I constantly write an obituary for my father in my head. To be fair, I don’t consciously do it as much as I find myself nimbly putting together stray incidents, obscure childhood memories, a list of his ever-increasing idiosyncrasies and new-found joy on discovering social media. With focussed discipline, I keep revisiting the one time we had gone shopping and returned empty handed but with full stomachs or when he had conceded to my tantrum and bought me a dress I never wore, tragically proving himself wrong and my mother right. It must have started a couple of years back when Ma called and feebly asked if I had enough money to book tickets immediately if need be. Or maybe it was that afternoon when Baba lay asleep like he does and yet his mouth agape, casually but stiffly, had frightened me enough to wake him up. I can no longer acknowledge his presence without thinking about his absence.
Sometimes when I enter a room and with an unflinching certitude call ‘Baba’ only for him to return that from somewhere — anywhere — I feel a world where such an assurance will cease to exist is unbearable. When his hands tremble on crossing the road and hold mine in the hope to be held, I am tangibly aware of his failing strength and plagued by a similar thought. Every time he is out for longer than he is supposed to and a growing crowd in the road signals there has been an accident, I rush fearing the worst, wondering if this is how my story with him will end. When I find him, he is mostly near the house carrying more bags than he can manage. Holding my hand again, he relays the news and asks me to be cautious as I recover from a sinking dread that he wasn’t.
This fixation with loss stems from a feeling of failure to reconcile with an eventuality and not acceptance or apprehension. So crippled am I with the thought of losing him that I keep imagining every possible setting as part of a prolonged preparation. But I confess there is also something intimately perverse about it. By assuming the worst and then being proven wrong, by being alert and then witnessing the inevitable defer, I feel strangely relieved like I can breathe after holding it for long. I presume, albeit naively, that by surrendering to fate I can persuade it to be less cruel. This is a little mental game I play, private in the solace it provides and toe-curlingly embarrassing to share. Yet, watching Kirsten Johnson’s Dick Johnson Is Dead, a jabbing-at-the-heart documentary, I felt she knew this and was doing the same.
Richard C Johnson or Dick Johnson, a psychiatrist by profession and trained to care for those who struggle to take control of their lives suddenly started losing his own grip. He kept double booking patients and one time had driven through a construction site oblivious of the hazard. When Kirsten came to know her father has Alzheimer’s, she decided to bring him live with her in New York from Seattle and document his descent to dementia and probable death. Her decision was partly informed from losing her mother to the same condition and finally being ready to archive a time-bound period for posterity. The 90-minute devastating documentary then is that–a careful recording of an old man’s final journey as he loses his belongings and memory bit by bit till he hangs around like a weightless entity. It is a daughter’s last attempt at preserving her father.
The grim, sordid and potentially humiliating premise is not just lent dignity but a rare ingenuity as Kirsten involves him in an amusing experiment wherein she, aided by a motley of staff, orchestrates various scenarios for Dick Johnson to fake his death. Stuntmen are hired, body doubles are employed as Dick Johnson dies by tripping on stairs or simply by having an air conditioner fall on his head. Moments later, he finds himself in heaven filled with overflowing chocolate and popcorn with Frida Kahlo, Sigmund Freud and his wife (regular people wearing paper cut out masks) as company. This is both a wish-fulfillment for Dick Johnson–at one point he gleefully admits he always wanted to be an actor– and a sincere gift from a documentarian who makes an exception for her father by creating a make-believe world down to a mock funeral.
But Dick Johnson Is Dead — which won a special award for innovation in non-fiction storytelling at Sundance this year—is a strange conflation of the fictional and the real. It is about his sprightly resurrection and his insidious submission to an unalterable condition. And when the focus is on the latter, the documentary literally tears your heart apart. Even though the jocular tone remains, owing to Dick Johnson’s affable nature, it is often punctured by the ignominy of a care-giver being reduced to a receiver even though Kirsten never intends it to be that way.
The tragedy of Dick Johnson resides in being all too aware of his condition, the strain it puts on his daughter but being helpless all the same on the face of it. In a heartbreaking moment, when Kirsten tells him he had come out in the middle of the night wearing proper clothes thinking he had patients to tend to, he listens to her with a hollow laugh. Being a professional, he can discern the extent of his deterioration and as a patient aware of his exposed dependency. “You should not let me get away with that” he says half prescribing and half lamenting. In another crushing instance he tears up when informed she is going to Israel. Like a father he asks her to take care and in the very next moment inquires like a child–or her little brother as he feels he is now–how she wants him to behave in her absence.
In a way the documentary is a moving snapshot of ageing parents and their dependency on children, their awareness of being a constant presence and simultaneous accommodation to not be a burden. It is also a testament of a daughter trying to come to terms with her father’s death by spending and not buying time. She is aware of the reality and the fiction–constituting of his many deaths– is a story she has concocted to shield herself from the final blow.
But the more I think about it the more Kirsten’s affirmation appears as a conceit. Dick Johnson Is Dead is rooted not in acceptance but in a similar site of denial as mine. This is her writing an obituary in real time, hoping like me that it does not come true. But she goes a step ahead and instead of relying on fate, hoodwinks it. The make-believe world is not her refuge but a ruse willed to be more real than reality. She wants to perfect that one shot of Dick Johnson dying so that he can live long. At the end of the mock funeral when his close friend stands in a corner and sobs — aware of the inventiveness of the circumstances but convinced all the same — you can see her succeeding. Most documentarians use nonfiction to depict life, Kirsten Johnson uses fiction to trick death.
Dick Johnson Is Dead is streaming on Netflix.
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