Friday, 28 February 2014

Death and its representations

Only twice have I been in the same room as death. The first time was when my grandfather died, peacefully in a hospital bed. The second time was when a drug addict died of an overdose at a cinema where I was working. There was nothing peaceful about that, or the failed effort to bring him back to life.

On film on the other hand death is a constant presence, and many have perhaps only experienced death through seeing it in moving images (in the news or in fiction). It is a peculiar thing. Does it teach us anything? Does it make us more prepared for when we too will encounter it? For children, experiencing death on film might be very traumatic and perhaps therapeutic. I worked as a projectionist when The Lion King came out and I used to go into the screening room at the moment when Simba's dad is killed. I did it because it was so moving listening to the children. There were two kinds, those who had seen it before and started whispering about how the dad would die soon, and those who had not seen it before and were very concerned. The tension in the room was palpable, 100 kids shifting in their seats, holding their breaths.

"We live - as we dream - alone." wrote Joseph Conrad, and we die alone too he might have added. We might reach out for a hand to hold in our last moment, as in the very end of Heat, but that is not the same. Or we might be embalmed in a light from above, as in so many death scenes in the films of Ingmar Bergman. A peaceful and benevolent light, but one which also emphasis the loneliness of the deceased, the only body in the light. But Carol in Wyler's Mrs. Miniver had neither a hand nor a light to sooth her, instead she died by herself on a cold wooden floor.

Death was of course of special significance for Bergman, who made several films about it, and even had Death appear in person. The first of his films with an embodied figure of Death was Summer Interlude (1951) and it was not the last. Death is usually seen as something tragic, but it does not have to be. In several of Bergman's films death is a relief, a victory even. When the pain is too strong, when life brings nothing but misery, dying is not necessarily a bad option. The saying "Every day above ground is a good day." (which I have seen motivational speakers sometimes use) seems to me to be putting the bar terribly low. And only because somebody has died does not mean that they are necessarily gone. Ugetsu Monogatari suggests different ways in which the dead might remain. As ghosts, or hallucinations, or voices.

It is not easy to know how one will react, or should react, when somebody dies. It is easy for others to judge those that show no outward signs of grief and sadness, but that is very unfair. Everybody reacts differently, and nobody else can know what goes on inside another person. They might not even know themselves. Little Eddie, in The Courtship of Eddie's Father, is concerned about not feeling enough about his mother being dead, he is afraid he will forget about her. Then one day he finds his goldfish dead in its bowl, and then he reacts. He reacts with a combination of shock and fierce grief that is unbearable, and one of the most moving death scenes in all of cinema.

Sometimes death is sudden, swift and merciful. In Superman Jonathan Kent is walking on his farm when suddenly he has a heart attack. "Oh no." he says, and then he dies. Sometimes it is the opposite. In Black Hawk Down one of the rangers is slowly bleeding to death while his comrades are desperately trying to save him, in a scene which is long, messy and incredibly intense. I hardly ever cry when watching films but that scene has an unusual effect on me. It is not just that he dies, but how. The terror, fear and panic, together with the visceral close-ups of blood, tissue and bone, makes the sequence overwhelming. That is not how you want to die.

To die with dignity can be of great importance to some, or to be left alone. When Judd dies in Ride the High Country he asks that the others stay away. "I don't want them to see me like this." he says. When he is alone he looks at the mountains, the last thing he sees is where he used to live. He died the way he had too, and even though he might have wanted to live on there was no place for him any longer and at least he died in a noble way. Ride the High Country was directed by Sam Peckinpah, for whom death was as important a subject as for Bergman. A particularly fine scene is this, from Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, where an older couple, played by Slim Pickens and Katy Jurado, is helping a friend take care of some outlaws, with sad consequences.

Bob Dylan wrote the music for that film, and Colin Baker sits by the river, knocking on heaven's door. What happens next is unknown. But films provide many suggestions. In the wonderful After Life you end up in a transit area after you die and there you are asked to think of your favourite memory. When you have decided upon one, that memory will be recreated and you will be living it for the rest of eternity. All memories are different, it is a very personal thing, and for all the sweetness and wisdom in the film it is still the case that in the end we are alone.

What of the rest of us, those who have not died? The best we can do is grant our dying friend a last request, and then go into the other room and cry, as in Only Angels Have Wings, another great film on the subject of death. But we must not stay in tears for too long. A message of the film, a very Hawksian message, is that the dead do not matter, it is us the living that matters. We who are left alive best honour the dead by go on living, continuing with our lives.

Films mentioned:
The Lion King (Roger Allers, Rob Minkoff 1994)
Heat (Michael Mann 1995)
Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler 1942)
Summer Interlude (Ingmar Bergman 1951)
Ugetsu Monogatari (Kenji Mizoguchi 1953)
The Courtship of Eddie's Father (Vincente Minnelli 1963)
Superman (Richard Donner 1978)
Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott 2001)
Ride the High Country (Sam Peckinpah 1962)
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (Sam Peckinpah 1973)
After Life (Hirokazu Koreeda 1998)
Only Angels Have Wings (Howard Hawks 1939)

I have not forgotten Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death (1946), but I will write about it in full later this year.

The world after life in A Matter of Life and Death.


  1. A very interesting post! Can I wish for a new one that delves deeper in movies where death is actually realised as a physical entity (like Seventh Seal)?

    1. Thanks! Wishes are always welcome. I have been thinking of posting a lecture I once gave on death and light in the films of Bergman, but maybe I could be even more specific. Did you have any particular films in mind? There are two films with Clint Eastwood where he might be playing Death, Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter, that one might do something with.

  2. Not exactly, I just thought it might be interesting to see how many portrays death with the whole cloak-and-scythe-thing and how many that try to move in another direction. The only one that pops into my head right now is Meet Joe Black, but I'm sure there are quite a lot of the out rhere?