▶︎ Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.
The idea that modern, secular Western cultures are problematically distant from the facts of death was a growing preoccupation even before the Covid-19 pandemic thrust our collective relationships with health, risk, sacrifice and loss to the forefront of political discourse. Anxiety regarding the positioning of death within a healthy psyche and a healthy society has of late engendered grief memoirs, grief podcasts, death doulas and death cafes – not quite a grief industry, perhaps, but a repositioning of bereavement from inevitable rite of passage to transformative trauma.
The notion that death has been glossed over or insufficiently analysed sits oddly with any degree of immersion in literature or cinema, which can seem to speak of little else; and yet, time and again, the cultured and bereaved find the former condition no balm for the latter. Literature, writes Martin Amis in his new autobiographical volume Inside Story, “is curiously incapable of helping you through the critical events of an average span (for example, the deaths of parents).”
Cinema, meanwhile, provides a space for the fetishisation of death – enacting it again and again for our prurience and catharsis – but also for the subversion of its seeming finality. It shows us the ‘dead’ bodies of people we know to be alive, and the ‘living’ bodies of those we know are dead. “Cinema is a magnificent mourning, a magnified work of mourning,” Jacques Derrida told Cahiers du Cinema in 1998. Theorists have even framed the love of movies as a species of necrophilia. Cinephilia, writes Paul Willemen, means “relating to something that is dead, past, but alive in memory”; Thomas Elsaesser evokes cinephiles “forever gathering to revive a fantasm or a trauma”.
Cinema’s capacity to both confront and deny death lends Dick Johnson Is Dead its central conceit. Faced with the increasing frailty of her 85-year-old father, and in dread of his death, documentarian Kirsten Johnson undertakes a vocational form of aversion therapy. “She kills me,” the endlessly good-humoured Dick explains to an onlooker, “multiple times. And I come back to life.”
Johnson films Dick suffering health crises, catastrophic falls and bloody accidents. She also gives kitschy life to his visions of an afterlife in which he is reunited with his late wife, Katie-Jo, and miraculously sprouts the toes that he was born without.
Finally, Johnson orchestrates an entire fake funeral, complete with coffin and tearful speeches, which Dick watches from the sidelines. Dick is an enthusiastic and amiable participant in these stunts, between which Kirsten explores his background as a Seventh Day Adventist and practising psychiatrist; his marriage to and loss of her mother; and her own complex position as a daughter, carer, artist and parent.
In its use of bad taste to confront taboo, Johnson’s project recalls both the lurid staged suicides deployed by Harold in Harold and Maude (1971) to rupture his mother’s bourgeois complacency, and Andrew Kötting’s In the Wake of a Deaddad (2006), which saw the filmmaker examine his late father’s legacy whilst carting a four-metre inflatable effigy of him to 60 resonant locations. Johnson’s depiction of the parent-child bond is more positive, however: rather than the re-enactments highlighting issues in her relationship with her father, they are presented as an ironic counterpoint to how very much she loves him.
If there’s any sublimated anger at all in Johnson’s desire to symbolically serial-kill her progenitor, it’s not delved into here. Johnson’s project is about the management not of filial ambivalence, outsized parental legacies or unfinished emotional business, but of love. As Dick begins to show signs of confusion, her lament is disarming in its straightforwardness: “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.”
In the face of this encroaching loss, what is the value of Johnson’s patricidal tableaux? As observers, we undergo at a stranger’s remove a version of her efforts at mental preparation for the inevitable. We see Dick robbed of animation and of dignity; we experience relief at his revival; we appreciate him anew.
What we don’t do is become inured to the idea of his death; conversely, we attach to his living image more, a process that Johnson acknowledges and encourages by keeping us guessing until the final hour about Dick’s actual condition. The two worlds touch briefly, and upsettingly, when Dick loses sight of the context for what he’s doing and takes artificial blood to be real. A prerequisite for Johnson’s processing of the real through the pretend is a firm grasp on which is which; we see her exhort her crew to refer only to fake blood and not blood.
In common with other recent documentaries exploring real events through artifice and repetition – The Act of Killing (2012), Kate Plays Christine (2016), Casting JonBenet (2017) – Dick Johnson is Dead emphasises both the ritual power and the ineffectuality of performing death. No enactment, after all, can replicate its definitive characteristic: its permanence.
And repetition may not breed acceptance, as Johnson discovers when Dick begins to show signs of the same condition that befell her mother. Familiar though the symptoms of Alzheimer’s are in theory to Johnson and her brother, they are slow to recognise them: “Even though we should have understood perfectly, we just couldn’t bear to go through it again.” For some experiences, there is no preparing; we are limited by what we can bear.
Rather than positing better ways of processing death, this film celebrates our inability to do so: inventive as we are, we are no match for it. Ironically, meanwhile, Johnson’s glowing depiction of the filial relationship feels as subversive in its way as any of the gruesome fixes that she puts her father in.
Originally published: 2 October 2020