I can’t say that I’ve ever emotionally prepared myself for a loved one's death or even thought too long about them not being alive for much longer. It certainly isn’t for a lack of opportunity. My mother died from a second round of breast cancer when I was 13 after fluid filled her lungs. About two years later, my grandfather had a stroke, lost his speech and movement and died. Before that, when I was 8 or 9, my grandmother, who I wasn’t that close to but saw often enough, died of cervical cancer. I even have a father who’s been on dialysis for over five years and waiting for a kidney transplant who I still can’t picture leaving this Earth.
I’ve always been interested in how age shapes grief. Now 24-years-old, I often wonder how I would mourn my family members, specifically my mom, if I had lost her when I was, say, in my 30s or 40s or after I got married or had kids. After all, you hardly know an adult until you become one yourself. That’s why it was so cathartic watching 54-year-old filmmaker Kirsten Johnson learn from the experience of losing her mother and embrace her father’s looming departure in Dick Johnson Is Dead, a 90-minute documentary in which she stages numerous scenarios of his death.
The first time we see the titular C. Richard Johnson “die” in Dick Johnson is Dead, he’s hit in the head by an air conditioner falling from a building as he walks down the street. The second time, he falls down a flight of stairs. The third time, he takes his eyes off the wheel of his vehicle and gets into an accident. And yet there are still more gruesome fatalities for Johnson to create of her father (and his stunt double) throughout the film, which I won’t spoil here. It isn’t that Johnson is necessarily worried about her elderly father dying from a fluke accident. He’s suffering from dementia, similar to Johnson’s mother who died seven years earlier from Alzheimer’s. Rather than watch her father slowly dwindle away, she confronts his mortality head-on by visualizing the most brutal and equally mundane versions of it.
What’s remarkable about Johnson’s experimental film, for me, is not the insertion of the vignettes themselves but rather the process of making them. As a child who was immediately scolded by my mother whenever I played dead or mocked death in any way, it’s hard to imagine asking her to participate in such a macabre and, well, honest exercise, let alone even mentioning her inevitable passing to her. Likewise, I was intrigued watching the conversations Johnson and her father had before and after takes—Johnson explaining blocking and fake blood technology to her dad, Richard laughing with the sound crew at the sight of his stunt double lying on the sidewalk. And yet an experience that feels so liberating and assuring to observe on screen still has its complications.
There’s a moment in the film when the discomfort from the cold, fake blood squirting onto Richard reminds him of his previous heart attack, and Johnson has to stop shooting. Before that, there’s a scene in which Johnson tells her dad that she sold his car because he’s moving to New York to live with her and doesn’t need it. Richard knows it’s mainly because he can’t safely operate a vehicle anymore, and the thought of his “independence […] being taken away” makes him tear up. It’s interesting watching two versions of the same understood reality bleed into one another, the staged and the not staged, particularly when Johnson talks about her late mother. You wonder whether this project eulogizing her father is partially an act of penance for failing to capture her mother on camera pre-Alzheimer’s. Johnson laments the fact that the only footage she has of her mother is at the height of her memory loss, which we see parts of in the documentary. (She also makes the hard, ethical choice of including clips of her in her last documentary Cameraperson).
One thing remains clear throughout: playing with death doesn’t eliminate all of its sensitivities. Toward the latter half of Dick Johnson is Dead, you realize the filmmaker isn’t trying to create a blueprint for avoiding the pain and contrition that comes with grief. The messy parts of mourning are never invalidated. But maybe if we could all lean into the fact that the people we love the most never truly belong to us, we’d be a little better at handling the blow.
Even when Johnson’s film feels steeped in pragmaticism, it isn’t void of spirituality. She incorporates her religious upbringing as a Seventh Day Adventist as it pertains to her understanding of the afterlife. Likewise, she counters the severity and archness of her dad’s violent deaths with her own vision of Heaven filled with confetti, feathers and sequins, dancers with giant cardboard faces of Richard’s former wives and historical figures like Ghandi (lol) and a handsome, brown Jesus.
These dream sequences felt so urgent in my viewing experience, not just in creating an emotional balance but because of my own upbringing in Christianity. I grew up in an Evangelical Christian household, so the promise of an incomparable, immaculate Heaven was preached to me ad nauseum. There was always a paradox, though, concerning the discomfort and silence around death and the promise of Heaven (only really discussed during the act of conversion or at a homegoing service). Jesus’ most boasted accomplishment, after saving the souls of humanity, was that he defeated death. He was bigger than death, my childhood pastor would scream into a microphone every Easter Sunday. After Jesus beat death, he ascended into Heaven to be with his father, the same place He presumably would’ve had access to even if He hadn’t conquered death in the most performative way? The messaging is strange. All this to say, it was affirming to see Johnson join these seemingly obvious ideas together that Christians often seem to miss. Death shouldn’t be so debilitatingly scary—not to experience but simply think about and appreciate—if we truly have faith in where we’re going.
Things I’ve consumed this week that I can remember:
1) Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination by Toni Morrison
2) Punisher by Phoebe Bridgers
3) The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
4) “Why is Ava Duvernay Targeting Black Women?” by Cassie DaCosta in The Daily Beast. HM.
5) “RHONY” Illuminates the Class Divide in America by Rebecca Long for Bitch Media.