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  Dick Johnson is Dead Keep Yourself Alive
Year: 2020
Director: Kirsten Johnson
Stars: Kirsten Johnson, Dick Johnson, various
Genre: DocumentaryBuy from Amazon
Rating:  6 (from 1 vote)
Review: Dick Johnson (as himself) was a psychiatrist and in this occupation helped a lot of people and did a lot of good in the world. But when his wife developed senile dementia, it threw his whole family into a very common crisis, watching the woman they loved disappear to be replaced with a vague and confused shell of the personality that used to be. Kirsten Johnson, his daughter, is a documentary camerawoman who has decided that since she has so little footage of her mother, she will make up for that by filming her father's decline as he lasts into his eighties, for he too has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and she wants to hang onto him as long as she can...

That's perfectly understandable, especially if you have a good relationship with your parents, the impulse to keep that bond alive for as far as possible is only natural, even if the terribly cruel disease that erodes their sensibilities is gripping their mind. So what Kirsten did to make this document more cinematic was to stage various sketches featuring her father playing himself, in such situations as being killed in accidents, and once he was purportedly dead, up in Heaven with his deceased wife and a few angels, celebrities and Jesus Christ. The comfort that the notion of the afterlife offers was present in this to an extent, but nagging behind that was the question of what happens in the here and now?

Is it any comfort to believe you will see your dead loved ones again once they have left your life? Whether you are religious or not, it's supposed to be, but if they're gone, they're gone in the current plane of existence, and you're not about to be able to get in contact with them unless you've fooled yourself into using a Ouija board or whatever. That depressing thought was lingering across this documentary, which was ostensibly a comedy of sorts - yes, there were serious moments, but Richard is such an obviously sunny and decent man that the idea something like death should happen to him comes across as absurd, as slapstick as the demises his daughter devises for him (struck by a falling air conditioning vent, gored by an errant piece of wood carried by a construction worker, and so on), though there are not as many of these as you might expect.

Presumably the director wished to offer comfort to anybody going through the inevitable death of a loved one, not just a parent but anyone in your family or social circle you are close to, yet in trying to find the universal in the personal, she leaned too far on finding the personal in the personal. Although her situation was not unique, by trying to make it so she risked rendering trivial what was actually a major upheaval, and the idea of grieving is pushed to one side when she can sustain her father in her filmmaking. Yet when she holds a funeral for Richard at the end, which is both weirdly arrogant and jokey in the face of the inevitable, where it's meant to be amusing, we cannot ignore the speaker, Richard's best friend, who ends up distraught and inconsolable at the thought of losing him. It's a stark dose of reality amid this coping fantasy that may help Kirsten but was difficult to relate to otherwise. Her heart was absolutely in the right place, and there were no villains here, but you didn't quite buy into it other than something to show the grandkids rather than a vital exploration of, and insight to, grief.
Reviewer: Graeme Clark


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