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Creating the Instability of the World: Kirsten Johnson on "Dick Johnson Is Dead"

Director and cinematographer Kirsten Johnson discusses her very personal documentary about her father and making meaning in today's world.
Bessie Rubinstein
When I spoke to Kirsten Johnson ahead of the release of her documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, Dick, her father, wasn’t. I’m unsure if that’s true now; talking to Johnson, I realized that although the film depicts a conscious, mobile Dick Johnson, happy to lend himself to his daughter’s camera as a subject, he is not, in the film, the opposite of dead. He’s watching his personhood ebb and flow in preparation for death; sometimes he is able to watch it happening, but mostly not. He is at the whim of his dementia, and thus at the whim of the present moment. For Johnson, a documentarian whose films have often been zeitgeist-oriented, the process of “making meaning,” as she puts her work as a cinematographer-cum-director, takes on further levels of simultaneity here. Dick Johnson, a career psychiatrist, makes meaning from his daughter’s efforts to make meaning, acting in scenes designed to engage him with his own reality rather than just depict it for us.
Sometimes this engagement seems more grounded in reality—that, at the time of filming, Dick is alive, in the word’s technical definition. He gets to his feet, laughing, when Kristen choreographs hypothetical, freak accident death scenes. Sometimes meaning changes, unfixing chronology and allowing imagination to bend into memory: when Dick’s old friend plays a parting song at a well-attended funeral created by Kirsten, and observed by Dick from a doorway, sobs break through the melody. The film is a living eulogy which wrests possibility from grief, and its premonition. In making it, Johnson reminds us of the possibility of the moving image to reflect all of our fluid relationships to memory, and the way that memory, or its lack, frames the present, perhaps even more than conditions of the present itself—though fighting against memory’s control over the present, fighting to create new possibilities, is a project that takes a lifetime. Johnson’s directorial debut, Cameraperson (2016), which was excavated from footage cut in the editing rooms of previous documentaries on which she had worked, moved to loosen moments from their chronological context so that they could live anew; Dick Johnson Is Dead is her next, even more introspective, step.
Johnson talked to us about processing death against survival mechanisms like denial and shock, processing with exuberance, potential realities.

NOTEBOOK: As a documentarian, and now portrait artist of death, how do you think that death related storytelling in the media has operated in the past few months? How have we been able to collectively imagine this much death? Have we?
KIRSTEN JOHNSON: I’m delighted that you're even asking that question. Knowledge at that scale is challenging for the human capacity to process, which is part of both the opportunity and the challenge that the internet age offers us. What I find particularly interesting is that there are different forms of communication that can break through the numbness created by the overwhelming scale of information. Obviously words function differently than images, which function differently than moving images, which function differently than music. Some things go straight to our bodies, and then other things go into our minds first. And there's no question in my mind that we're not processing what's happening on a global level. I don’t think it’s possible, actually, because I think the emotional information would bring everyone to their knees. Part of how humans function is thanks to a healthy death denial, certainly—most humans can function for a great period of their lives in a healthy denial that they will die, that a death would be out of the norm, would be an accident, or could be self-inflicted. But for the most part, humans get to live a lot of their lives not worrying about dying immediately. But this, this randomization, coupled with the deaths of people who are out of our category of vulnerability in our social construction—celebrities, well-known people, wealthy people, “immortal” people—they're dying. And there is the bald-faced exposure of our societal failure, that is perpetually known to Black people, being so laid out—like Black people are dying at a rate of three times higher than whites in this situation, right? We would like to be in denial about that. People who have been safeguarded from pain and violence and suffering are no longer excluded in this moment. And when we’re overwhelmed, we double down on denial. But it’s also an incredibly activated time, right? People are being forced to rethink everything in their lives, rethink how they make money—can they make money? What is the future? What do I do? What is the purpose of my artistic work? What are my familial relationships? What’s interesting is that if you go back to a pre-COVID moment, there, our individual relationships are in constant state of change, and have constant potential to them, but we manage the complexity by thinking they are fixed. We have a relationship with our parents’ that’s set up in our childhood, and we imagine that will remain as it was throughout our whole lives. And then suddenly, there are these inversions, where a parent becomes vulnerable, like with dementia, and there comes a great confusion because there was some notion that the rules would stay the same.
NOTEBOOK: Your movie is completely open and vulnerable, but weirdly I feel, speaking to you, like it may be too personal to ask—how your father is doing? 
JOHNSON: He is absolutely feeling good. The pandemic opened up a chance for him to spend a lot of time with my brother in Washington, D.C. Like what I was saying before, it’s part of the gift of the rearrangement of this time. But it’s become really clear that my dad really needs 24/7 care which was close to impossible for my brother to manage while also doing his work. We moved my dad into a dementia care facility about three weeks ago, which has been incredibly challenging, for all of us. It’s hard not to think of it as a disease of some form. You know, he really wants to be with either my brother or me. In some ways I can only handle it intellectually. I can't handle it emotionally. Like, on the most modest of levels, what I imagined was going to happen this year in terms of the film playing a different film festivals and dad getting to attend and sort of getting to revisit these places where people who know him and love him—that opportunity has shifted. We’ve done a Zoom family gathering, where members of the family all watched the film, and, and there were people in England and in France and in California, and we never could have all been together as a group if it were not for this moment. There's new ways for me to think about how I can bring together the people who wish to see the film, and rethink the process around bringing the film out into the world. And the making of the film was an actor trying to figure out how to be aware of emotional processing as we go through it, the emotional processing of the unexpected, right? Things did not go as we expected. That is the point. Things will not go as we expect in our emotional relationships. So how do we create the tools necessary to process exuberantly and slowly and with kindness and in the search for some kind of, you know, social decency?
NOTEBOOK: The idea of processing without necessarily being able to remember doing so is interesting. Do you think your father went through a process filming—because processing maybe implies being able to sustain a trajectory of thought over a longer period of time? 
JOHNSON: What was kind of thrilling about doing this work was, instead of sidelining a person who has Alzheimer's or dementia as being incapable because of the way their memories function, we actually tried to pay as much attention as possible to the present moment. In the case of a person with dementia, the present moment may be three minutes of sustained lucidity. That short time span allows the person to engage with what's actually happening. Certainly the funeral in the film was a situation in which my father got to observe the people who loved him speaking about what he meant to them, which is sort of a fantasy: to get to attend our own funeral but then to come down and talk to them, alive. Like that was my wish for what could have happened at my mother's funeral; I wanted her to be there to hear it. I wanted her to be there to tell us how the funeral went from her point of view. I wanted to be able to hug her afterwards. So I put that into motion for my father, and there's a scene that's not in the movie where my dad, to prank us, he’s pretending to cry, listening to somebody eulogize him, and then he looks up, and goes “I really miss that guy.” I thought “Oh, my God”—it’s true, he does really miss that guy. He knows he has dementia. It is both a total joke and it is also the truth, which is the duality that's functioning in the film, between things imagined, things real. I think that's what's so fascinating about dementia, is that it's this timeline between death and life, which is not linear.
NOTEBOOK: That makes me think that sleeping and dreams are taking on their most literal function, in this movie, as the space between those two, death and life.
JOHNSON: Cinema gives me the tools. Cinema is like sleeping, dreaming, dementia, time travel, you know—cinema as a form holds all of these potential realities. I became really aware with my mother's Alzheimer's, that trauma shifts our understanding of time, and the ways that our memories are so unreliable and cinematic, and, and unexpected, and you know, that they are so deeply unpredictable the way they function. For years as a filmmaker I’ve asked myself, “How do I make, given the evidence that I collect as a documentarian? How do I search to make meaning?” That set of questions existed, and then the experience of making Cameraperson beat them into becoming an obsession, like, “How does memory work? How do we organize all of these images?” To apply that to the experience of going through my father's dementia with him… it’s not that  making the movie helped me “cope,” but that that I intellectually and emotionally get to explore the formal capacities of cinema to probe how these deeply complex things work. Science has conundrums, like: “What is consciousness? What is time? What is memory?” We do not understand how it functions. Cinema gives you the tools to investigate.
NOTEBOOK: It’s not an unfunny movie. Did you feel it was important to let air into the movie after years filming testimonies that aren’t yours, where you don’t have room or license, maybe, to find humor? 
JOHNSON: You’re hard pressed to wrap in relation to someone else's pain. Yeah. But you certainly have room to laugh at yours. It’s a super interesting, problematic space that any storyteller has to wrestle with in all kinds of ways. To see the absurdity in a moment? What was so freeing about the idea of doing this with my father is that my father totally has a sense of humor. When I said I want to make a movie in which I kill you, and over and over, he laughed, and then also, as a psychiatrist said, well, that's interesting that you want to do that. There was permission that he was giving, and also that the situation allowed an attitude of, this is our pain. If we want to flip it off, we can. The film is exposing what a movie can do when it's deeply inside. I think there are situations where a community has been so misrepresented that the deep inside takes on what's happening, or even inside jokes, cannot be allowed out into the public view. Because it would be perceived as betrayal. We all know that the world is much more complex than it’s portrayed, but to realize that you have to, yes, let the air and spend some time with things. The humor was the way that I could spend time with what I knew was going to be deeply painful. But I don't know how to do humor in the context of cinema; I've never done it before. That was a big challenge: I would say all the time like, how do we get a big laugh, because I want a big laugh in this movie. I had to figure out—that's not funny. That's funny. In the editing room, we wondered how to get funny scenes to be funnier through the editing, and then even then I kept thinking that it wasn’t funny enough. Which is absurd in so many ways.
NOTEBOOK: When you lock yourself in the closet and do multiple takes of your last statement—"All I know is that Dick Johnson is dead”—playing with the exact inflection and wording of the statement, it seemed to me like the antithesis of a headstone, of something written in stone.
JOHNSON: For a long time, we were just calling it “Dick.” Then, when we shifted to the potential of saying in the title that Dick was alive or dead, that became a provocative, upsetting, exciting idea. There will come a moment in time when he will not be alive, when the title will become a documentary title. But in some ways, Dick is dead already. The dementia has already taken himself. That scene, for me, is as active as the title is: I know that I am speaking what will be and what is already, and what is not yet. I'm speaking about time and my relationship to time. You’ll always want to open the door until the person who’s gone answers it, so I like that the statement bursts with contradiction and possibility.
NOTEBOOK: When you were talking about being raised as a Seventh Day Adventist, and about nonfiction versus fiction—and choosing documentary between the two—could it be as simple as having been cut off from fiction as a kid? Needing to locate the possibility in what’s in front of us, what might, as you say, seem “fixed”?
JOHNSON: Some of the first really strong imagery that I saw as a child was brought to me by missionaries doing their work. A missionary who was there at the church would show whole movies or slideshows of them out proselytizing in Papua New Guinea or East Africa. They were really visually striking to me, and I was so interested by the difference in the world. The narrative of “Oh, hallelujah, we converted these people.” To see the transformation—to see someone who might have been wearing spectacular, to my child's eyes, outfits, full of bright colors, reduced to wearing khaki pants and a light blue shirt was sort of shocking. I knew that manipulation was being enacted of some sort, that most other things were better than the khaki pants, that what I was seeing was shadowed by being patently not true. I wanted to understand the story buried under the do-gooder narrative. I was interested in maximalism, and exuberance, and I was being told that that was too much and sinful. It’s really interesting, the messaging a film is giving us, and that the visual often conflicts with what we're being told to understand about it.
NOTEBOOK: You were originally studying theory, yes? Exploring these interests academically? Was there a sense of not-enoughness in that pathway?
JOHNSON: Your imagination of yourself as female can lead to us feeling only allowed to interpret, not to make. I only allowed myself to fully make it with Cameraperson as it comes quite late in my career. There are forces at work that stunt the way women and other people on the gender spectrum can imagine what is possible because we're working against a male canon. Finding ways to imagine ourselves in it, or outside of it, is active, challenging work.
NOTEBOOK: The scenes that take place in heaven are theatrical, very obviously falsified, which departed from the way that you filmed your father's death—there, you went for pretty shocking realism. Was there a reason you wanted to imagine one thing more realistically than the other?
JOHNSON: With the mundane death scenes, we're operating within some tropes of cinema language. We know how to believe something like this, right? Whereas when you look at the afterlife, you already don't believe in it. What was amazing was that basically, because of my dad's dementia and his capacities, we came up with ideas based on what he was capable of. The choice of slow motion was about his lack of capacity to sustain the present for more than a few seconds. Slow motion allowed us to expand the present, to expand our capacity to see the present. There was the realization that I still needed my mother in it, to learn then how I would represent my mother in heaven, because I didn't have the real person to be there and then realizing, okay, I can represent these real people through math. The scene, and the world, was coming together in this unexpected and unpredictable way, which is what it is like for me to film a documentary in an unstable, unpredictable world. This time, my dad's presence at the center of it was completely unpredictable. So it was very powerful: the ways we found to create the instability of the world as I experienced it in documentary, and as I experienced it with dementia.

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