New York Magazine : 2020-09-28

THE CULTURE PAGES : 53 : 51

THE CULTURE PAGES

Johnson FaceTimed him. “Hi, sweetie,” he said. He talked about watching The Price Is Right with the other residents. “I’m glad you’re not calling them ‘inmates’ anymore,” Johnson said, laughing. When we talked about the film, he beamed with pride at his daughter. Before the shutdown, Dick was well enough to travel to Sundance. The film is now like a time machine. For a man who doesn’t remember his past, a recording is a tether; for those of us who refuse to think about our own parents’ decline, Johnson is sending us messages from the future about how goofy and normal and inevitable this kind of heartbreak is. After decades of Johnson’s restrained documentar­y work, Dick Johnson Is Dead is unabashedl­y stunty, sometimes blurring the line between what’s true and what’s not. The result is a little Harold and Maude, a little Still Alice, and a little terrifying. The absence of pity can sometimes be startling, especially when you see the documentar­ian’s dispassion trained on a tottering old man. “Humor is really tricky,” says Johnson. “It’s a little mean.” There’s a vein of emotional perversity in Dick Johnson Is Dead. Dick’s best friend in Seattle is caught on-camera sobbing uncontroll­ably after being made to picture his dear friend’s death. In talking about it, I realize there are moments in the film that Johnson and I see differentl­y. An interview with her father’s health aide, for instance, in which the nurse talks frankly about the film, strikes Johnson as an affirming interlude. But the woman seems troubled, and when she says, frowning, “He loves you; he’d do anything for you,” I don’t hear it as a sanction for the movie. Her editor and co-writer, Nels Bangerter, says the key to accepting the film is “the way she has been as a person.” Johnson seems impervious to fear, but she’s palpably caring and nearly obsessive when it comes to the ethics of her work. You may need to know those things to fully relax into the moral complexity of Dick Johnson Is Dead. Only she could “pull off this crazy thing that is borderline ‘Where are the ethics of this?’ ” says Bangerter. Several years ago, when Johnson was three years into directing a feature in Afghanista­n, her subject—a girl whose testimony would have put her own life in danger—withdrew from the film after shooting had finished. The project, now out of money, went into crisis. Johnson and her producers turned sharply; she got permission to use film from dozens of documentar­ies she had shot over the years, then cut the footage together into a stunning collage, like a Koyaanisqa­tsi for war zones. The result is her 2016 masterpiec­e, 51 september 28–october 11, 2020 | new york