Kirsten Johnson sets the shot with Dick in "Dick Johnson is Dead." Courtesy photo.

I love movies that don’t follow a standard story line and that veer into unknown, imaginative and thought-provoking territory. That’s exactly what I got, watching a pair of adult artists, living across the globe from one another, as they dedicate themselves to honoring their fathers’ lives, while watching their memories fade, in two remarkable, fantasy-inflected documentaries.

“Our Time Machine,” and “Dick Johnson is Dead” are brilliant examples of how to face end-of-life realities while recognizing and celebrating the lives of those whose minds no longer fully serve them.


In “Our Time Machine” Maleonn, one of China’s most influential conceptual artists, is pouring everything he has into creating an ambitious theatre project, “Papa’s Time Machine,” a puppet play based on autobiographical scenes from his father Ma Ke’s life and career. An only child, he wants to collaborate with his father, with whom he has had a distant relationship that has begun to improve over the years. But now Ma Ke has Alzheimer’s and it’s a race against time.

During the Cultural Revolution, Ma Ke and his wife were sent to the countryside to pick cotton. A decade later, when the family returned to the city, Ma Ke began staging Peking operas as artistic director of the Shanghai Chinese Opera Theatre. In this documentary, Ma Ke proudly repeats—frequently—that he directed more than 80 productions, a measure of both his pride of accomplishment and the fact that, even as his memory leaves him, this one defines who he is.

Maleonn, an only child, is renowned for fantastical puppet and mechanical creations. But here, he is trying hard to connect with his father’s memories and engage with his experiences to create a stage play about him, something he’s never done before. It becomes more difficult to collaborate as Ma Ke’s memory and medical condition deteriorate. Running way over budget, Maleonn is nevertheless obsessed with meeting his obligation to honor his father and finish this project, even while trying to make it a commercial success.

The story is beautifully documented by filmmakers Yang Sun and S. Leo Chiang, who follow the entire process of Maleonn’s project from creation to completion, documenting Ma Ke’s personal history and Maleonn’s reminiscences about their relationship. The machines and puppets that Maleonn builds are fantastic in and of themselves, and allowing us to observe his creative process is a masterful touch.

It’s visually stunning, emotionally moving and altogether inspiring. “Our Time Machine” won the “Best Cinematography” Award at the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. Do a good local turn and watch it via Laemmle Theatres Virtual Cinema, starting tomorrow.


Meet Richard Johnson, a beloved 86-yearold psychiatrist whose daughter Kirsten is a renowned cinematographer and respected independent documentary film maker (“Cameraperson”). Dick’s losing his memory which, as a professional, he recognizes to the extent he can. But he and Kirsten together watched his wife’s mental condition deteriorate and spiral into dementia and they both know what’s coming.

As Kirsten begins seeing some of the same signs of dementia in Dick as she saw in her mother’s decline, she realizes that his time on Earth is limited. To deal with this reality in her own way, she commits to creating a fantasy documentary that confronts his inevitable death.

Except she does this humorously and imaginatively, inventing creative ways for him to die, in a movie in which he stars.

It’s a very “meta” kind of movie: you’re watching behind the scenes as the sausage is being made, so you know that there are stunt doubles, who are doing the “actual” (staged on camera) dying, and no actual Dick was harmed in the making of the movie.

There’s everything you could want: humor, pathos, animation, watching sets being built to create some of the fantasy scenes; you’ll see an air conditioner fall on Dick’s head, Dick in a car crash, and what I am assuming is an ACTUAL scene of Dick being taken away by ambulance after he suffers a heart attack. You’ll even attend his funeral. Sort of. It’s the OPPOSITE of morbid.

It’s a continually surprising movie, and while I don’t want to spoil the multiple endings, every time you think it’s over for Dick, well—just maybe—it isn’t. Seriously, there are some real head-twirling moments that will make your heart break, then burst with relief and astonishment.

It’s a great escape film that touches on our deepest fears about death, life and memory loss, but it’s joyous, redemptive and so wonderfully well done that I’m going to watch it again. Which will be easy because “Dick Johnson is Dead” will be available on Netflix, starting October 2. Do not miss it.

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.