How Sweet It Is: Dick Johnson Is Dead

Dick Johnson is Dead (2020) | art by Tony Stella

Dick Johnson Is Dead opens with filmmaker Kirsten Johnson pushing her children high on a rope swing inside a barn. Her father, Dick, is sitting on the dusty floor nearby, watching with an expression of obvious glee on his face. Everyone is laughing; they’re singing a ridiculous kid’s song (“There’s a place in France/Where the ladies don’t wear pants”) while the camera bears witness from its position in the rafters above, a quasi-God’s eye view surveying the charming familial moment below. Having just finished his turn on the swing, Dick’s grandson, Felix, breathlessly exclaims to his grandfather, “It was so high I almost died.” 

Chuckling, Dick says, “Almost died? Oh dear.” A pause. “That’s pretty scary. So, what was telling ya you were dying?” There’s a subtle mixture of therapist and grandpa in the tone of the questioning.

Felix immediately replies, “It was too high—I love it.” 

“You loved it, huh?”

“If you love dying,” Felix says, laughing.

If you love dying. Can anyone truly love dying? The inevitability of death is the harsh natural truth of human existence. Our lives are temporary, ephemeral, fragile. We find so many ways to forget our mortality, but life itself often (ironically) provides opportunities to remind us. Perhaps it’s as simple as going a bit too high on a rope swing. Or perhaps it’s the heartbreaking process of watching someone we love slip away from us into transcendent realms we cannot yet go ourselves, whatever it is that happens to human beings after they die.

If you love dying.

So begins Dick Johnson Is Dead, a hilarious and heartwarming memento mori. As the eponymous C. Richard “Dick” Johnson, an 80-something psychiatrist, begins to show early signs of dementia, he and his documentarian daughter embark on a cinematic project together: to confront his impending death by creating fantastical reenactments of possible lethal scenarios, combined with documenting Dick’s final years on film. This is film-as-memory, a way to keep Dick Johnson alive forever and for Kirsten to introduce us to her beloved father. It is a theo-philosophical meditation on the nature of human mortality, as well as a form of cinematic therapy for dealing with the painful circumstances of a loved one facing a terminal illness. And in the Year of Our Lord 2020—a year uniquely characterized by the immeasurable tragedy of death—we needed all the therapeutic healing we could find.

*

My father’s name is Richard, but for as long as I have known him, he has gone by “Dick.” I remember being in middle school and thinking it was a peculiar choice for a forename in that (a) it required some semantic acrobatics to imagine “Dick” as somehow being short for “Richard,” and (b) it carried with it the not-exactly-positive connotations of both male genitalia and being an ornery bastard.

Still, the name fit my father well, its brusque tenor reminiscent of baby boomer-era American masculinity, its elocution conveying the sonic sharpness of a gunshot. The man is incredibly intelligent while also being emotionally reserved and unavailable; he seems to be deliberately aloof, a hidden indignation seething inside him which would reveal itself through harsh critical remarks, curt silence, or, sometimes, physical force. I never saw him hit my mother (they’re divorced, an inevitable end to an incompatible couple), but he did spank me and my younger sister with a custom-carved wooden paddle he made at his tool bench with red-painted letters etched into it which read: “Lightning.” With a sick humor that I now recognize as being abusive, my parents would warn us that if we misbehaved, “lightning would strike”—and it did, far more often than its namesake suggested. 

My dad is the kind of person who feels the need to correct you even if you’re more knowledgeable of the topic at hand, responding to your observation or anecdote with “well, actually…” followed by a stream of supercilious mansplaining. He is an Air Force veteran, an evangelical Christian, and a diehard Republican. He loves shooting guns, flying planes, collecting obscure trinkets, listening to conservative talk radio, singing in choirs, learning new languages, and teaching the Bible in Sunday School.

When the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic set in during March 2020, I found myself in a daily sense of shock and trauma. As Alissa Wilkinson aptly put it in Vox, even if we never catch the virus ourselves, no one can “opt out” of the circumstances by choosing a different reality apart from this one. We were (and still are) stuck in a situation which was, paradoxically, totally beyond our individual control yet required every person to make deliberate sacrificial choices for the sake of their own life and the lives of others. As the virus first hit the U.S. in Seattle near my childhood home where my dad still lives, I worried about Dick Mayward, whose age and past health issues—as well as his political allegiances and personal disposition—placed him squarely in the “high risk” category. Despite my dysfunctional childhood experience and my semi-estranged adult relationship with the man, I feared that I would never see my dad alive again.

Now, as the COVID-19 pandemic still rages on, making death an ever-present reality, I am safely situated in a small town on the east coast of Scotland while my dad is alive and alone on the West Coast of the United States. We are a world apart in more ways than one. I do not really know or understand my dad, and I don’t think he really knows or understands me. But, strangely enough, I love him. And I know that, in his own impaired and impersonal way, he loves me too.

*

In a sense, Dick Johnson Is Dead is a sequel to Johnson’s 2016 cinematic masterpiece, Cameraperson, itself an intimate memoir/mosaic on human mortality which features home footage of Kirsten’s mother and her own trials with Alzheimer’s disease. Where that first film was a carefully-edited montage of the leftover footage from Johnson’s multi-decade career as a documentary cinematographer, Dick Johnson Is Dead is ostensibly more straightforward and narrative-driven in its structure. Yet this is where Johnson’s filmmaking genius is evident: this second documentary is just as meticulously refined as Cameraperson, perhaps even more so.

We get a sense of this when Johnson pulls back the curtain and reveals the behind-the-scenes moments of the filmmaking process, placing those typically-hidden aspects on center stage and intentionally making us aware of the formal decisions and artifice of the cinematic apparatus. We see members of the sound and makeup department interacting with Dick, chatting with him in between takes or assuring him that the fake blood isn’t his real blood. We hear Kirsten’s voiceover over a montage of images, only to have the movie cut to her filming herself from a closet where she’s recording her narrated lines on her iPhone. We see set dressers and art assistants, production designers and backup dancers, stuntmen and actors, all waiting in the wings in order to create Dick’s various deaths and the subsequent afterlife sequences. Indeed, we even witness a few scenes which never seem to appear in their completed form within the final film; the only evidence we have of their existence are these backstage glimpses of their production.

Even the most realistic of documentary filmmaking contains within it a formalist or expressionistic kernel—the filmmaker is always making decisions about where to point the lens, when to hit record, what footage stays in the final cut. Documentary filmmaking is filled with spontaneous and improvised moments both in front of and behind the camera, and Johnson makes the deliberate choice to include these elements within Dick Johnson Is Dead. In this way, there are instances where the film can feel messy or unprofessional, such as a scene where Kirsten and Dick are about to sell their house in Seattle. The scene begins with Dick sitting in his black leather lounge chair, which becomes a kind of emblem for him in the film—the chair is both his throne and his deathbed. The camera is trembling as Kirsten tearfully shares a memory about her mom once sitting in the same room and declaring, “this is our house.” The camera begins the scene focused on Dick, but as the two become overwhelmed by emotion, Kirsten shakily sets it down on the floor, only to abruptly pick it up again when she cuddles up to Dick in his chair and gives him a reassuring hug. We end up staring at Dick’s shoe and the massive orange and brown mid-century rug while father and daughter comfort each other off-screen. It’s an intimate, tender moment which brings tears to my eyes even remembering it. And yet at the end of this scene, Dick jokingly says to Kirsten, “you can include this in the movie.” She sighs, perhaps unsure as to whether this moment fits into her movie. But we ultimately know what she’ll decide to do.

In this subtle and provocative way, Dick Johnson Is Dead opens up our awareness to our own human attempts to control the uncontrollable. Life is filled with all kinds of spontaneous and unexpected realities—events, relationships, successes, tragedies; even our own feelings and bodies often lie outside of our direct will and power. Yet we are constantly confronted with the overwhelming responsibility of making decisions, of reacting to these feelings and bodies, of perceiving the events unfolding before us and deciding accordingly. To be human means to maintain an ever-present dialectic between freedom and limitation, what philosopher Paul Ricoeur calls the tension between the “capable self” and the “wounded ego.” Death is perhaps the most ungovernable force of all; we cannot prevent it, yet we all must face it. Johnson’s documentaries patiently invite us to pay attention to what it means to be a wounded-yet-capable human being—our choices, our reactions, our relationships, our plans, our memories, our loves—and how this broken-yet-beautiful existence is full of rich possibilities and everyday miracles, even with the inevitability of death. She accomplishes all of this in Dick Johnson Is Dead, a cinematic love letter and eulogy to her best friend: her father.

*

The last time I saw my dad in person was in summer 2019. I was briefly visiting the U.S. from Scotland in order to teach a graduate course, and he drove from Seattle to the Portland area to see me and his grandkids. While we were driving together in the car to take my children to a nearby playground, my dad suddenly decided to broach the subject of planning for his funeral and what to do with his various personal items after he’d died. He stated it all so matter-of-factly, and with my kids in the backseat, that I didn’t really have time to process it. My mental impression of the day is hazy, and I don’t have any pictures on my phone to jog my memory. I just remember thinking that this must be important to him, like he needed to share it with me, in case we never had another chance.

What I can recall from that day is throwing rocks in a stream near the playground, skipping the stones off the water under the cool shade of lush overgrowth, my kids laughing and gamboling on the riverbank while my dad happily observed, not unlike Dick Johnson watching Kirsten push her kids on a swing in a barn. My dad is an excellent stone skipper; although his ability has waned later in life due to the massive scar on his arm where an artery had been transferred to his heart in a multiple-bypass surgery from years earlier, he still knew how to pick just the right river rock, smooth and round, tossing it so it would leap across the liquid surface in a miracle of nature. I watched as both my father and my eldest son tossed their respective stones into the water in tandem, my eyes glistening with tears.

I don’t know what the immediate future holds, or whether I’ll see my dad face-to-face ever again, but I want to remember this moment for as long as I can. And this is where I feel both envious of Kirsten Johnson and grateful for the technological gift of cinema—envious of her obvious friendship with her own dad, grateful that her ever-present camera has retained the memories of Dick Johnson to revisit and treasure.

*

Beyond its morbidly droll philosophical analysis of death, Dick Johnson Is Dead is an explicitly religious, even theological film which directly raises questions about our beliefs in the afterlife and how one’s faith can give life meaning. Dick is a strong Christian believer in the Seventh-day Adventist tradition. Even as Kirsten describes her Seventh-day Adventist upbringing as being quite strict—no dancing, no card-playing, and certainly no movies—she also draws links between her father’s charitable, joyous demeanor and his religious faith. Kirsten honors this faith through various afterlife sequences which depict Dick in the celestial realms. For instance, after a particularly gruesome death scene where Dick falls down the stairs and breaks his neck, there is a sharp cut to a massive title card reading: “Heaven.” Confetti and popcorn rain down in slow motion as a choir sings, “Gloria in Excelsis Deo.” Rising up from the bottom of the screen in slow motion, Dick is embraced by fellow heavenly citizens and invited to a massive banquet table covered in food. Wearing a pink Hawaiian lei, he dips his finger in a chocolate fountain with a look of pure contentment. Heaven tastes sweet.

These post-mortem scenes are campy and silly, filled with Astaire-esque dance sequences while a grinning Jesus looks on approvingly. But while they could be considered irreverent, I think there is an eschatological richness on display here. In the background of the first Heaven sequence, behind a dancing Bruce Lee and Frederick Douglass, we can see a lion sitting down with two lambs, a clear allusion to Isaiah 11:6–7 which also echoes the 1826 painting of American Quaker artist Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom. The image of a banquet table correlates to the parables of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew, where the future kingdom of God is often metaphorically described as a wedding feast or lavish banquet. Kirsten also explains in voiceover about the Seventh-day Adventist belief of the “unconscious dead” (also known as “Christian mortalism” or, a bit pejoratively, “soul sleep”) where the souls of the deceased are awaiting an apocalyptic “end of the age” in order to be resurrected in a new body and new creation. All of this is based on a belief in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ as the conquering of death itself.

This Christian resurrection imagery is most apparent in a deeply affecting afterlife scene where Dick receives new toes. In an earlier scene, we learn that Dick was born with severely misshapen feet. “I’ve always been ashamed of these toes,” he says to Kirsten. “They’ve been a source of embarrassment to me my entire life. I’ve never wanted to go barefoot.” For all of his apparent natural contentment, this is one area of Dick’s life where he appears to carry a deep emotional scar. In the afterlife scene, Dick is sitting in his favorite leather lounge chair as an actor dressed like Jesus pours water on Dick’s feet. The camera cuts to a close-up of Dick’s face, which changes from a look of confused wonder to a visage of absolute joy. The camera then cuts back to a shot of Dick’s “resurrected” feet, perfectly formed and glistening with a kind of holy glory. The image alludes to the biblical foot-washing scene in the Gospel of John where Jesus washes his disciples’ feet on the night of the Last Supper, as well as the eschatological hope Dick and countless other Christians have of receiving a resurrected body absent of former ailments. Even with all the gaudy ornamentation and confetti, it’s a strikingly hopeful image.

All the while, a choir sings the hymn “Holy Holy Holy” on the soundtrack. Immediately following this podiatric miracle, a stunned Dick watches as a woman approaches wearing a poster-size portrait of Dick’s wife in her youth. In a later afterlife sequence, two dancers wearing similar youthful portraits of the Johnsons twirl and leap with joyful abandon. In a frisson-inducing iconic shot, the “Dick” dancer leaps high into the air in near-frozen slow motion, his athletic body hovering in angelic grace. We see that this resurrected Dick has lustrous, exquisite bare feet. This is the power of cinema, imagining the unimaginable and transcendent. Through such movie magic, Dick can dance with his deceased wife on his own beautiful toes.

*

My favorite recent memory of my father is when he met my birth mother. I was born to a young Hispanic woman in Texas, but was adopted by the Maywards and raised in Seattle in a middle-class white household. Having been reunited with my beautiful, selfless birth mom over 30 years later (it’s a long story for another essay—or a book), she and her husband flew up from Texas to attend my graduation from seminary in 2017. My father, Dick, had been quietly supportive of my search for my biological mom, but this consolation would be tested when he and she would sit in the same row at my graduation, watching their shared son receive his degree.

The day after I graduated, my adoptive father and my birth mother sat down together with me in my mother-in-law’s living room (a bizarre family situation, to be sure). My mom tearfully proceeded to thank my dad for raising me and giving me such wonderful opportunities in life. In a surprising moment of vulnerability, tears streamed down my dad’s face as he reciprocated her thanksgiving, telling my mother he was so grateful for what must have been a difficult decision for her, and how blessed he is to be my father. In that moment, I caught a tiny glimpse of the emotions he kept so carefully edited and under control, a behind-the-scenes look at my father’s heart and soul. The three of us simply sat there together and cried.

*

“How sweet it is.” 

Dick Johnson says this phrase twice in the film. The first time occurs in New York after the deteriorating Dick has moved into Kirsten’s one-bedroom apartment adjacent to her twin children and their fathers, fellow filmmaker Ira Sachs and his husband Boris Torres. Dick’s memory is slowly slipping away, yet his identity remains intact. Tired after coming from a long walk in the city, Dick gleefully plops down in his leather chair as the phrase spontaneously pours out: “Ah, how sweet it is! Yes indeed.” The enigmatic “it” here could be referring to many things, but I think what Dick means is life itself. He says it again later while appearing to be napping on the couch, as if he would preach this message even while unconscious. This is Dick’s motto, his mantra, his manifesto about human existence. His eyes are often wet with tears throughout the film, not from sadness, but out of an infinite love for his family and simply being alive. Kirsten earlier describes Dick’s stated views of the afterlife as, “I’ve got my heaven right here on earth with all of you.” For Dick Johnson, while the kingdom of Heaven is a transcendent future hope which offers a teleological sense of purpose, it’s also a very present and immanent reality made manifest in our love for each other. Heaven is not “out there” but “down here.”

This sense of “Heaven on earth” is demonstrated in one of the most affecting scenes I saw put to film in 2020. The film’s coda shows Dick being eulogized by his Seattle church congregation prior to his death. Friends, family members, and former patients tell stories of the man they all clearly love. Quite literally, Dick is able to attend his own funeral while his mind and memory are still functioning, and thus can watch his best friend break down weeping at the thought of losing him. At the end of the ceremony, Dick walks down the aisle as if in a wedding, smiling from ear to ear while the attendees applaud. If this sounds gimmicky, mawkish, or macabre, it simply isn’t in the film—it’s audacious and semi-artificial, but the emotions are authentic and the event is richly cinematic. As Kirsten says in an earlier voiceover, “It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful. But what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other. That when it gets messy, we hold each other close. And when we can, we defiantly celebrate our brief moments of joy.” The funeral scene in Dick Johnson Is Dead is exemplary of such defiant, celebratory joy.

*

Someday, hopefully a long way off, I will give the eulogy for Dick Mayward at his funeral. The service will likely be held at the church near Seattle where my family began attending over 30 years ago, and where my Dad still worships every Sunday. I don’t know exactly what I will say or if I’ll even be able to say it all. Right now, I do know this: though my dad and I remain so far apart—physically, emotionally, politically, spiritually—nevertheless, I forgive him, I love him, and I hope we can be safely reunited one day soon. And I want him to know this now—today—because if 2020 has taught us anything, today might be all we have.

*

Everybody will die, and thus everybody grieves. Through its raw vulnerability about losing a loved one, Dick Johnson Is Dead is itself an act of public grief, as well as an affirmation that such grief is necessary, healthy, and healing. Rather than policing or repressing grief, Dick Johnson Is Dead wisely holds the mystery of human mortality with a generous open hand, affirming our pain while reminding us of grace. Perhaps life is simply a series of random chaotic occurrences with no larger meaning behind it and no afterlife to anticipate. Perhaps life is an infinite cycle, a series of births, deaths, and rebirths brought about by the mystery of the cosmos. Perhaps life is a grand story full of love and sorrow which is graciously being written by a Divine Author who has composed a beautiful, hopeful ending for us all. Whatever the case, Dick Johnson Is Dead manifests such divergent eschatological beliefs in its very structure as a cinematic work of art, at once a down-to-earth realist documentary and a formalist exercise of cinema’s capacities for sculpting in time. It is a holy, hopeful gift of a film, even in the wake of 2020. If we’re all going to die some day (and we are), may we live up to death like Dick Johnson did.