Kirsten Johnson’s father might be the Schrödinger’s cat of documentary film. As with the feline in the Austrian physicist’s thought experiment illustrating the strangeness of quantum theory, it is unclear at times whether the title subject of her fanciful and profound “Dick Johnson Is Dead” (2020) is alive or dead — or both.
When first seen in the film, the octogenarian Dick Johnson seems full of life. But the threats of mischance lurk everywhere. Like the straw on the floor of a shed where he is playing with the filmmaker’s children. Watch out, his daughter warns. The straw is slippery. Will he fall and if so, will it be fatal? In voice-over Johnson says, “The idea I might lose this man is too much to bear.”
As is often the case with ideas that are too much to bear, Johnson turns hers into a work of art. She combines a warmly immersive, verite engagement with Dick’s life with whimsical and shocking scenarios of possible deaths. Looming over all is not just mortality but what the filmmaker describes as “his long disappearance” — his decline into dementia. For the filmmaker and her father the process is bitterly familiar: Katie Jo — her mother, his beloved wife — had suffered from it. She died after breaking her hip in a fall on a flight of stairs some years before. “She thought she was down before she was down,” Dick recalls, “and stepped into nothing.”
“But you’re real careful,” says the filmmaker.
“Oh yeah,” says Dick. “Real careful.”
Sure enough, moments later, Dick goes flying down the stairs and ends up crumpled at the bottom with a pool of blood spreading by his head on the floor.
There are several such catastrophes — an errant air conditioner, a beam with a spike on the end, a heart attack like the one he suffered and survived 30 years before. But each time the filmmaker — before, after, or during — exposes the movie magic behind each demise, showing the mechanics behind a fake spurting artery, the multiple takes by brawny stunt doubles, the careful directorial posing of limbs by the filmmaker to simulate broken bodies. And the many deaths are followed by heavenly triumphs, goofy fantasy sequences shot in slo-mo with Dick agog in a paradise of falling petals and golden bangles, chocolate sauce and popcorn, and celestial choirs singing triumphant hymns. These visions include wish fulfilments, such as Jesus healing Dick’s deformed toes, a birth defect that he tells his daughter has been an embarrassment his entire life, and a dream guest list including Bruce Lee, Frederick Douglass, Buster Keaton, Sigmund Freud. And Katie Jo, restored to life and youth and wholeness.
Though these sequences are tongue-in-cheek — fusions of Federico Fellini, David Lynch, and Busby Berkeley with a touch of the repetition compulsive dream-within-a-dream-within-a-dream of Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” (1972) — Dick believes that heaven is the real thing. He comes from a family of Seventh-day Adventists, a religion that holds that those who die will rise from the dead when Christ returns on Judgment Day. He faces the end with equanimity.
What he dreads is the slow decline, the gradual loss of memory and faculties to his disease. Reluctantly he closes down his psychiatric practice and moves out of the family home in Seattle to live with his daughter in her Manhattan apartment. There he visits a neurologist and takes excruciating memory tests. “I’m falling apart,” he says. And one night at 3 a.m. he walks into the living room thinking it’s his office and a patient is waiting there …
What follows is a Halloween sequence that is sad, terrifying, and ruefully funny, and it barely prepares you for the multi-ending finale. The status of Dick Johnson being alive or dead might be left in doubt, but the power of his spirit is unquestioned.
“Dick Johnson Is Dead” ($39.95 Blu-ray; $29.95 DVD) is available from the Criterion Collection on Jan. 25. Go to www.criterion.com/films/32311-dick-johnson-is-dead.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.