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Interview: Kirsten Johnson on Expanding Time with Dick Johnson Is Dead

Johnson discusses how the omnipresence of cameras is adjusting our relationship to the concept of memory.

Marshall Shaffer

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Interview: Kirsten Johnson on Dick Johnson Is Dead and the Expansion of Time
Photo: Netflix

During a flight of cinematic fancy in her documentary Dick Johnson Is Dead, filmmaker Kirsten Johnson reveals that the first movie she ever saw was Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. Perhaps it’s just a factoid, one seared into her brain based on how her childhood religion of Seventh Day Adventism forbid adherents from watching movies. But given how Johnson’s latest work cheekily tries to short circuit death by using technology to reanimate a body, maybe the film did more than merely “scandalize” her at a young age.

Johnson uses a full arsenal of artistic tools in Dick Johnson Is Dead to bridge contradictory, even paradoxical, ideas as her father slowly succumbs to dementia in reality. At the time of release, Dick Johnson is not, in fact, dead. For now, his death only exists inside the world of the film where he can collaborate with his daughter on exaggerated filmed scenarios of his demise. But when he does pass, the film will keep him alive in both the joyous and painful details of his declining health as well as in their participatory fantasies of life beyond earth.

It’s a complex illustration of cinema’s power to both memorialize and restore a person’s vitality, though the project never feels like an exercise in formalist iconoclasm. Kirsten Johnson leads with her empathy as a daughter and human in Dick Johnson Is Dead. As in her 2016 cinematic memoir Cameraperson, a self-portrait assembled from footage that she shot for other documentarians, Johnson’s curiosity and incisiveness as an image-maker and critical thinker serve to augment her vulnerability on open display.

I caught up with Johnson over the phone as she prepared for the worldwide release of Dick Johnson Is Dead on Netflix, a scale of distribution she found equally thrilling and anxiety-inducing. Our conversation covered the response to Cameraperson, how her teaching practice at NYU informs her work, as well as how she thinks the omnipresence of cameras is adjusting our relationship to the concept of memory.

What have the conversations with other craftspeople been like over the last five years after Cameraperson? Are other below-the-line artisans starting to see their own auteurist stamp in their collaborations?

There was just a flood of camerapeople who were like, “Ah, that was my idea, I’ve been dreaming of doing that!” There’s such a shared experience, we all put so much heart into this work. I know you do as a journalist, and everybody who makes a film—it takes more effort than we think it will. I think our efforts all feel unseen in certain ways. As a cameraperson, I was given this gift of a machine for searching, seeing, and observing. I do trace it in some ways back to both of my parents, but certainly my father. It wasn’t that he saw, he just expected there to be remarkable internal battles or conundrums inside of people. When he would ask questions, things would pour out of people. He’s the kind of person you see at a party, and someone’s in the corner telling him their life story. With Cameraperson, the sound people I’ve worked with a lot, I’ve spoken with both of them—Judy Karp and Wellington Bowler—about making things doing sound work. I’ve spoken with translators about doing movies about their jobs. So, yes, I would say absolutely, there’s a way in which everyone realizes how much is embedded in their work and that you can open it all up.

I don’t get the chance to interview craftspeople very often, but when I do, I love asking them if the Cameraperson thesis rings true for their own work.

Oh, is that true?! And people all respond, “Yeah, I’m there and there’s a lot going on.”

I actually get a pretty wide range of responses. The first person I tested it on was Frederick Elmes, frequent DP to David Lynch and Jim Jarmusch. He actually said he’d be offended if someone felt there was such a thing as “a Fred Elmes film.”

[laughs] That’s amazing. I feel like we should have a little hotline between you and me, and you just pass me that answer. Oh my god, I would love to hear all of those. That’s the thing where I just really believe in the aliveness of this, and that this is like a series of shared wonders. Cameraperson passed that to you, and then you’re passing it on in those conversations, and then they come back to me, I love it! That’s so cool. You just made my day.

Dick Johnson Is Dead

Behind the Scenes of Dick Johnson Is Dead. © Barbara Nitke/Netflix

You engage deeply with the nature of what cinema does in both Cameraperson and Dick Johnson Is Dead, but they never feel academic. You’re also an NYU professor, so how do you manage to find that sweet spot of overlap between theory and practice?

I love teaching, but I think of it more as we’re involved in excavation together with other people. The students I’ve had, and filming with so many different directors, has really encouraged me to be open to the idea that people are struggling with their own shame. The impulse to make and to create and to document is an impulsive struggle around shame. And that can be on the level of the shame we feel about the ongoing injustice of society.

I think we all feel this deep shame that the United States of America is such a racist project, and that we know it and then we forget it. Or that some of us have to live with it in ways that’s in our faces every moment, and then others of us can avoid it. There’s deep shame around that. So, sometimes we’re making films to address our position in collective shame. And then, other times, I think the shame is around the fact that some part of us is hidden, and we wish it to be revealed. Back to the sort of that unseen idea.

[There’s] an exercise we discovered at NYU which was pretty amazing. I asked two students to interview each other about their fears about their senior thesis project. Then, I asked each of them to cut the interview that they had filmed of the other person, and then to cut the interview of themselves. And then we played those back to back. The people who cut the interview of themselves, they left in what was smart, intellectual, and coherent. And they would cut out what was unsure or emotional. They basically made images of themselves that were pretty boring and uninteresting to watch, sort of self-righteous or pretentious. But then the people who had interviewed them would leave in a look in the eye that could not hide the fear. There was even one young woman who cut out a moment where she just stared at the camera, and you could just see all of her feeling. And she cut it out of her own edit of herself. I show students that we all have this internal shame that we struggle with, or we think we must represent something. We think we must represent our identity or our country, and [we fear] that we will fail this great block of people who’ve been failed so many times before by other people. Just shaking that around gives students just incredible liberty to go into new territory.

Nanfu Wang was a student of mine. When I look at what she’s done, it was obvious in class her willingness to reveal herself in her work. But it’s so remarkable, the documentarian she’s being. It wasn’t that she was my student. She was a co-conspirator in willingness to go into these areas of wondering. I have a lot of fun with the teaching because I’m encouraging people to take emotional risks, and in a certain way, I think it’s easy to ask other people to do that. And then I realized that I can keep doing that, I can keep trying to push the form, I can keep trying to take the emotional risks for myself. This film with my dad was deeply emotionally risky for me. But I was motivated by students as well as by filmmakers whose work I love.

There are a number of moments in Dick Johnson Is Dead where you’re operating the camera and a conversation with your father becomes so intense that feeling overpowers image. You drop the camera, leaving the audience to experience these poignant scenes from a messier angle. To your point about leaving in moments of potentially unflattering emotionality, are these shots an example of practicing what you teach?

Yeah, exactly. They expose your vulnerability, incapacity, impotency, doubt. I ask students to show me footage that they believe is the worst mistake they’ve made. Inevitably, it’ll be an incredibly emotionally powerful thing. Why they perceive it as their biggest mistake is because there was something really meaningful that was happening, and they blew it in some kind of way. It wasn’t in focus, or they weren’t steady, or they moved when they wish they hadn’t moved. Always with those pieces of footage, I can talk about the ways in which, wow, this is an incredibly powerful piece of footage. Yes, you may need to record new sound for it, and you can bring craft to it in post-production in the edit. But you actually have gold here, and why you perceive this as a mistake is that you’re so ashamed and sad that you couldn’t make something perfect of this really powerful thing. What I’m pushing against is that perfection is actually not what is possible as a human, nor what we trust. We trust the person who can’t quite focus it when bullets are flying or can’t quite focus it when the emotion is unexpected.

Then, when I became really interested in making this film, I thought about how I could play with that knowledge of that level of craft that happens in documentaries that you can’t control. “Can I create fictional situations in which I replicate that or push the thing that is the moment of failure up against the thing that is the moment of creation?” That was an active question and dynamic in making the film. We really conceived the process as this back and forth between failing and achieving, life and death, documented and invented, past and future.

In terms of the “heaven” scenes, they make such an intriguing blend of both heightening Dick’s real life and combining sublime cinematic flights of fancy like a Fred and Ginger musical number. Do these sequences reflect the way you think about the intersection of memory, fantasy and imagery?

Totally. I was looking for exuberance, life catharsis, euphoria, the pleasure of color. All of those things I kind of needed because my father’s world was shrinking. It felt like the dementia was making things smaller, but then I realized dementia is also expanding things, expanding time. Even though my father’s looping on these very small time periods—he’ll say a question and then say it again a minute later because he doesn’t know he just said it—cinema can get into that space and open it up. By doing slow-mo, we crack open that couple of seconds he smiles and turn it into three minutes. We enter his present time by doing slow-mo. That whole series of things is like, I have freedom here. None of us know what’s on the other side of death. None of us know what heaven is like. And yet we’re drawing on all of these imaginations that come from religion, that come from dreams, that come from cinema. How can we play with what’s palpable and what’s known, and engage it with what’s not yet known?

That was really active in the process of making it because we didn’t fully envision this. We just brought the elements together because I wanted it to function like a documentary shoot where it would come together in unexpected ways. We did the choreography, we thought about the costumes, we thought about the mask, we thought about the decor, but we didn’t know what my father would be able to do. Everything was sort of modular. We were prepared for different configurations, which makes it have that feeling of absurd lightness in some way.

I was reading elsewhere that you’ve said when the movie starts, your dad says he’s in heaven, no matter where his mental state might have been prior. Do you think there’s something to that word choice?

Absolutely. There was a moment when my mom, with her Alzheimer’s, said, “I really wonder what’s on the other side.” And it was the first time she had spoken like that. And I was like, “What do you mean, Mom? How are you feeling about it?” I was trying to engage her with this discussion about her wondering about dying. And then she looked at the placemat, turned it over, and she’s like, “Oh, look, there’s flowers on the other side!” I think each person’s dementia is different. I think it functions in relation to who they are. But the wondering they’re doing in their own mind about where they are, who they are, when will it end, am I safe, who’s taking care of me—those concerns often manifest in these metaphorical questions.

My father might wake up in the middle of the night and say to me, “When is this plane going to land? Are we headed south? When are we going home?” Those kinds of questions for me are definitely about a person wondering about death but also just about being in the literalness of the confusion of dementia. It’s like, “I am ungrounded, I am in an airplane, I don’t know where steady ground is.” All those plays with words that we can do with words themselves, or in a movie where an image can mean multiple things, I think that’s what’s happening with dementia often when someone is expressing these as questions of “what’s going to happen to me?” The loss of agency just creates all these question marks. What am I supposed to be doing? Where am I supposed to be? What do I do next?

You contextualize the making of the film in the decline and death of your mother, who you express regret over not capturing more fully in the vibrancy of her life. Given the widespread availability of high-quality cameras in phones and the cultural saturation of videos, do you think we could be nearing a time when that worry of losing someone’s likeness to time will disappear? Or does there need to be more intentionality behind capturing those images for them to count?

I do think memory is fragile and unstable and fragmentary. I think the act of seeing an image of a person is almost like a hallucination. You may know they’re not there, but they’re also there. You’re experiencing seeing and hearing them, which is different than imagining them. It functions in a different place in your brain. I’m totally fascinated by the fact that I have shot tens of thousands of images of my children. One of their dads, Boris, does an annual video where he strings together video moments from a year. We watch them every year, and there’s a total shock because I’ve forgotten almost all of the things that he’s filmed. My memory of what happened in the year is attached to the photos that I’ve shot, and then suddenly his videos bring different things to life. I think we’re becoming different kinds of humans.

I think, in some ways, the camera made me differently human. I can see different things with a camera. I think memory is nurtured like a garden by different forms of watering it: paying attention to it, reading things, avoiding certain things that we don’t want to remember. All of this image-making is, I think, augmenting and shifting our relationship to memory. I don’t think of it in binary terms, I don’t think it’s good or it’s bad. I do think it’s radically different, and that we’re changed by all of these things in ways we can’t imagine.

I’m on the verge of the Netflix premiere where this film’s going to go into hundreds of countries. The thought that this very private thing is going out into the world on this kind of scale, I have not yet experienced that as a human. That’s new territory. It’s like the way in which plane travel changed my life compared to my parents’ life. I’ve filmed in almost 90 countries. But now, suddenly, my father is going to be traveling into more countries than that in a day. I do think we don’t understand the dimensions of it. And I do wish for more images that express individual voice as opposed to more images that mimic or aspire to machine-crafted ideas about what it is to be human. I’m really interested in the specificity and the mistakes. I don’t edit my photos, for example. I hope someday my children will come across the series of photos that I took of them in a moment where some of the framing isn’t as pleasurable as others, but they can see a sequence of what they lived through.

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