the cognitive decline from Alzheimer’s (a disease that claimed her mother a few years before). Adding a highly unusual spin, she repeatedly stages her dad’s death in the most outrageous of ways.
Although Dick is a willing participant, parts of the film feel exploitative, like when the crew tries to explain to the concerned octogenarian that the blood that will be gushing out of his neck for a stunt is fake and not his real blood. He’s visibly upset, and everything about that bit seems so wrong. The cycle of kill / resurrect / repeat gets tiresome, as do the repetitive, needlessly artsy scenes in the imaginary afterlife. To that end, the film feels unpleasantly frustrating, especially when several misdirections are thrown at the viewer in an attempt to manipulate their emotions.
While I may sound like a cynic for pointing out the film’s many flaws, I do think some viewers may be enamored with the ending so much that they forget the dull 80 minutes that preceed the finale. A good closing scene and a creative angle don’t necessarily make for a great documentary.
“Dick Johnson is Dead” feels like an up close and personal therapy session between a father and his adult daughter, and is a bittersweet reminder that neither has much time left together. To that end, the documentary is a lovely celebration of a man’s final years, a comforting reminder that he doesn’t have to face his final time alone.