Dick Johnson Is Dead — Film Review

Dick Johnson Is Dead, a documentary created by the “star’s” daughter, the acclaimed, award-winning cinematographer and documentarian Kirsten Johnson, is a gift and tribute to her dad, C. Richard Johnson, MD.

The film invites the viewer into the life of an aging man as he experiences the encroachment of an unwanted foe. Johnson’s film, released February 1, 2020 on Netflix, has caught the attention of a wide movie-going audience. It has been included in an NPR segment. The film was reviewed by The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, the Roger Egbert Organization, and numerous other media outlets. Now it is my turn. I, Larry Downing, a self-confessed Biased Observer.

I know Dick Johnson. He was a parishioner when I was pastor of the Green Lake Seventh-day Adventist Church in Seattle, WA. He and I, along with four or five others, met two or three times a week at a Seattle gym. I saw his deformed toes. I ran with him, pumped iron with him. Shared gossip with him.

Dick was for one term chair of the Seventh-day Adventist Green Lake Church board, where I was pastor in the 1980s. We met monthly in his psychiatry office to plan the Board Agenda. Topics covered often reached beyond church matters. He was an insightful, careful, and wise man who spoke with care and had no truck with a narrow mind-set or a stringent religious platform. His was an open-door perspective of religion and the Divine.

I knew Catherine Joy (Katy Jo), Dick’s wife. Her bailiwick was the church flowers and the one who made color choices when anything needed a fresh coat of paint. I knew her as an artist, one who could look at a color and pronounce it “fun.” Colors do not tweak my “fun” button, but that’s OK. The artist gene and I, while not strangers, are not bosom buddies.

In conversations with Dick, he, on occasion, shared with us what his kids were up to. It was obvious he took great pride in what each had accomplished and supported them in their educational and later ventures.

With the above information as a context, I looked with careful and practiced eye at how the film Dick Johnson Is Dead portrayed Dick Johnson the Person.

C. Richard Johnson, MD was a practicing psychiatrist who regularly met with patients past the age when many retire. If one is to understand Dick Johnson, the dedication to his profession is an essential component. Dick is professionally and emotionally trained and prepared to deal with death, be it his own or the death of another. Only a strong ego would walk unaided to a plain $600 wooden casket placed at the front of the church he had attended for decades, climb the ladder, step into the open box, lie down, close his eyes, fold his hands across his chest, and allow others to film him in action and in repose. The man lying in that wooden box is not an actor! The body the viewer sees is Dr. C. Richard Johnson, MD. This is the reality that gives the film its poignancy and grasps firm our attention. Kirsten does not impose upon us the need to imagine what Dick Johnson might have been. He is, while dead, a living power.

If the Dick Johnson Is Dead film is to have any credibility, the storyteller cannot neglect or minimize the real aspects of Dick as a person! A shroud cannot be allowed to obfuscate or distort the reality of this man’s essential persona. Kirsten fulfilled this expectation.

She does take the viewer on imaginary journeys with the depictions of divine beings, be they of the good or evil sort. What we see are obvious imaginative, symbolic portrayals of a primitive heaven/hell experience. The macabre dances performed by dancers wearing mask-pictures of the Johnson family, occupy the paradise above or Gehenna below. Kirsten, drawing on Adventist apocalyptic, was faithful to what Kirsten, and many others of that era heard when, in the 60s and 70s, preachers and Sabbath School material, proclaimed the Prophetic Truth. The imaginative scenes and the theological statements that guided in their creation, invite the viewer to contemplate one’s fit in the beliefs that led Kirsten to portray the vivid scenes as she did. It is not difficult for those familiar with Adventist heritage to propose answers.

In her referent to her Seventh-day Adventist heritage Kirsten is accurate in her statements and generous in her evaluations of what she heard Sabbath by Sabbath. Kirsten might find some encouragement to know that movies are no longer on the list of forbidden pleasures. Adventist college papers review movies, a significant departure from the days Kirsten alludes to in the film. The Department of Cinematography holds a place next to the Departments of Education and Theology. Even tradition-bound organizations can evolve.

I looked with care to trace how the portrayal of Dick Johnson himself was presented. The scenes, the episodes, even the few that were staged, were consistent with the person I knew. In the 2019 walk, despite a slight shuffle, the Dick Johnson I ran stairs with was still there. The facial expressions, the smile, the rolling of the eyes, this was C. Richard. The same for when he voiced sorrow for disruptions he had brought to his daughter and her family.

A respectable death generates a memorial. C. Richard Johnson’s church where he had worshipped and met friends for decades provided the setting for his Memorial Service. The congregation was a gathering of his long-time friends. I played the views of the congregation twice. The film brought me back to the time when I stood looking into the faces of these same people, though now endorsed by time: There’s Alvin and Verla Kwiram. That’s Carolyn Lacy. Hana Helmersen in that pew. Don and Shirley Mehrer are right over there. A list of the Green Lake Church members is in the end-credits.

Ray Damazo was tasked to deliver the eulogy, an assignment that carried him to the brink of emotional endurance. And in the foyer, peeking through a small window in the sanctuary door: CRJ himself, taking it all in with a large smile on his face. His grand entrance when the service ended with Ray looking at Dick’s prone body in the wooden casket (how did the film-people do that one?) brought down the house.

To the one who may suggest his daughter took liberty with an aging father, even stepped over the proprietary boundaries, I say this: those of us who know Dick can give assurance that should his youngest child looked Dick in the eye and say, “Dad, when you’re in your declining years, what do you think about me making a documentary on the last years of your life? What if we were to show you dead?” I can hear Dick’s immediate response: “Why not? Let’s go for it! Should be interesting, maybe even fun.”

“Dick Johnson is Dead. Long Live Dick Johnson!”


Written by Lawrence G. Downing.

Image Credit: Netflix.com / SpectrumMagazine.org


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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10796

Too fun! It isn’t every family that can pull this one off. :smiling_face_with_three_hearts:

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I had to set some time aside to watch the film. I thought I’ll write my mini-review here for those who would like to watch it, but with a couple of spoiler bread crumbs from a POV of a director and cinematographer.

First, I think it helps to understand who the creator is before diving into deconstructing the premise for the film. Kristen is an award-winning visual communicator coming from FEMIS and New Wave tradition in French cinema where she studied her craft. This film isn’t explicitly “New Wave”, but I found the tradition to be bleeding through the film.

New Wave was about breaking the traditional rules of cinema to find a better way of depicting life. Hollywood cinema became very formulaic during the Golden Age of Hollywood. It became encased in rules and expectations that structured formula for writing and production process. These rules were expected, respected, and followed. The New Wave questioned the premise behind these rules by experimenting with different visual styles, scripting approaches, and the idea that the actors should be acting as though the camera doesn’t exist on set. In many New Wave films the directors and actors wouldn’t pretend to be in a film, but rather try to make the film as close to life-experience as they could.

In some New Wave films, the characters are aware of the audience, and the fact that they are in a film, breaking the 4th wall as they speak to the audience. A step beyond that would be characters speaking about their lives as actors in the real world, breaking the 5th wall. And a step beyond that, even though not very frequent, would be creators and directors flipping the camera 180 and showing the audience the creative process behind the world itself. So, the actual twist may not be fictional at all.

Kirsten seems to like the idea of breaking the “6th wall” in which we get to see the behind the scenes of the creative process as a proper perspective that doesn’t hide intent of the creator, even thought there are a few “plot twists” in the film. As such, it’s a documentary about “behind the scenes” creation of fictional scenarios of which a person may die, that become both general, and very personal commentary on life and death, and our procedural approach to both.

Kristen actually takes it a step beyond cinema and stepping into the real world with her “New Wave” approach to life and death concepts in our culture. Think about all of the hoops we tend to jump to celebrate someone’s life when it ends. We have to go through a “proper burial” and the funeral proceedings. We have to invite everyone to the same place where we retell the stories of their greatness in the past.

We tend to approach these from a POV of packaged stories of how anyone dying fits into our collective narrative of death. She visually shows that we all living in our own narratives surrounding death and expectations of death. And in a way, death can structure procedural constraints on life itself. Death can’t be funny. Death shouldn’t be taken lightly. Death must be tragic. A such, death itself becomes sacred in a way in which it may overshadow life itself. Our procedural approach to death intensifies the moment death becomes a reality they can no longer ignore.

Yet, the irony that Kristen portrays through her fiction is that death can be around the corner for each of us, be it a loose AC unit falling on my head, or careless construction worker, or a sudden heart attack following improper diet during late in life birthday celebration.

So, the film progressively takes us to a point where we no longer know whether Dick really died or it’s just another one of Kristen’s productions with camera on a floor of EMT truck where it’s implied that her father is getting defibrillator treatment.

In a typical “New Wave” manner we jump to another scene without establishing where we are. A woman is standing and telling a story about Dick and how he helped her through her depression. The wider shot reveals Dick’s funeral. He is in a casket in front of all of the people who are eulogizing him. Yet, strangely, he is also smiling from the above in the balcony observing it all, and later waiting outside of the door entrance to the church. The pastor is weeping on the podium, with many sad people in the audience.

Is Dick alive, or is he dead? Is it a cut in from his previous scenes where he is alive and in the church? The director doesn’t keep you waiting, and showing that the funeral is indeed an illusion with the casket being a cinematic compositing trick. Dick is moving to NY, and people are here to wish him farewell, but if you merely place a casket with Dick in a middle of the church, it would be easy to turn this solemn going away gathering into a funeral. Dick is not dead. He comes from the back and embraces all of the people who appreciate his impact on their lives. But they are weeping as though Dick is dead.

I find the film very deep from a POV of cinema in which the perspective widens. Typically, we watch a movie in which director and production crew are hiding in order create an illusion of subjective perspective of the audience. We watch their movie through their eyes as though it is ours, assuming their perspective. Kristen moves the camera further back to reveal herself and production crew on the sets. We see the process almost to certain extreme, as it becomes a film about the process where all of those attempts to hide the microphones and cameras in numerous reflections are not edited out. We clearly see the set pieces and the crew behind the scenes.

They are just as much characters as Dick himself. There are intermittent shots of Kristen using the typical “recording voice over audio in a closet” trick anyone in modern production environment will be familiar with. We typically don’t imagine a person in their closet reading a monologue into a phone when we hearing some narration as we watch indie films. We are drawn and are forced into a perspective. But not in this case, we are there, in that closet with her, observing her creative process as opposed to being forced into a perspective.

Perhaps it’s my subjective take of the “supreme premise” is that death isn’t a moment in time, but it’s rather a process. Our constructed narratives surrounding death are typically detached from the continuum of life that feeds it. As such, death will mean very different things for different “filmmakers” of life. And all of us will approach it differently. Some with a very strict ad methodical approach of the Golden Age Hollywood, in which we must respect all of the “proper progression” of shots and expectations from the actors and the viewers. Anything else would demonstrate lack of respect for these people. And other, with a much much more unconstrained perspective, in which these people are free to be themselves apart from overarching ideals they must fit into.

I may be wrong, but perhaps the most important takeaway from the film that I see Kristen communicating is that forcing the narrative of “proper death” on people may actually rob them of the remainder of their lives which can be, and arguably should be just as enjoyable and eventful.


My wife and I watched the film this week, and I enjoyed it immensely. She found it “good, but weird.” My friend Larry’s review and tribute here provide substantive personal background to enlarge the frame, as does Arkdrey’s analysis. Thanks to both.

This film is well worth a watch–it’s poignant and hilarious, silly and deep, reverent and irreverent, clear and baffling. But then, that’s life.

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Having seen Dick professionally a few times, as well as knowing him from Green Lake Church, and attending the discussion Sabbath School class he was a member of a few times, I am looking forward to seeing the documentary.

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