November 2020

Arts & Letters

The long goodbye: ‘Dick Johnson Is Dead’

By Shane Danielsen

Filmmaker Kirsten Johnson deals with her father’s decline into dementia by “killing” him through various means

There must be a time, a prelapsarian moment, when one is unaware that one’s loved ones will die, but in my case, at least, it didn’t last long. I remember, as a very young boy, gazing at my nan while she lay dozing one afternoon on her sofa – quite literally having a Bex and a lie down – and watching her sleep with a kind of appalled fascination, fearful that the rhythm of her breathing, the soft tidal in and out, might at any moment be interrupted, never to resume. Even now, almost half a century on, I can recall the scene with absolute clarity: her face partly smudged by shadow, the form guide from The Daily Mirror lying open beside her, the dim light (was it winter?) coming through the filmy curtains of her living room. She seemed unimaginably old to me – she was 57, I now realise – and I was acutely aware, even then, that eventually she would die and leave me. The only question was when.

Kirsten Johnson has had longer to ponder this question. Now 55, she’s carved out a remarkable career as a cinematographer and, more recently, as a director. Her 2016 documentary Cameraperson (streaming on DocPlay) was a minor revelation: part aide-mémoire, part essay film, assembled from the work she’d done for filmmakers such as Laura Poitras, Michael Moore and Kirby Dick, as well as from footage shot privately, of her family and her own travels. “These are the images that have marked me,” the film began, and its reach seemed immense: a young boxer sobbing in his mother’s arms after a defeat, an exhausted midwife in Nigeria, Jacques Derrida striding through Manhattan… Likewise its locations, which ranged from a ranch in Montana to a fairground in Kabul.

More than anything, it was a work of profound curiosity, attesting to its maker’s unusual openness to and engagement with the world. Her eyes were open and unblinking; she was patient, silent, alert. Whatever of value she recorded and preserved, it was because she first took the time to look.

Johnson was born into a deeply religious household, to a family of Seventh-day Adventists in rural Wyoming, and was forbidden from watching television or movies – though she now admits that, when she was 11, her father, Richard, sneaked her and her brother into a screening of Young Frankenstein. (“I was scandalised – and I loved it.”) She subsequently trained at La Fémis film school in Paris, which, judging by its alumni (Claire Denis, Alain Resnais, Louis Malle, to name but three), is everything that our AFTRS is not. From it, she emerged with a deep knowledge of film history, and enough in the way of practical expertise to ignore the need to appear virtuosic. Plainspoken and direct, her work often seems like that of a musician willing to abandon technique if it means achieving some simpler and more profound effect.

Richard, incidentally, is still alive. A clinical psychiatrist, he’s been living and working in Seattle. But having been diagnosed in 2016 with dementia, he’s now embarked on what his daughter calls “the beginning of his disappearance”. Johnson’s third feature, Dick Johnson Is Dead (streaming on Netflix), is her attempt to make something useful out of this slow, sad drift away from shore. It’s a tribute to her father, certainly; a gesture of filial devotion. But it’s also an exercise in hardening one’s heart. Steeling oneself for the ordeal to come.

We all do this, to some extent: my wife confessed to me early in our relationship that she thinks about death every single day. Not in a longing-for-oblivion sort of way; she doesn’t want to die – she’s simply aware at every moment that it’s a possibility. And there’s a venerable cinematic tradition of confronting dead or dying patriarchs – from On Golden Pond and Distant Voices, Still Lives, to Andrew Kötting’s 2006 gallery piece In the Wake of a Deadad, in which the British artist carried a 4-metre-high inflatable effigy of his deceased father to various locations around the world, places that had mattered to the old man during his life.

“I get to love cinema by breaking it,” Johnson has said, so one can’t be altogether surprised that her response takes a similarly formalist approach. Here, she conceives a variety of fictional scenarios in which her beloved father might die, his dementia notwithstanding, and then proceeds to enact them for the camera.

The result is a little like one of Chuck Jones’s Road Runner cartoons, with a game-for-anything Richard as Wile E. Coyote, weathering a succession of gruesome accidents. A falling air-conditioner unit on a city street. A stray construction beam whacking him into oblivion. A graceless tumble down a flight of stairs. We see him on set blocking moves with a succession of stuntmen, chatting happily to sound recordists and gaffers, eager for the next staged calamity to befall him. Contrary to the tenets of their Adventist faith, where Heaven is believed unattainable until Christ has returned to Earth, Johnson even fashions a kitschy simulation of the afterlife, complete with fluffy white clouds and a bottomless chocolate fountain, where her dad is seated at a banquet table alongside Frida Kahlo, Frederick Douglass, Buster Keaton and, er, Farrah Fawcett.

Is she hoping to make him less afraid of what lies ahead, or trying to futureproof her own grief? The answer, of course, is both. And while Richard might occasionally forget where he lives, he’s at least clear-headed enough to understand the necessity of acceding to his daughter’s wishes. In one revealing moment, he expresses reluctance about leaving his home in Seattle to move in with her in New York. But, he acknowledges, “if we don’t leave, I don’t get close to you”.

There’s not only a lifetime’s worth of unexpressed regrets in that sentence, but also a slightly less comforting implication: the sense that, if this thing is to be done, it will be on the daughter’s terms, not the father’s. (And so, indeed, it proves.)

“My worry,” Johnson told IndieWire, “was how to manage the tone in this film. It was tonally all over the map, like dementia, love and relationships.” She’s not kidding. Flashes of black comedy give way abruptly to scenes of muffled heartbreak, as when Johnson informs Richard that she’s selling his car, and that he can’t reasonably expect to ever drive again, a statement that makes him break down in tears. He’s less concerned with what he’s losing, we realise, than ashamed of what he’s becoming.

No mere scrapbook, Cameraperson was an occasionally demanding array of seemingly unconnected images and sequences, whose careful design revealed itself only gradually. Little of it was pretty – Johnson doesn’t over-aestheticise her images. Her framing is sometimes haphazard, as circumstances dictate, and her lighting often perfunctory. (At one point in Dick Johnson Is Dead, Richard breaks down in-shot, and in her rush to comfort him Johnson drops the camera, which continues recording the scene while focused on a close-up of his left shoe. The effect is oddly devastating.)

Cameraperson, too, dealt with impending loss: in it, we saw intimate scenes of her mother, Katie Jo, as she steadily succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. (To paraphrase Joan Didion, documentarists are always selling somebody out.) The one thing we never saw was Johnson herself. True to the film’s title, she stayed behind the lens, pondering as she filmed the limits of her responsibility.

In this way, the film was also a meditation on ethics, an inquiry into what consideration the person behind the camera owes to their subjects, to the viewer, and to that nebulous, slippery quality known as truth. (Indeed, the film asked, does such a thing even exist? Can it exist?) Finally, and as a result, it was also a masterclass in filmmaking, an interrogation of the various choices a storyteller must make in order to shape a narrative. The omissions and elisions, the shifts of focus and attention. Each carrying its own bias, each tilting the balance a little in its favour.

Ethical questions persist in the new film, but are rather briskly glossed over; Johnson herself, meanwhile, is rather more visible. “I suggested we make a film about [my father] dying,” she informs us, at the outset. “He said yes.” But Richard has been diagnosed when filming begins – he’s already been forced to give up his practice – and his responsibility is therefore already diminished, which makes one wonder exactly how informed his consent might be. For the most part he appears hale and cheerful; only gradually do you notice the slight panic in his eyes as he cracks a joke or attempts to follow a piece of direction. It is, as anyone who’s dealt with a loved one with dementia will know, the look of someone stalling for time, while frantically searching their jumbled memories for the one image or phrase that might freeze the moment into clarity.

This occasionally makes for discomfiting viewing. Richard visibly deteriorates over the course of the shoot, to the extent that, towards the end, he can no longer distinguish between fake blood and the real thing. This occasions a minor freak-out, and prompts Johnson to tell her crew to change their working terminology in order to set her father’s ailing mind at ease. They’ll continue – the film has to be finished – but they must at all times emphasise the made-up, play-acting nature of things. Even so, she concedes, “soon he won’t be able to follow what I’m saying, so I won’t be able to ask him for any more advice, and the whole time will just be trying to get by”. The confession smacks of exploitation, and should give the viewer pause. Yet Johnson’s vision, ultimately, is a compassionate one. And she ends the film with a coup de théâtre so surprising and generous, it made me bawl like a baby.

“It is when you are asking about something that you realize you yourself have survived it,” wrote the poet Anne Carson, “and so you must carry it, or fashion it into a thing that carries itself.” With this film, Kirsten Johnson has done precisely that. In the end, she made her movie, and in doing so relieved herself, at least a little, of the vast, implacable weight of dread. Dick Johnson will die, but they had this time, the father and the daughter, and the work they did together will remain – however uneven the terms on which it was achieved.

Shane Danielsen

Shane Danielsen is a screenwriter and former artistic director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival.

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