Final Cut: On Death and Dying in Film and Television
"I don't like to sleep. It's too much like death."—Cosmo Casterini (Vincent Gardenia) in Moonstruck (1987)
"On a long enough timeline, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero."—Narrator (Edward Norton) in Fight Club (1999)
Mass media brings death to us every day as news or entertainment. By the time we reach adulthood, the average American has seen thousands of people die on screens large and small. Most of these deaths are fictional demises dramatized in film or television. Others are actual deaths or the aftermath of them from accident, mayhem, or murder. The portrayal of death in popular entertainment has changed as the larger culture has transformed. Early Hollywood films usually depicted death as quick and sanitized. Deaths in crime films of the 1930's and 40's were violent but curiously bloodless. Likewise, death due to illness was usually presented as a sterile bedroom scene, with the dying person uttering a few meaningful words before expiring. The screenwriters of the day needed the drama of the death but didn't want to turn off the audience (or perhaps the censors) by showing blood or prolonged suffering.
This prudish treatment of death began to change in the 1960s as the power of the studio systems faded, replaced by the age of the auteur director. Arthur Penn's seminal gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) cast the two real-life bank robbers as anti-heroes whose charm and good looks elicit sympathy from the audience. In earlier decades gangsters such as James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson may have had flair but they were clearly the bad guys, and thus got their comeuppance in the end. Bonnie and Clyde (Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty) certainly get their punishment but in a far more graphic way. Ambushed on a country backroad, the feds pump hundreds of bullets into the outlaw couple. (No due process for bank robbers in those days.) It was jarring for audiences of the time to see the vital protagonists so thoroughly annihilated. Penn's use of slow-motion amps up the violence. The slo-mo technique would be adopted by future directors, sometimes to dubious effect.
Another director and contemporary of Penn was Sam Peckinpah, who doubled down on the level of violent killings in his films. The Wild Bunch (1969) is an anti-western following the exploits of a band of American outlaws in 1913 Mexico. William Holden, Ernest Borgnine and Warren Oates play members of a violent gang but one with a inviolable sense of honor. It is a principle already anachronistic in the waning days of the Old West. Pursued by bounty hunters and fighting a Mexican tinfoil general, the band of brothers go down together in one final bloody stand. Peckinpah choreographs the battle royal in slow motion, a ballet of blood that is both heroic and pitiless.
Similar themes of killing as assertion of a man's honor run through other Peckinpah films. In Straw Dogs (1971) Dustin Hoffman is an American math professor living in a small English backwater, and tormented by local bullies who assault his wife. When they attack his home, he fights back with rat traps and boiling water. In Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), Warren Oates is a hard-drinking piano player hired to find a mobster's girl amid the corrupt squalor of Tijuana. Both films pile up the body count as the protagonists seek to assert their masculinity as a statement of honor, not mere machismo. Killing delivers both catharsis and justice.
Beginning in the late 1970's a dubious new cinematic genre emerged: the slasher flick. Usually centering on a group of sexually potent and promiscuous young people who served as flesh and blood props to be violentally dispatched by a crazed killer (Friday the 13th series) or supernatural being (A Nightmare on Elm Street), both seeking psychological revenge. In these films, dubbed "violence porn" by critics, the killer is an evil superman exorcising his demons by eviscerating the young. The genre connects death and sex in unsubtle ways, as the victims are often engaged in sex or seeking to be. The advent of the AIDS epidemic informed the genre. As casual sex became a potential death sentence in real life, on screen sex and death became intertwined in the slasher flick.
The romantic ideal of love conquering all is a favorite movie concept, even when it comes to death. Hollywood sold many a ticket to female moviegoers with Love Story (1970), the saccharine adaptation of Erich Segal's rich boy-poor girl-with-cancer tearjerker. Twenty years later Hollywood was still aiming squarely at a female audience in the mega blockbuster Ghost (1990) in which a man's spirit tries to protect his girlfriend from his murderers. In the more ambitious What Dreams May Come (1998), a couple's happiness is shattered when their two children are killed. Struggling to cope, the husband Chris (Robin Williams) later dies in a car accident. As Chris' soul ascends into heaven, richly composed of his own memories and impressions, he is reunited with his children and even his dog. But having lost everything, his wife Annie (Annabella Sciorra) chooses suicide, condemning herself to hell. When Chris learns of her fate he descends to the netherworld to try to rescue his beloved and bring her to paradise with him. The cinematography and set designs are impressive, considering the film predated the advent of CGI and modern 3D which have transformed our onscreen experience.
As American society has become more secular, with fewer people attending religious services or affirming a belief in God, cinema has reflected that change. When the nation was more religious, ghost stories were a reliable genre whether played straight (The Uninvited, 1944) or for laughs (The Canterville Ghost, 1944). Ghosts had a specific meaning, as unfortunate or malevolent souls trapped in the corporeal world due to some injustice or unfinished business. The portrayal of specters affirmed a belief in the spiritual and the existence of an afterlife. The quintessential cinematic specter is Jacob Marley in the various adaptations of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, who forged the chains that are his burden in the afterlife. The best of the latter-day ghost stories is The Others (2001) with Nicole Kidman as a British mother during World War II whose sickly children are haunted by spectral peers. In The Sixth Sense (1996), a young boy sees the dead who walk among us. More recently, the box office success of a low budget indie film, Paranormal Activity (2008), reinvigorated the haunted house cliche, leading to the inevitable sequels (three so far).
The concept of a wronged spirit seeking retribution is a recurring one. In Spanish director Guillermo del Toro's The Devil's Backbone (1997), a young boy is sent to live in an orphanage amid the upheaval of the Spanish Civil War. Haunted by the ghost of a child eternally bleeding from a head wound, he uncovers a crime that exposes the corruption of the adults. Both films are set in wartime, when life is cheap and killing is the norm. In Ghost Story (1980), four elderly men meet regularly to exchange ghost stories as a way to channel their collective guilt over the killing of a woman a half-century earlier. The crime is brought to light when her ghost begins to haunt them.
Recently the ghost story has given way to the zombie apocalypse. Zombies capture the fear of death with a modern atheistic bent. If the human soul is merely a fancy of poets and priests, the body is all that remains. Thus the restless spirit is replaced by a reanimated corpse. The zombie was originally a phenomenon of Haiti, a slow-moving automaton serving the nefarious aims of a witch doctor. Times have changed; the modern zombie has morphed into a fast-moving killer with an infectious bite. Thus, the pandemic of zombies portrayed in films such as the Dawn of the Dead remake (2004) and 28 Days Later (2002) and its sequel 28 Weeks Later (2007). On cable television, the AMC series The Walking Dead reboots the genre to the modern American south, where a diverse band tries to survive the zombie apocalypse that has devastated America and perhaps the world. Mass communication—smartphones, computers, television, radio—is permanently disrupted, a prospect perhaps as horrific to viewers as zombies roaming the streets.
The personification of death is a common motif in cinema. Humanizing death allows writers and directors to treat it as the antagonist. Two early films made during the studio system days shared similar themes of death personified. In the 1939 Hollywood film On Borrowed Time, Gramps (Lionel Barrymore) is a kindly old man whose apples are being pilfered. He makes a wish that anyone climbing his apple tree should be stuck there until he lets them down. When Death (Cedric Hardwicke) pays him a visit, Gramps tricks him into climbing the tree. Outsmarted, Death is captive until he convinces Gramps that people suffering with illness and injury are unable to be granted the relief that he brings. Gramps releases Death, guaranteeing his own demise. But dying is not to be feared for a righteous man such as Gramps, who is reunited with his wife in a sunny afterlife. In the film Death Takes a Holiday (1934), Death (Fredric March) takes on human form for three days to try to understand why people fear him. When he unexpectedly falls in love with a beautiful girl, he must decide whether to relinquish her, thus allowing her to live. The film was remade in 1998 as Meet Joe Black with Brad Pitt as an attractive Death who falls in love with industrialist Anthony Hopkins' daughter.
The portrayal of death in cinema differs among nations, mirroring the national culture. The Japanese film Kwaidan (1964) dramatizes four ghost stories, each based on a folk tale. The stories echo themes of guilt and the importance of ancestry in Japanese culture. More recent ghost films like Ring (1998) and Ju-On: The Grudge (2003) proved to be such huge hits in Asia that they were adapted by Hollywood for the US market. Japanese filmmakers also exorcised the demons of the deadly atomic bombings in monster movies. The horrors of the atomic age were turned into more fanciful fare in the original Godzilla (1954) and similar films like Attack of the Mushroom People (1963) and Gamera (1964). The staggering death tolls and national humiliation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were too fresh in the national psyche for a straight dramatic treatment. Instead Japanese filmmakers spun tales of giant reptilian beasts and mutants trouncing Tokyo. The beasts are defeated in the end thus saving face in a culture where honor was highly prized, and which had been so thoroughly defeated in World War II.
An iconic depiction of death is in Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal (1957) with Death as the archetypal black-clad figure wielding a scythe. Set in the midst of the Black Plague, Death challenges a knight (Max Von Sydow) to a game of chess to toy with him. In a time when disease ravages the continent, Death will not be denied his due. The final image is a sobering one: the film's characters following the reaper in a dance of the dead. Bergman's film is an intense treatise on the Christian conception of death and faith. Its setting in a disease-ravaged Europe can be interpreted as an allegory about the post-war/post-Holocaust world.
Though very different from each other, two French films are notable reflections on death. Ponette (1996) examines death through the eyes of a child. Little Ponette (four-year old Victoire Thivisol, in an extraordinary performance for a toddler), has lost her mother to a car accident in which Ponette also suffered a broken arm. As her injury heals, she must somehow make sense of the death of the woman who was the center of her world. The way that a young child processes loss is a challenging topic, but writer-director Jacques Doillon succeeds in capturing it without sentimentality. As the motherless Ponette struggles to adjust to her new world, we see the mystery of death through her innocent eyes. The dialogue between her and her toddler cousins reveals the chasm between adults' reassuring talk of heaven against the hard truth of the earthen grave.
In the French film Enter The Void (2009), screenwriter/director Gaspar Noe dramatizes one man's death experience. Set amid the pulsating nightlife of Tokyo, American drug dealer Oscar (Nathaniel Brown) is shot and killed by police in a raid. The camera follows Oscar's viewpoint as his soul rises from his body and flies above the Tokyo streets. Oscar witnesses the effect of his death on the people in his life and he ultimately travels through his own past back to conception. The film is a dizzying ride that melds technical wizardry and evocative imagery, yet with substance to match the style. Though it abounds with references to religion and philosophy, Noe himself is an atheist. He has stated that his remarkable film presents the experiences of a drug-infused brain that has died shortly after reading about reincarnation and Tibetan religion. Thus it is a dreamlike state informed by Oscar's experiences. This is similar to some modern scientific explanations for near-death experiences, as the supposed effect of an adrenalin release flooding the brain in the moment of death.
Death remains a compelling yet elusive subject for the filmmaker. It is a universal experience yet an intensely personal one. Those who have gone beyond can't communicate with those of us left to mourn and wonder. Religion, culture and science will continue to provide guideposts for us in deciding what to believe. In the world of media it remains for creative people to provide new interpretations of the experience and meaning of death. As Maximus said in Gladiator (2000): "Death smiles at us all. All a man can do is smile back."