Dick Johnson is Dead
Director/ Kirsten Johnson
Watched on Netflix
Johnson’s tonally jarring film contains moments of sweet, affecting intimacy between the filmmaker and her father, interrupted by bizarre and outlandish dream sequences that are, I think, meant to represent her dad’s visions of the afterlife. Or perhaps they are merely self-indulgent directorial flourishes.
The film, a Netflix-funded extravagance, is another example of a curious new trend in some documentary circles. Filmmakers lucky enough to get excessive amounts of money budgeted for their productions try to imagine new ways to re-fashion the viewers’ subjective experience of the genre, to move documentary into a realm where make-believe and fiction can intertwine with real-life, creating hybrids intended to amplify or illuminate the non-fictional elements which, these filmmakers are quick to emphasize, are still the main reasons for making the film in the first place. I’m thinking here of Kitty Green’s Casting JonBenét, Robert Greene’s Bisbee ’17, Jonathan and Elan Bogarín’s 306 Hollywood, and any number of the true crime documentaries streaming on all the top platforms. These films seem to be most concerned with enhanced visual opulence at the expense of narrative cohesion.
As I’ve written before, I’m fervently supportive of new ways to invigorate documentary filmmaking, but when filmmakers rely on artificial constructs to boost the entertainment quotient of their films, rather than risk trying out inventive new approaches to point-of-view or character examination or ways to employ the tools of audio, narration or camera placement, I find the effects wearying and distracting.
In Dick Johnson is Dead, it seems like I’m being asked to applaud Johnson’s audacious use of stage sets, costumes, stuntmen, and multi-camera crews while at the same time appreciating the heartfelt drama of her father’s decline. Her dad is a willing and likeable participant in Johnson’s fantasized contraptions, and there are touching moments of love and friendship between father and daughter in the real-life moments, but there are also many scenes that left me confused and asking questions before they abruptly cut to another artificial set-up. Johnson keeps saying in interviews that she wanted to confront her own fears about her father’s death, but I’m not convinced as to how any of her elaborate make-believe sequences achieve this.
These garish sequences, along with the puzzling staged accident scenes, are technically excellent, but they stand in harsh contrast to the handheld, intimate material, in which Johnson, a longtime cinematographer on documentary films, seems to struggle to maintain focus and a steady shot. The back-and-forth gives the film a slapdash feel, as though Johnson isn’t confident in her approach. By the time the film’s final sequence arrives, a brightly-lit and uncomfortably fabricated funeral, you’ll either be in sync with the movie’s wacky inconsistencies, or you’ll be left scratching your head.