Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson was an autobiographical portrait that allowed a career to speak for itself. A collage of unused material from her years spent as a documentary cinematographer, working for directors like Laura Poitras and Michael Moore, the film cannily repurposed raw footage from over two dozen different projects to showcase Johnson’s professional methods, compositional sense, and empathetic relationships with different environments and subjects. Johnson decontextualized the individual scenes so that her professional life become the through line. Only when she occasionally incorporated footage of her children and her mother, who was deteriorating from Alzheimer’s at the time, did one get the sense of her life outside the job.
Johnson is an active presence in her new feature, Dick Johnson Is Dead, in which she films her father, the title character, in the months and years following his dementia diagnosis. To help both of them process his impending demise, Johnson stages multiple visions of his sudden accidental death. We watch as she and her father plan, rehearse, and then film scenes of him tripping down the stairs, having a sudden heart attack, or being hit by a falling air conditioner on a Manhattan sidewalk. The finished death scenes are comically abrupt while the rehearsals demonstrate Johnson’s meticulous approach to a tragedy in the making. Dick Johnson Is Dead plays like a living tribute to the man, a record of a time right before he inevitably fails to recognize his own daughter. It just happens to take the form of killing him over and over again.
Dick Johnson Is Dead doesn’t simply coast on the director’s noble intentions. It helps tremendously that Dick Johnson himself is a hall-of-fame documentary subject, whose comfort on camera will coax grins from even the most stoic audiences. A big-hearted man with an infectious smile and an even greater laugh, Dick is a go-with-the-flow guy, which makes him a perfect collaborator for his daughter. Johnson features many scenes of her father playing with his grandchildren or cracking jokes amongst friends to ensure that the audience feels as protective of Dick as she does. It renders the infrequent moments when he shows hurt or fear appropriately devastating, like when he’s told he can no longer drive his car because of his condition, or when he becomes visibly rattled during a staged-death scene involving fake blood. But his buoyant spirit and good humor regarding his decline goes a long way to keeping Dick Johnson Is Dead a generally lighthearted affair. “I give you permission to euthanize me,” he chuckles to his daughter when she asks if he wants to live past a point when he can no longer communicate. “At what point do I have permission to do that?” Johnson asks. “Well… pass it by me before you do it,” he wryly replies with a knowing smile.
Considering that the film is about Johnson’s relationship with her father, it’s understandable that she takes a more personal, hands-on role behind and in front of the camera. Still, you can too often feel her guiding hand in Dick Johnson Is Dead. Her voiceover can be unnecessarily leading, especially when she’s explicating transparent subtext that the audience can glean themselves, and a scene rarely transpires without a clear and direct emotional takeaway. Johnson’s formal choices can also be too cute by a hair. Sometimes it’s minor, like cheeky narrative transitions that take the form of skywriting. But other times, these conceptual gimmicks take over the film, as during extended sequences of her father resurrected in heaven, where he’s surrounded by chocolate and can dance with his departed wife again, or in hell, to simulate the fear he must have felt when left alone in an apartment on Halloween night. These scenes, which take the form of an over-the-top music video and a silent horror film, respectively, feel transported from a broader project altogether. It’s fun to watch Johnson’s process of filming expensive set pieces, as well as the palpable joy Dick takes in his participation, but the finished product can be a little goofy. Dick Johnson Is Dead works best when it specifically focuses on her father’s death—the various, Groundhog Day-like variations and the real one coming around the bend, or his struggles with encroaching dementia.
Though Dick Johnson Is Dead might be about the period that comes at the end of everyone’s life, Johnson is rightfully disinterested in closure. She asks some of her other subjects about their experiences with death, and she recounts her own familial relationship with it, but the film isn’t about providing answers to tough questions. Instead, it’s concerned with the urgent need to document loved ones when they’re around, and to process emotions in the moment rather than retrospectively. Johnson is acutely aware that you can lose someone long before they actually die, and Dick Johnson Is Dead frequently scans as a sincere attempt to do for her father what she failed to do with her mother. That Johnson mostly pulls this off through the lens of black comedy, without succumbing to outright miserabilism, is an achievement. May we all have the opportunity to be present at our own funerals, surrounded by loved ones, before it’s too late.