This is Best Movie of All Time, an eternal search for the greatest film ever. Read the full archives here.
Cinema is not important. Not really, at least. 2020 and 2021 have been strange for reasons that outpace even the craziest movie fan’s ability to suggest that the movies are what we’ve lost the most. It has been weird to not go to the movies, but it’s been weird for a billion other reasons that matter more.
That said, this is the first year in ten that I haven’t gone to the theater a dozen times in January to see all the Oscar contenders. It’s felt a little rudderless to not have to go see American Sniper or 1917 or whatever other brown-and-tan war movie is nominated this year that you wouldn’t otherwise see. The Oscars are ridiculous for a million reasons, but they are a useful tool to guide us into seeing movies. I once saw 45 Years at 11 a.m. by myself solely because it was the one movie nominated for a major award that I hadn’t seen. It was worth it. I wouldn’t have done it otherwise.
I don’t think most people think of movies this way, but I appreciate the guidelines. I queued up Dick Johnson Is Dead for a similar reason, to approximate the same experience. It’s on the lists and it probably won’t be on the final lists, but why not roll the dice on something, anyway? Every week is a month and every month is a year, so it’s time to get to the things you always say you’ll get to but you won’t.
It’s a documentary by a documentarian who is finally turning the camera inward, which is a genre that seems to be on the rise. I couldn’t stop thinking of HBO’s How To with John Wilson, which was one of my favorite shows of the year. Kirsten Johnson tells the story of her father, Dick Johnson, who is nearing the end of his life and suffering from memory loss with dementia. The movie is aggressively about death in a way that may put off some viewers. I don’t know what kind of trigger warning needs to be put here, but we are going to talk about death, exclusively, so if that is not your particular brand of coffee, you may want to leave.
The reviews are universally positive. I have not found anyone who said anything negative about this movie. This isn’t uncommon for a release like this, but it makes me feel stranger for asking a question that seemingly doesn’t need to be asked. Is this exploitative? Dick Johnson is clearly up for the premise, but the entire movie is about him not necessarily knowing what is appropriate and the loss of quality of life that accompanies that. It feels wild to say this because no one else seems to be bothered by it, but several times I felt genuinely sad for the premise of the film. On one long shot of him saying that an experience felt worse than the worst moment of his life, I had to wonder, do we really need to do this?
It’s a hard movie to talk about. The premise folds outward several times, with Kirsten telling a story about death through the lens of her still-living father. She films herself asking Dick if she can make a movie about him dying with him dying on camera, but not for real, and then films herself talking to people who can help simulate the experience. This folds out several times, with her filming her creating the documentary about her creating the film of an experience that will happen, but not exactly. Dick falls down stairs and is crushed by falling objects and so much more, but all of it happens interspersed with film about film.
This isn’t elder abuse, Dick clearly finds Kirsten’s premise funny and eats chocolate cake to simulate his life-changing heart attack and shakes his arm on command to make his fake corpse funnier. He’s along for the ride, but the documentary premise lets us see that he isn’t always super clear on what’s happening or why it would be interesting. This offers a small look at a much larger life, as we can imagine this is a version of a conversation that’s happened hundreds of times. The two are only on camera together a few times, but every moment is a story that we only see the slightest part of but fill in the gaps easily. It’s a love letter, which everyone says about everything, but this one really is.
The premise cannot be overstated. I think the best movie about the topic is Still Alice, which is the only movie I’ve ever sworn to never rewatch. I was haunted by it and still can’t really process it fully, it’s too close and too terrifying. It feels like Jaws and the ocean to me, with fears realized too perfectly and a validation of exactly what seems to be an irrationally large fear. You’re worried and then you see it and you realize you were right all along. Dick Johnson Is Dead stares at death and says that obsession is the right response. It says that it should consume you, not to rob the subject of fear, but to validate the grandness with the degree that it deserves. Death is the biggest thing in life and if you don’t make it huge in your own life, when it invades you will be entirely unprepared.
This may not work for everyone. I don’t think a movie where the premise is to make your elderly father think about his violent death to the point of enacting it with stunt doubles is going to connect with America. I assumed this would be an entry point to a larger conversation, but it isn’t. This is all of it, which isn’t a complaint. It’s just astounding that every brick laid on top of every brick in this movie is more death, more overwhelming fear of what might happen and how it might impact people. There’s a fake funeral where people seem to realize this isn’t necessarily fake, even if it is in the moment, and it feels really cruel to put people through all of this.
But that’s the most important thing about Dick Johnson Is Dead. Is it cruel? It’s awful to live in a cloud of death and fear of death, but it’s worse to pretend. Kirsten Johnson wants to be ready and her way to be ready is to do it all now. My father passed away unexpectedly and the only solace at all was that earlier he’d had a significant health scare that caused me to do some of the processing earlier. He lived, then, and so when he didn’t, I’d done some of the work. Kirsten Johnson has done way more work than that.
I went back and forth while watching it. I think it is too much and it’s clear from what the director leaves on the screen that her dad also thinks it’s too much. He also loves it, if not from a desire to be on camera then from a desire to spend time with his daughter. I think it’s an important movie and something that does something I haven’t seen done before. It’s not something I’d put someone through, but I don’t have this kind of relationship. The device always works even when some of the pieces don’t, and the fact that this exists at all is a testament to stories that need to be told even when they’re really difficult to tell.
Is it better than the last movie we looked at? What would Howard Hawks have said? Hey, man, here’s a documentary from a year that starts with a 2 where a woman films her dad fake dying six times, what do you think? I will spend more of my limited time above ground thinking about the documentary than I will the story of a paleontologist being flustered into falling in love. It’s not really fair to Bringing Up Baby, but I do think this is a better movie.
Is it the best movie of all time? I want everyone in my life to watch this. I want people to talk about it and to hear what people think. I think this is one of those movies you can’t really “like” or “dislike,” you feel stronger than that in either direction. I rolled my eyes a little at some of the flashier fake sequences and I think some of that gets away from the story that really hooked me, so I am still going to stick with Badlands, but I really would be doing you a disservice if I ended this any other way than a demand that you give this an hour and a half. It’s grim, sure, but it’s not what you’re expecting.
You can watch Dick Johnson Is Dead on Netflix. You can recommend a movie to me for this series through email at readingatrecess @ gmail.com or on Twitter @alexbad and I will watch it, no matter what. Try to pick something good.