It’s a easy truth of life that everyone will ultimately die. However that information doesn’t make the passing of family members any simpler to bear. Within the new documentary Dick Johnson Is Useless, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson and her father, Dick Johnson, name her late mom’s decline as a consequence of Alzheimer’s “an extended goodbye.” Over footage of Kirsten serving to her mom get round the home and quizzing her on particulars, Kirsten expresses remorse that she hadn’t filmed her mom earlier than she began to lose her reminiscence. (The purpose feels notably resonant given the way in which Kirsten’s 2016 autobiographical movie Cameraperson was stitched collectively from footage all through her life — and included transient pictures of her father.) Although the scene comes midway by way of the film, it serves as a succinct rationalization for why Dick Johnson Is Useless exists, and why it’s such a powerhouse of a movie.
Dick’s dementia is rising worse. Dick Johnson Is Useless is a method for Dick and Kirsten to arrange for his eventual loss of life whereas he nonetheless has sufficient psychological readability to take part. The 2 stage and movie a number of situations for Dick’s loss of life, from being struck by a falling air conditioner to experiencing a sudden coronary heart assault. These fantasy sequences of loss of life, which additionally embody Dick’s funeral and entrance into heaven, really feel unusually life-affirming.
A part of the magic of Kirsten’s work is in the truth that these hypothetical deaths really feel joyful reasonably than completely burdensome and inevitable — they’re a filmic equal of laughing to maintain from crying. Seeing Dick so gamely enjoying alongside together with his personal loss of life solely makes the scenes from Kirsten’s actual life that a lot more durable to abdomen. When she informs her father that they’re promoting his automobile as he strikes from Seattle to New York to dwell along with her, he says he now understands how her mom will need to have felt once they despatched her to an assisted dwelling facility. It’s devastating, whilst he and Kirsten attempt to chuckle by way of it — there’s a digicam current, in any case.
The 2 realms, fantasy and actual life, do typically overlap. At Dick’s “funeral,” attended by his actual pals and colleagues, his finest good friend can’t assist however break down in tears whereas delivering the eulogy. He’s nonetheless crying whilst Dick himself seems within the church. The occasions they’re enjoying out are make-believe, however the underlying undeniable fact that they’re in preparation for a really actual tragedy by no means seems to be too removed from anybody’s thoughts. The movie’s title emphasizes what’s in retailer: Dick Johnson will ultimately be lifeless.
Kirsten’s digicam loves Dick as a topic. His eyes sparkle, and he takes nearly every little thing that’s thrown at him with good humor. He’s energetic, even with a physique that’s visibly breaking down. Every time a stuntman takes successful for him, Dick yells as if he’d taken the hit himself, and his shiny laughter punctuates the tip of each obvious loss of life. Pictures of him falling asleep on set or joking concerning the extreme quantity of chocolate cake which will or might not have led to his coronary heart assault just a few a long time in the past be certain that audiences will love him no less than a fraction as a lot as Kirsten clearly does, and really feel the impact as he begins to slide away.
On the only stage, Dick Johnson Is Useless is Kirsten’s tribute to her father. However it’s additionally a really public reckoning with grief, and a method, at its coronary heart, for Kirsten to spend extra time along with her father whereas she nonetheless has the possibility. Watching the 2 of them play with loss of life might not finally make it simpler to deal with, however the scenes the place they faux he’s lifeless really feel energetic. They’re exaggerated and colourful, particularly when Dick goes to heaven and has just a few needs granted. However extra strikingly, these sequences are palpably full of affection. When Dick Johnson does cross away, Dick Johnson Is Useless will stay as an unfading reminiscence. It might be a bittersweet reminiscence, however not acknowledging the downs with the ups could be a disservice to how expert a storyteller Kirsten is.
The documentary is a rare work for the way simply Kirsten slips between tones with out coming off as saccharine or untruthful about what’s unfolding onscreen. (Unsurprising, possibly, given her background as a documentarian.) The movie’s point of interest is clearly troublesome — Kirsten’s voice nearly by no means breaks in her narration, and that’s a feat in and of itself — however the heartbreak the movie invokes is bearable as a result of the documentation is so earnest. Dick Johnson Is Useless is the perfect reminder potential to cherish your family members whereas they’re nonetheless dwelling — to take that further photograph or video as one thing to hold onto as soon as they’re gone.
Dick Johnson is Useless is streaming on Netflix now.