Most of us try our best to forget about death on a moment-by-moment basis, but that’s been hard to do in 2020.
Some of us have lost loved ones to the pandemic or gotten sick ourselves. The lucky who haven’t have still been forced to think about the disease’s staggering and, as the year ends, still-multiplying death toll. Even riding out the pandemic indoors can prompt the sort of morbid reflection we often try to avoid. Spending time inside constructively by tidying up inevitably means encountering reminders of those we’ve lost and the unceasing march of time.
Filmmaker — or, to use her preferred term, cameraperson — Kirsten Johnson has become a professional sorter of memories. A veteran documentary cinematographer, Johnson’s career has taken her all over the world and made her witness to moments both horrific and inspiring. As a director, she made a breakthrough feature in 2016 called, naturally, Cameraperson, which uses outtakes and other stray moments to create a sense of meaning around her life and work. It is, effectively, a creative act of reflective tidying up that tries to make sense of the past from the odds and ends that have piled up over the years.
Johnson followed up Cameraperson with one of 2020’s best films, Dick Johnson is Dead, a touching and determinedly odd portrait of her father made as he slips into dementia and the pair, together, confront his inevitable end. The film covers approximately three years in the Johnsons’ life during which Dick, his condition worsening to the point where he can no longer be left alone, leaves his Seattle home and psychiatric practice to live in Kirsten’s one-bedroom New York City apartment. They prepare for his death by staging it, again and again, as a series of stuntman-assisted movie-ready mishaps in which Dick appears to die by falling air conditioner, car accident, and otherwise reaches sudden, dire ends. But there’s a happy ending to these deaths via scenes of Dick’s afterlife, a gloriously gauche Heaven inspired by Dick’s life, his Seventh Day Adventist faith, and Lisa Frank art.
If that sounds tacky, or even insensitive, it doesn’t play that way. As Uproxx’s Vince Mancini pointed out in his review, the film finds a roundabout way to talking about, and reframing, topics we generally avoid talking about because “[g]ood art doesn’t just reaffirm that a thing exists, it gives you a new framework for thinking about it.” It’s nothing new for Dick. Having watched his wife slip away to dementia, he knows what awaits him and wants to make the most of the time he has left. If that means working with his daughter to use art as a kind of offbeat therapy, then so be it.
2020 has been a year that’s required everyone not locked in a bubble of denial to think about final things, a year in which, say, a quick, masked trip to the drug store probably doesn’t mean risking death for you or those around you, but who knows? It’s been a year that’s taken away much of what makes life fulfilling, be it the company of others, going to the movies, hearing music played live, or just being able to walk down the street without fearing the consequences. It’s also meant watching businesses shutter and streets empty out as the disease reshapes everyday life.
It has, in a word, sucked. But it’s also made it easier to appreciate the necessity of films like Dick Johnson is Dead and creators who refuse to look away from death and loss — and especially those who create art about living in its presence. It’s not always easy. Anyone looking for a double feature to pair with Dick Johnson is Dead should consider another 2020 film, Relic. The first feature directed by Australian filmmaker Natalie Erika James, from a script by James and Christian White, Relic uses horror to explore some of the same subjects as Johnson’s film. It’s a deeply unsettling haunted house film, of sorts, that ultimately arrives at the same sense of peaceful resignation as Dick Johnson is Dead.
Emily Mortimer stars as Kay, who travels with her daughter Sam (Bella Heathcote) to the home of her mother Kay’s mother Edna (Robyn Nevin) after Edna disappears. There they find the house in disarray and littered with notes seemingly designed to help Edna remember everyday tasks (and possibly a supernatural threat). When Edna returns, the crisis only deepens as her dementia makes her subject to wild mood swings and uncharacteristic behavior, a descent echoed by the house itself. Like Dick Johnson is Dead, Relic would feel exploitative if it wasn’t so well done. It’s ultimately less Edna’s condition that serves as the source of horror than the fear it inspires. The film’s final sequence is at once disturbing, humane, and truthful about what awaits us as one generation gives way to the next.
The years that come will see film after film about 2020. Many will be angry, as they should be. It’s been a year filled with manipulation, willful misinformation, and policy decisions deeply concerned with the well-being of a privileged few rather than the public at large. Many of our losses have been avoidable even if the pandemic itself never was. Others will be reflective of our shared experience living through a plague year. We’ve been through a crisis whose end may be in sight but it isn’t here yet. When it arrives it will be to a country scarred by what it’s been through. But even though it has nothing directly to do with 2020, Dick Johnson is Dead already looks like one of the year’s defining films. We’ve been forced to confront death in a way most years spare us. It’s been awful, but there’s something to be gained by not looking away from death and by considering what it means for those we’ve lost, those we love but know we’ll lose sooner than we’d like, and to the living, who sometimes need to be reminded what it means to be alive and that we won’t stay that way forever.