Kirsten Johnson’s lockdown diary

The cinematographer and director on the ‘long middle’ – the part of a shoot when you’re waiting for an ending to show up.

10 June 2020

By Kirsten Johnson

Kirsten Johnson with her children in lockdown © Kirsten Johnson
Sight and Sound

▶︎ Kirsten Johnson’s new film Dick Johnson Is Dead is coming to Netflix later in 2020.

Embedded in the very nature of death is its unexpectedness. We don’t know when it’s coming for our loved ones and we don’t know when it’s coming for us. We all like to pretend it’s never coming. This pandemic deeply complicates our denial. It is like death itself, which never fails to blindside us and there’s nothing like how unreal its realness is.

Unreal realness is movies too.

And movies have always been a matter of life and death.

They create what we remember and signal what history forgets.

Time and bodies are what movies are made of.

For me, the last moment I experienced of the world as we knew it was at the True/False Film Festival on the evening of 9 March 2020. That was seven weeks ago already. In other words, a lifetime ago and just a blink of an eye.

Twenty years ago, I was a cameraperson on American Standoff (2002), a documentary by Kristi Jacobson about a truckers’ strike. The strike lasted almost two years. Kristi and I would talk about what felt like our endless filming.

We had shot the beginning of the strike and we knew that the film could only end with the strike’s outcome. But in between, while it was happening – in the ‘long middle’ – we would go back and forth about how much to film and when we might know whether it was about to be over. In the end, we made a 90-minute film. We had filmed hundreds of hours of the ‘long middle’.

There is something about the impossibility of knowing anything that I love about documentary-making and filming the ‘long middle’.

Kirsten Johnson taking a socially distanced walk at home in Gaylordsville, Connecticut

The whole world is in an unprecedented ‘long middle’ together now. Sometime in the future, we will look back and be able to pinpoint when the ‘After’ arrived. For now, each of us can only mark the moment of ‘Before’, even if it functioned as a slowly dawning awareness.

My ‘Before’ was that night in March at the True/False screening of a film I had recently finished called Dick Johnson Is Dead. I looked out at the crowd of 1,800 people assembled to see it and did not know that it was a last-of-its-kind moment.

For a filmmaker, getting to see your movie with an audience of that size is in and of itself such a rare gift. I couldn’t know then what I am only beginning to understand now – that there is no telling when or if I will experience that again. Simply to be in a room with that many people now feels so precious and so far away.

Dick Johnson Is Dead is a movie I made with my 87-year-old father as an experiment in asking cinema to give us a way to face death together. One of our most fervent hopes was that people would laugh watching it. Some unexpected things happened while making the movie (like my father attending his own funeral) and they live on the screen. To be in the dark with 1,800 people, hearing them waiting for pins to drop… that’s a sound I can still hear.

Dick Johnson FaceTiming with his daughter Kirsten
© Kirsten Johnson

My most vivid thought at the end of my mother’s funeral in 2007 was wishing she was there to hug me. Her Alzheimer’s had caught us all off-guard. By the time she died, I felt like I had been crying for seven years. When my father started to show signs of dementia three years ago, both he and I knew we were in trouble. We knew we had to find a different way of approaching the ‘long middle’ of the ever-advancing ‘loss of him’. Could we laugh?

Making this film already had me thinking a lot about the word ‘escapism’. And now the pandemic… Is it possible to face things AND experience the freedom of flying away from them? The minimising of the word ‘escapism’ when applied to movies underestimates how truly meaningful it is to be transported into someone else’s way of seeing the world.

My father, who’s lived with me for the last three years, is now with my brother and sister-in-law. We talk to each other through a screen and somehow my dad’s dementia has stopped time – he thinks it’s only been a few days since I last hugged him.

Since 22 March, I have been sheltered with five people I love, including my eight-year-old twins, Felix and Viva. Every night is Movie Night. Pulling from a collection of DVDs gathered by a cinephile among us, we rotate who gets to pick the film. It’s unclear to me whether it’s the fact of watching with our kids, or it’s the pandemic, or both, but what’s striking is how much it feels like I am seeing everything with new eyes. We’ve watched The Thief of Bagdad (1940) and swooned at its colours; Night and the City (1950) and winced as an old man wrestled to his death with a young man twice his size; Old Yeller (1957) and speculated on how that gentle dog could ‘act’ rabid so convincingly; Fort Apache (1948) and were all completely gripped – and then we struggled to talk to our kids about why it matters that the Apaches in the movie never get anywhere near the same kind of close-ups that Henry Fonda and John Wayne do.

But it was the glorious masked dance number of Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936) that stopped me in my tracks. How was it possible that I had never seen it before, and yet what we attempted to do in our dance number in Dick Johnson Is Dead was such an homage to it? When you watch a movie with an eight-year-old, you realise how much is in it: the time travel to worlds that are lost, the racism – both documented and constructed – that you talk about or don’t, the unspoken desires, how much is said in someone’s eyes.

At Movie Night, we are often too chatty when the movies start, parents attempting to contextualise why the women in the film seem to care so much about getting married or what a landline telephone is, but when the movies are good enough to get lost in (and some of them have been great), we all get quiet together. And then we end up laughing at each other’s laughter. The movies take us somewhere together and we can hear all of the different ways we each are experiencing what’s happening on screen. The movies suddenly make the not-knowing of the ‘long middle’ feel like it is full of the pain and possibility and time-travel magic of life itself.