Dick Johnson Is Dead is a film about falling.
It could have been a film about failing, in that its subject is death, or rather, the particular intimation of death-in-life that is dementia. Like Cameraperson (2016), Kirsten Johnson’s previous feature, Dick Johnson Is Dead is also a film about the capacities and limits of cinema: about where filmmaking fails, where it falls—literally. At one point, the camera, its lens tilted, drops to the bright-patterned carpet, and stays there. We realize that Johnson, the filmmaker behind the camera documenting her subject, is now, also and always, Kirsten, the daughter who has gone to embrace her father.
The film begins with the risk of falling, and a fall, as Johnson’s children, Felix and Viva, play, along with two other kids, on a rope swing while Dick watches. When Dick gets up to push the swing, Johnson warns him from behind the camera that the straw is slippery. He slips—and says, “Did you get it, Mom? Oh, wonderful, I’ve always wanted to be in the movies.” It’s a real fall, but Dick frames it through his love of, and respect for, the power of cinema and storytelling. As the film and Dick’s dementia both progress, it becomes harder to distinguish not “fiction” from “fact” but scripted slapstick from the unscripted realities of aging—such as Dick’s driving detour via a construction site, then home on four flat tires—which is why and how Johnson’s hybrid of observational documentary and staged imaginings works so incisively. In silent slapstick in particular, both the humor and the poignancy arise from reflecting our hard-to-admit knowledge of our own instabilities, our repeated—and eventually final—falls.
Published online 25 Jan 2022, available in the booklet for Criterion Bluray, Dick Johnson is Dead (Kirsten Johnson, 2020).