Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Movie with Abe: Dick Johnson is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead
Directed by Kirsten Johnson
Released October 2, 2020 (Netflix)

Everybody dies, but many people simply don’t want to talk about it. There are understandable reasons for aversion to mortality, since acknowledging that you will eventually die can make the process of living a bit more stressful or sad. But presuming that loved ones will endure forever even despite medical obstacles and other factors can lead to a very difficult separation process, one that feels all the more devastating because of how unprepared someone is to accept the idea of having to say goodbye.

Kirsten Johnson is a filmmaker whose father, Dick, is getting older. When she receives multiple concerning reports that his memory is deteriorating, she travels from New York City to Seattle to help him pack up his life so that he can move in with her. Knowing full well that he will eventually die, she prepares herself by staging a number of fake accidental deaths, using stunt doubles and her father himself to imagine the numerous ways in which he might meet his end. He participates in her elaborately-staged scenes and shares his own recollections from a long and memorable life.

This film engages with death head-on, dreaming up images of what heaven will be like for Dick in addition to the possible manner in which he might leave this earthly existence. The frequent and often absurd comedy is more than a coping mechanism for Kirsten, who tries to explore the religious prescriptions for what comes next and to prepare herself for something she knows will be deeply sad by experiencing it over and over again. Remembering what her mother went through as she suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and noticing her father’s failing memory emphasize the seriousness of the situation, something Kirsten isn’t trying to hide from but instead to make more bearable through an optimistic and positive approach.

In the same way that attending a wedding might remind a couple of their own joyous day, this process and the manner in which Kirsten frames it should trigger plenty of memories for audiences of their own loved ones. Kirsten just happens to be open to this angle and her father is willing to play along, and there are plentiful laughs and tears to be found on the journey. It’s unapologetically bizarre at times, but there is a tremendous resonance to the act of saying goodbye many times before the moment finally arrives, both before Dick loses parts of himself to dementia and is gone entirely once he dies. It may not be for everyone, but for those willing to stare death right in the face and smile, this fun is a rewarding experience.


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