We learn a lot about Dick Johnson in the unconventional documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, and one of the things we learn has to do with his feet.
Available on Netflix, the doc is directed by Johnson’s daughter, Kirsten, whose previous film Cameraperson was one of the best movies of 2016. Cameraperson consisted of seemingly disconnected vignettes drawn from Johnson’s career as a documentary cinematographer. Some of those focused on her mother, Catherine, while she succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease. With Dick Johnson Is Dead, Kirsten Johnson turns the camera on her father and his own experience with dementia. The disease is a faraway specter at first, but gradually becomes a daily, demoralizing presence. As Kirsten says with the voice of experience, “Now it’s upon us.”
This isn’t only a personal documentary of fond memories and frank conversation (though it is that too). In addition, Kirsten Johnson has devised two other creative ways of processing her father’s experience: staging elaborate dramatizations of the ways Dick could die (falling down stairs, an air-conditioning unit crashing on his head, etc.) and filming ostentatiously designed, fantasy visions of Dick’s glam afterlife. And so the movie swerves between morbidly cathartic bursts of dark humor and gleefully joyous celebrations. It vacillates, like Dick’s own days, between eternal life and impending death.
As a subject, Dick is a wonder: agreeable, vulnerable, open to discussion, and up for anything. (Among the things we learn is that he’s a psychiatrist by trade and a Seventh-day Adventist by faith.) He’s attuned to the seriousness of the documentary, but also playful about it. At one point during a pull-the-plug conversation, when Kirsten asks him when he would want her to make that decision, he wryly responds, “Pass it by me before you do it.” It’s crushing when the doc jumps ahead a year and we immediately recognize a drop in vitality and joviality. Dick still has a ready smile, but as the anxiety and guilt over being a “burden” take hold, he also shares despairing thoughts like this: “Oh man sweetie, your father is a wreck.”
The film vacillates, like Dick’s own days, between eternal life and impending death.
It’s during one of the more casual, father-daughter conversations that we learn about Dick’s feet. As the camera captures him pulling on socks, we notice that he has severely misshapen toes. “I’ve always been ashamed of these toes,” he says. “They’ve been a source of embarrassment to me my entire life. I’ve never wanted to go barefoot.” It seems like a brief aside, another example of the vulnerability and honesty this incredible man is willing to share on camera. But Kirsten, who can be heard sighing in sympathy in the background, recalls the moment later in crucial ways. (Spoilers ahead.)
The first instance comes during one of the early afterlife sequences. With the strains of the hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” in the background, the scene opens on the image of Dick resting in his favorite lounge chair as an actor dressed up as Jesus pours water over his malformed feet. The camera cuts to a close-up of Dick’s face, which transforms in slow motion, as confetti falls about, into an astonished, open-mouthed expression of delight. The camera then cuts back to—you guessed it—a shot of Dick’s feet, freshly washed and fully formed. It’s at once a baptismal claim, a cleansing of sin, and the resurrection of the body made manifest.
The sequence is also a bit kitschy and even irreverent, as it includes a close-up of the Jesus figure tossing his locks in slow motion. But it’s also clearly meaningful for Dick, given his personal faith. (Kirsten is a bit more circumspect about her own beliefs.) The vision of heaven we get in Dick Johnson Is Dead is partly one of simple wish fulfillment—chocolate fountains and popcorn showers—but also one of personal restoration. Consider a later heavenly sequence, in which two dancers perform with their faces covered by poster-size portraits of Dick and his wife from their youth. As the dancers spin with exuberant abandon, we notice that the male dancer is leaping about on beautiful bare feet.
Dick Johnson Is Dead plays like a transcendental prank, a gesture of hope amidst unbearable despair. By its end, the film has created not just a picture of personal restoration, but also one of kingdom come. There is another afterlife sequence that situates Dick at a table with famous figures from the past (or at least actors wearing portrait masks of Buster Keaton, Frederick Douglas, Farah Fawcett, and others). It’s a cheeky tableau that also encompasses Revelation’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth, where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain.” Dick Johnson is dead, in the sense that we all are. This miraculous movie reminds us that—in Christ—we live.