Contemporary filmmakers struggle to capture our attention from the assault of news. At home, movies are watched while with phones clutched throughout, picked up twenty or thirty times to feed us disrupting messages, a rising update on cases and deaths. There are only a handful of films I’ve seen recently that have resonated against the drum of world affairs. On occasion, however, a film is elevated by the news of the world, its themes strengthened rather than rendered superficial, trite, or obvious.
Dick Johnson is Dead was always going to be reviewed well because, yeah, it’s great. Death, well-handled, is a powerful subject. But the film is made more poignant by the state of the world, and more specifically by the failure of rich nations to protect their elderly. It is fitting that one of the stand-out films of 2020 was a documentary about the anticipation of grief.
Dick Johnson is Dead is a documentary about coming to terms with the death of an aging parent. However, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson is too aware of the risk of falling into sentimentality in the portrayal of her subject. Dick Johnson is eighty-six, incredibly likeable, and seems in a sort of Benjamin Button-sense to become more childlike as he gets older. A working psychiatrist for many years, he’s undeniably intelligent but clearly losing his memory. His smile is goofy, disarming. The mind lurking behind is not Machiavellian – more like a man waiting for a moment to be kind.
Importantly, throughout the film Dick never grieves for himself: he grieves for the impact that his death and decline will have on others. In one scene he says he hasn’t really been bothered by his loss of memory, but he is bothered when it hurts other people. This seems to be his total preoccupation. Like all good artistic subjects, Dick is portrayed as a man of contrasts. He’s bright, but can’t recall a series of five nouns. He’s old, but carries a childlike optimism. He’s alive when we know he’ll soon die.
In order to help her cope with her father’s impending death, Johnson sets up a series of grim but comical vignettes in which he is killed in sudden ways. At first they are ridiculous – an air-conditioner falling from a street roof – but gradually they become more and more plausible, more real. After each death, Johnson shows us how the scenes were created. These behind-the-scenes moments feature stunt-men dressed as Dick falling, flipping and contorting their bodies in faux-agony. Another scene features a special effects professional explaining to Dick how to rig up fake blood to spurt in rhythmic pulses. Upsettingly, when he looks down and notices his left side stained red, Dick – a heart-attack survivor – seems to be genuinely confused about whether or not he’s actually injured.
As these fake deaths layer on top of each other, they grow in intensity. Johnson, sharply aware of her audience, begins to wonder whether she should keep putting her father through these scenes, even though he appears to be a willing participant.
In one especially grim vignette, Johnson has Dick fall down the stairs of their family home, something that had actually happened to her mother. The camera holds its gaze on the aftermath: Dick lies in a pool of fake blood, legs splayed catastrophically. Johnson tells him to lift his arm up and bend it towards his face. He complies – because of course he does – and he shuffles his body into yet a more realistic position. A death rehearsal.
The act of falling so often begins the descent into worsening health for an older person. Broken bones demand dangerously prolonged stays in hospital; at best, they waste precious time in convalescence. How often do you hear the words: ‘Well, she had a fall and was just never quite the same.’
The film’s climax is a mock funeral that contains such a complex slew of emotions I found myself laughing/crying as if reading Vonnegut. The most touching moment comes after Dick’s eulogy, delivered through tears by one of his best friends. Following the ‘funeral’, Dick emerges alive. Again, he has conquered death. But the eulogy seems to have broken his friend, who, now isolated from the crowd and seemingly caught unknowingly on film, bangs his hand on the wall, clutched in something more complex than grief.
What would Dick Johnson’s funeral be like now? Socially distanced, reduced to a small handful of carefully selected people? One of the most surreal and tragic results of the response to the pandemic has been the regulation of funerals, or as Giacomo Lichtner puts it, our collective ‘forbidden mourning’. Dick Johnson got a practice funeral, when so many people this year didn’t get their real one.
What are we to make of this film during the pandemic? In the UK, where I live, we’re in the midst of another horrific peak of cases and deaths. On a single day at the time of writing this, 1,564 people died of COVID 19. These were mostly older people, the sidelined, the vulnerable, the lonely. Just a month ago, following the science of social distancing meant choosing to condemn our relatives to an isolated Christmas after an isolated year, or willingly choosing to become links in a fatal causal chain.
The reason that Dick Johnson is Dead may be so resonant is that, as an intimate and focused study of a single elderly person, it contrasts so obviously against Covid’s devastation of the elderly across the developed world. It shows us an old man up close and in doing so, reminds us of that person in our own lives.
Care homes are so often where our loved ones spend their final years, yet due to breakdowns in governance and administration coupled with the fact they are densely populated with people of worsening health, they have often been the most dangerous places to exist during the pandemic.
In Australia, as of October last year 682 out of 904 total Covid-19 deaths were in or related to aged care homes. Of course this is to say nothing of excess deaths, or of death’s lonely quality in a pandemic. Marama Whyte has detailed some of the obstacles she had to endure when trying to visit two of her grandparents in care homes, both of whom tragically died, not of Covid itself but inside a system in the throes of confused and reactive regulation. Too often, protecting the elderly has come at the cost of their socialisation and by extension, their wellbeing.
In contrast, when watching Dick Johnson is Dead, you can’t help but feel that Dick is being spoiled with unregulated love and attention. Class is also relevant: Kirsten Johnson’s family are educated and wealthy. They have a beautiful family home that Dick is forced to abandon when he’s moved to New York for his final years of care. A former doctor himself, he has access to high-quality healthcare and the loving dedication of his family. Yet still, with all this, they’ve had to face such loss. The movie doesn’t appear to be overtly political but, merely by showing us her family, Johnson contextualises the realities of aging in a modern world. What are you supposed to do if there is no one left to help you move house, to help you navigate systems of stratified bureaucracy, or to just remember you?
The brutal effects of the coronavirus on the elderly heighten the film’s core message – but what is it, exactly? Love your parents, your grandparents, especially when there’s so little time left? No, there’s more than that. On a deeper level the film is about preparedness. The more we’re shown Dick Johnson the more we realise what there is to lose. You can’t prepare yourself for death and loss, it will always be surprising. But watching this film now you can’t help but think we owed it to the elderly to have prepared so much better than this. It’s not like we weren’t warned.