Kirsten Johnson is a documentary film maker who is grappling with her father’s dementia and his mortality. With her mother already gone and her father slipping away piece by piece, she decides to confront his death head-on by filming him in the various ways he might die (a fall down the stairs, an air conditioner falling on his head, etc). Dick, who is visibly declining in health but still relatively sound in body and mind, clearly shares his daughter’s dark sense of humour. Having given up his independence, he lives with her and her children in a New York City apartment where every day a new death is enacted.
Kirsten Johnson finds the thought of her father to be very painful and almost surreal. Perhaps she is training herself toward that eventuality, familiarizing herself with the concept of his death, shocking her system into, if not acceptance, then at least preparedness. Dick Johnson still has some vigour. He is game for this experiment, less for himself and more out of a parent’s attempt to soothe and prepare his child, even if she’s already in her middle age. It’s a balm he can offer even as the balance of their relationship has recently been recalibrated. But during an elaborate staging of his funeral where tearful friends make testimony and tribute to Johnson’s life, it’s clear that he is moved, appreciative if sheepish of all the attention which is not usually lavished upon a man whilst he is still alive.
It took me a while to appreciate this documentary, as it felt so personal and self-indulgent. However, our culture is so afraid of death that we seldom approach it in such an open and honest manner, and it was refreshing to reflect on what mortality, legacy, and memory really mean, and what they’re really worth. Unfortunately, daughter Kirsten will not likely get to direct Dick Johnson’s death when it really does come. If anything, I hope this film is a reminder that death is rarely controlled and goodbyes should never be put off.