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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