Death by a Thousand Cuts
In the documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead,
filmmaker Kirsten Johnson asks her father to
meet his destiny before it arrives.
It all begins when an air conditioner falls on Dick Johnson’s head. Later, the 86-year-old retired psychiatrist falls down a staircase to his death. He’s killed in a car crash, he’s struck by a two-by-four, he ascends to a strange and colorful heaven.In sequence after sequence of the documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, award-winning filmmaker and veteran cinematographer Kirsten Johnson (Cameraperson) works with her beloved father to stage his ultimate demise. In between these quasi-fantasies, she captures his cognitive decline: The project is a prelude to the real thing, an exercise in confronting dementia — a disease that also afflicted the filmmaker’s late mother — and a preemptive response to the inevitable.In a conversation with acclaimed documentarian Yance Ford (Strong Island), Kirsten Johnson discusses the fear and joy of making Dick Johnson Is Dead. “I have known all my life that I pulled a lucky card with my dad,” she reflects. “I didn’t know he was a movie star.” Yance Ford: You say at the beginning of the film that you began to realize that you were losing your father. It feels like that realization was the catalyst for making Dick Johnson Is Dead.
It was incredible to hear him talk about the impact of his memory loss on the people around him. That self-awareness, despite the dementia, is remarkable.
KJ: I will give you a classic [example] of self-awareness: He wakes me up in the middle of the night, and he’s dressed and headed for the door. I’m like, “Where are you going?” and he’s like, “There’s a patient waiting downstairs.” We’re in New York, he’s retired, he’s not got any patients. I’m like, “Dad, there’s nobody downstairs. It’s three in the morning. What kind of patient would make an appointment for three in the morning?” He said, “Somebody desperate, someone who really needs to talk to me.”
Let’s talk about Cameraperson: You erected this film that shed light on how you have worked over the course of your career. What are the connections that you see between the two projects?
KJ: When we finished Cameraperson, I really did not know if anyone else would understand it or relate to it, but I knew that I had addressed my own need to the utmost of my capacity. I had broken something for myself; I had broken something formally. So I said to myself, I must make what I need to make. I will only make something that is pushing boundaries for the form, for myself, for the collaborators I’m working with.
Death makes many people uncomfortable. How did you succeed in pitching this film?
KJ: I said, “I want to make a film about killing my father over and over again until he really dies for real.” People would laugh, and that was it. I would be at a pitch session, and I would be asking the people who I was pitching to: Had they thought about how they wanted to die? Was there a way they were afraid of dying? We were having these unbelievably deep, amazing conversations. That’s what this movie is: It’s an experiment around how do we talk about it, can we talk about it, can we laugh at it.
How is your dad? How is Dick Johnson?
KJ: Dick Johnson, Dick Johnson. You know, my father had been living with me for three and a half years. In July, we realized there was no way for my brother or for me to be able to provide 24/7 care for my father, so he is in a dementia-care facility near my brother’s in Bethesda — a small home of about eight people. It has ripped my heart out of my body, and it has also been what was necessary.
Watch Dick Johnson Is Dead
on Netflix now.