Dick Johnson Is Dead explores the paradox of mourning someone while they're still alive
After my dad survived his heart attack, I thought for sure I was going to die. I was a preteen with a fantastically morbid imagination, and I dreamed up every possible scenario, from having a heart attack of my own, to harboring a case of undiagnosed stomach cancer, to being stabbed by a crazed murderer who broke in through my bedroom window. I thought I was going into anaphylactic shock after eating a banana; for years, I had a recurring dream about getting shot while playing in my suburban backyard.
I hadn't realized at the time that my fixation on the precariousness of life — there are so many ways to die! — wasn't anxiety about my own death, but my parents'. Personally dying somehow seemed more tolerable to obsess over than losing either my (healthy! youngish!) mom or dad. Moving far away for college, and then for work, has only honed my anxiety. I still catch myself doing nonsensical numerology and faulty math to stave off the inescapable: The average lifespan of an American male is 78 years, so if I go back to visit home for a week a year, that's only roughly 105 more days left with my dad...
I don't quite consider this "anticipatory grieving," a term typically used when a caretaker mourns a death in the more immediate future, and one that applies to the situation filmmaker Kirsten Johnson was going through while making her new documentary, Dick Johnson Is Dead. But I do recognize in it the impulse to rehearse something that is adjacent to the real fear, to better avoid confronting the inevitable head-on. In her film, out on Netflix on Friday, Johnson records herself repeatedly staging fake versions of her father's death with his participation: Dick Johnson gets taken out by a falling air conditioner, tumbles fatally down the stairs in his house, and even gets whacked in the neck with a post by a distracted construction worker. "Just the idea I might ever lose this man," she explains in a voice over, "is too much to bear." Dwelling in this fiction instead, where Dick Johnson is repeatedly resurrected as soon as the crew calls "cut," is better than facing the truth: that he has Alzheimer's, the same disease that took Kirsten Johnson's mother, and is noticeably in decline. Dick Johnson Is Dead is a movie about a parent dying, yes, but more than that, it is about the tricky paradox of preemptively mourning someone before they've gone away.
There are hundreds if not thousands of movies about death and grief, but it is still a bit of a taboo in America to be consumed by the possibility of loss before it actually happens, as if not talking about dying acts as a kind of magical barrier against it. But Alzheimer's both tragically and uniquely presents an opportunity to explore the twilight of missing someone before they're actually gone; Dick Johnson describes it as "the long goodbye," and says at one point that he lost his wife, Johnson's mother, twice: once when she'd declined to the point that she was no longer herself, and a second time, a few years later, when she actually passed. The timing of the movie's release is also uncanny; at present, many millennials and Gen-Xers are having to consider their aging parents' vulnerability and mortality, perhaps for the first time, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Blessedly, Dick Johnson Is Dead never veers into the obvious — and schmaltzy — conclusion that we ought to cherish every moment with each other because who knows when someone might get an Alzheimer's diagnosis, much less get squished by a falling a/c. Nor does it tell us we ought to live every moment with abandon, like there will be no tomorrow, as the cancer kid genre of movies frequently suggests. Rather, it stokes our anxieties about loss, then lets us sit with them on our own terms. "The worst thing," Johnson gives voice to in one narration, "the deepest fear, is being left behind." Call it exposure therapy — Dick Johnson is, after all, a retired psychiatrist.
Religion might offer some comfort when considering the eventual death of a living relative. But while Johnson's father was a Seventh-day Adventist (he later became an atheist, although that didn't make it into the final cut of the movie), Johnson notably doesn't include herself in that category. Still, she erects a large, colorful set to stage a version of Dick Johnson's "heaven," where she can imagine the reunion of her father with her mother, and grant him the normal-looking toes he badly wishes he'd been born with. In such a way, Johnson doesn't just confront the actual act of her father dying, but what stretches past it — the imagined afterlife having the ghostly, unmentioned flip side of her own life also extending beyond her father's death, without him.
As upsetting as the topic might be, there is profound joy, humor, and humanity in the exercise of Dick Johnson Is Dead. By circling around the topic of Johnson's Alzheimer's with his parade of imagined deaths, the family also celebrates the inverse: Dick Johnson's life, not as a concept, but as something he is actively still living. At one point, Dick Johnson even gets the enviable opportunity to attend his own funeral, where friends and family give tearful and heartfelt eulogies while knowing full well he is waiting behind the scenes to emerge with a smile. At the emotional climax, as Dick's best friend chokes through a devastated trumpet salute, the film cuts to Johnson and her dad howling with laughter, peeping through the windows to watch the flummoxed "mourners" from outside the room.
The title Dick Johnson Is Dead of course contains the film's final contradiction: Dick had to be alive in order to shoot the scenes of his fake deaths. He becomes immortal because of them, forever able to crinkle his eyes to smile at his daughter behind her rolling camera. Still, no amount of preemptive grief or obsessive recording of moments slows time or stays the inevitable; Johnson knows it, and I do too. But what happens in front of the camera — those smiles, that fake blood, the countless fudge chocolate cakes, the deep belly laughter — all that was entirely, wonderfully, serenely real.