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Dick Johnson is Dead (The Criterion Collection)
It was a couple of years ago when I found myself part of an exponentially growing group of people who have parents struck by dementia or its affiliated illnesses, and having to reconcile the inevitability of losing the parent, while caregiving for them in the process. You probably are the same way; every trip to see them becomes an adventure, I know for my Dad one time, he cried when he saw me, because he was glad I returned home from war (I was out of the Army for 20 years) and that his wife/my mother would be happy to see me (she had passed about 6 months before he did to an unrelated cancer). It was new, frightening ground for me to be on to watch his slide over the previous months before that, and a few months after he passed, Dick Johnson is Dead was brought to my attention.
The documentary was done by Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson), and spans several years with her father, a psychiatrist who is now suffering from dementia. Kirsten went through the same process with her mother a decade previously, and wanted to cinematically "kill" her Dad. Perhaps this was done to help process his decline, perhaps it was done to help him make peace with it, it remains to be seen, but it results in some very sweet moments on Dick's part.
Kirsten also gives her Dad a chance to see people who mattered to him most (that are still around) in his life, seeing old college crushes, having "his funeral" done in front of his church congregation while he had a chance to recognize them. Some of Dick's friends who appear in the film have also passed on (which is noted during the film's scenes with them), other scenes become almost literal laugh in the face of death moments, such as the eulogy by Dick's best friend. But it seems like Kirsten wanted to help process this for her and her Dad, and it results in some degree of grace.
The moments of reflection by Dick prove to have the most heartache. Kirsten moves Dick from his home (and psychiatry practice) in Seattle to her home in New York, and part of the process was the selling of her Dad's car. He could sense that it was coming, we see it in a scene prior, and it still hurts. He has more of these moments as the film goes on, moments where he feels like a burden to those around him, and admits he's not her Dad anymore, more of a little brother who stays out of the way. That he seems to know it, hurts for him and for you.
The film's brilliance is that it's not defined by those moments, and it lifts itself up past any quagmire one could see about a parent evaporating in front of their eyes. There are several dream sequences where Dick meets Jesus, or has a dinner with Farrah Fawcett and Bruce Lee (among others), or reclaims one last dance with his wife. Having her Dad's happiness around for as long as possible is just as predominant to Johnson and the film shows us this up to the last moments of it.
There's little denying that Dick Johnson is Dead will probably leave you in a puddle when you watch it the first, third or fifth time. I write this review on the same day I had both of my kids in either arm for the first time, and I still think about my Dad's passing today! I wonder what kind of parent to be to my kids, and hope that my kids don't have to go through with me, what I had to with mine. If they do, I hope they go through it with even a little bit of grace, defiance and laughter as Kirsten Johnson does.The Blu-ray:
Criterion struck a new 2K digital master for the film which looks as good, if not better than watching it on streaming. Image detail in Dick's face (and those of his friends) is ample, and the colors in the dream sequences are vibrant and not oversaturated. Some of the footage is softer because of the source material cell phone footage, but it looks great and worthy of the man and the Criterion treatment.The Sound:
DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless, a curious choice at the surface but as the movie goes on it's a wise choice, with church music and organs possessing low-end fidelity, channel panning in cars and trucks honking their horns, and the opening sequence when an air conditioner falls on Dick even has some panning and subwoofer thump to it. Dialogue is natural and strong in the front of the theater, with the feature sounding as dynamic as the intent of it was.The Extras:
Johnson, cowriter/editor Nels Bangerter and sound recorder Judy Karp team up for a commentary about the shoot, recalling things in it, and still laughing at some of the ‘kills.' Johnson talks about having her kids in the film and their thoughts on being in it, and on bigger things like spirituality, Dick's relationship with his friends and on using the older footage she shot of her mom in this film. Some recollections about some of the people and Covid are mentioned, as is the ending. It's a nice complement to the film.
Criterion also includes "Producing Dick Johnson is Dead" (27:44), which Zooms a participant in as they discuss intent of the film, and pros and cons of the choices in it. Stunt recollections and other points are touched upon too. "Sound Design" (25:57) includes the backstory and intent of the job, and what made doing this one so special. "In Conversation" (19:45) includes talks with Johnson and other documentarians on the film and the personal challenges, and a couple of scene deconstructions that floored me. The trailer (1:50) is also here.Final Thoughts:
There is a lot of Dick Johnson is Dead that I hold back on because so much of it ais something that should be experienced on your own. It's not a copout, but if you needed an elevator pitch about the film, I'd say it's the funniest, sweetest film about killing your father that I have seen. Dick is wonderful and sweet, Kirsten is caring and supportive, and the film is something that all of us in this group we don't want to be in, can lean on for a sense of support in making the lives of our loved ones better even if the physical base grows worse. Technically the disc is solid and the extras as a fine complement; again, something was revealed about two of the scenes in here that completely blew me away, and is a testament to Johnson's talents! And as it stands, Criterion's version of Dick Johnson is Dead is wonderful.
Dick Johnson is Dead. Long live Dick Johnson.