But the process of filmmaking—of storytelling generally—is foregrounded here as well, though in a more direct and playful manner. We don’t just see “deaths” being planned, rehearsed and shot; we also see father and daughter in conversation about what it means to film and be filmed. There’s even a scene where one of the film’s occasional bits of voice-over starts on the soundtrack over unrelated images, then the movie cuts to Kirsten in a closet, filming herself recording the narration that you’ve been listening to.
The result feels traditional and radical at the same time. And even its cheekiest flourishes are inviting because “Dick Johnson is Dead” is suffused with intense, reciprocated love—not just by father and daughter, but by Dick and Kirsten and their friends, and by Kirsten and fellow director Ira Sachs and his husband Ben Torres, the dads of the twins she had via artificial insemination in 2008.
Another sort of love—ghostly, vestigial perhaps, yet present—is the love that the subjects feel for people who aren’t there anymore, chiefly Dick’s wife and the director’s mother, who also had dementia. We also hear through Kirsten that her mother lost her own mother at a young age, in a car crash caused by a drunk driver. Dick’s mother also died young. To be alive is to lose people.
“It would be so easy if loving only gave us the beautiful,” Kirsten says in voice-over. “But what loving demands is that we face the fear of losing each other.”
The movie allows for the possibility that all of this—the death scenes, the move from Seattle to New York, the acceptance of responsibility for another person’s life, the metafictional touches, the act of filmmaking itself—is simultaneously a method of infusing an otherwise chaotic and random existence with meaning and beauty, and another set of activities that are undertaken mainly to distract the participants from obsessing about the ends of their own stories.
Maybe “Dick Johnson is Dead” is the filmmaking equivalent of the band on the deck of the Titanic playing their hearts out while the water rises. If so, the movie is aware that it might be that thing, and seems content to be that thing. That’s every movie, every story. When the end is preordained, you might as well make music.