Sunday, April 07, 2013

CinemArchetype 24: Death

The memorable last image of ROMAN SPRING OF MRS. STONE (1961)
It's death, not space, that's the final frontier. Do we have anything, really, to fear--death may be far less terrifying than whatever space has in store. Maybe it's even benevolent, or at very least, neutral. As the kids all say just before being Rube Goldbergianly sliced to ribbons in the FINAL DESTINATION movies, 'it's a part of life; if it happens, it happens... but it's not an intelligent, scheming force - that's ridiculous!'

But Death has always been personified in films, plays, novels. And who's to say those diced kids don't wake up in a better place, or get reincarnated back into the game on the samsara carousel, or better yet, get to sleep forever and never return to this archon-wardened jail we call the material plane?

Destiny - 1921 - dir. Fritz Lang
PS - this is the second time I've written this list. Last time it deleted itself and I had a nervous breakdown. Then again, nervous breakdowns are the fertilizer of the soul; the breaking, the destruction of old mores and self-conceptions allows genuine change to occur, they're death in miniature. That's what tarot card readers will tell you should you draw the death card. But are they just kidding you so you don't panic and rip their table cloth?

When death comes in his/her figurative onscreen representation, it's guaranteed to be a wee bit trite unless said figure manages to harness both this 'significant change is scary but there's nothing to fear' aspect and the terrifyingly ambivalent finality. Death is not cruel or unkind, but merciful! Yet also, terrifying. Without the latter, the former has no function --  there can't be mercy without suffering --and once one is no longer afraid, death is beautiful. But unless the terror is there, overcoming fear of death has no chachet, anymore than we feel the terror of a five year-old afraid of getting a booster shot. Because, in the end, unless you're talking about a snuff film, cinematic death is hardly permanent. It's just a dramatic twitching agony then lying still and trying not to blink-- like children play in the backyard. Anyone can return from the dead for a sequel, or at the very least, hop up from the ground after the director yells, cut! All life and death fades with the waking up from the 'reality' of the film to the future memory of the viewers as they set about gathering coats and empties, moseying out the theater, looking for car keys in rumpled pockets and maybe gazing up in suspicion at the far-off moon, all the while heedless of the tiny whirlwind at their feet, and the unmanned tractor trailer rolling ominously a-toward.

1. Jessica Lange - All that Jazz (1977)

One "Bye Bye Life" finale later and I, a small alienated lad of 15, was death's true champion. Factor in a strutting Ben Vereen, glittery glam creatures cavorting in blue and red-veined body suits, and middle-aged chain-smoking choreographer Jake Gideon (Roy Scheider), dying on one level of reality while issuing out his creamy smooth sure-am-blueness to the glittering ceiling of the next, and by the third climactic chorus the hairs stood on my neck's rough back as the sleeping cock crowing at the rise of Apollo's electric guitar solo womb.

Leading up to this, Gideon (Roy Scheider) shares mostly one way conversations with his personal angel of death, played by a teasingly Mona Lisa-esque Jessica Lange. I love how relaxed, even flirty, Gideon is in these scenes, even when he's heart attacking his way along empty hospital corridors he's not going to stop reaching towards his own silver-lined black cloud future. Mortality's crossing guards--the hospital staff and surgeons-- are ignored like some needlessly nervous mom afraid to let you cross against the light even though there's no car or cop for miles. And since Jake's psychopomp is such a glowing, white-clad hottie, what's to fear? The last shot may be painfully abrupt, throwing us out the door to the far-less sexy Ethel Mermen's belting "There's No Business (Like Show Business)" while Gideon's pale husk is tossed, like your Exit sign soda cup, into the Hefty bag, but when I die, it's this film I want as the last thing I see.

2. Frederic March as Death in Death Takes a Holiday (1933)
Death has been an inspiration for art since art's inception, but in years after the Great War he was a superstar. Surrealism, Dada, and avant garde metaphysical probing was all the rage at the nationally-sponsored theaters thanks to a plethora of PSTD and grim memories. Here Death poses as a living count for a weekend getaway with a skittish group of wealthy Italian revelers, and there meets a far-away-eyed debutante (Evelyn Venable) who likes him way better than her living suitor. She's death-obsessed enough to make Bella from TWILIGHT seem like Mary Poppins. Love + Death = a cry-in-your-whiskey highball for your dead gunner and hurrah for the next man who dies. Frederic March is a touch mellifluous but deadpan where it counts. Alas, it's unavailable on DVD, except as an extra on the two-disc, Meet Joe Black (Ultimate Edition), which since you can pick it up for under two dollars used is worth getting even if you avoid JOE BLACK itself, like the proverbial plague.

3.Cedric Hardwicke as Mr. Brink - On Borrowed Time (1939)
"...On Borrowed Time could have been expanded from out of one of the ideas that featured in the background of Death Takes a Holiday – the idea that while Death is present on Earth all mortality is held in suspension. Both films also portray Death as a rather decent figure – here Death waits for people to finish what they’re doing before claiming them, something you can’t help but compare to various accounts of less than dignified death in real life. It’s worth comparing both films to the afterlife fantasies of the 1940s that emerged following the US entry into WWII – the likes of Here Comes Mr Jordan (1941) and A Guy Named Joe (1943). Death Takes a Holiday and On Borrowed Time seem to hold the view that Death is a matter of people genteelly learning to accept the natural processes of life, whereas the films of the 1940s by comparison seem almost hysteric in the need to prove to people the existence of an afterlife in defiance of true (Wartime) tragedy." - Richard Schieb

4. Bengt Ekerot as Death - The Seventh Seal (1957)
When it comes to personifications of the big D, no one plays it like Ekerot in Bergman's most recognized and satirized of gloomfests. With his skull-tight cowl, pale face and big reptilian eyes, Ekerot is both scary and civilized, sexless yet charismatic. He relishes the chance to hang with a cool dude like this weary knight Max von Sydow, before the inevitable reaping. A true nobleman is hard to find in amidst Death's daily haul.

We can't even imagine now, all smug in our finery, that once upon a time there was 'the arthouse' and titans like Kurosawa and Bergman were dropping genius groundbreakers all up in there, and something like Seventh Seal was gobbled up, digested, and then transformed into Woody Allen homages before it could even leave the theater. Now indies and imports are neo-realist downers or twee quirkfests, and lofty art draws chuckles proportionate only to its reach. This Death chess game alone lives to tell the tale.

5. The Red Death - The Masque of the Red Death. (1964)
One of the sillier aspects of this film is that not only is there a guy in a red robe to be the 'red death' but there's a whole rainbow of robed figures at the end, sewing plague like Skittles throughout the Middle Ages. And our main red robed figure doesn't play chess with Prospero (Vincent Price) the Satanic figure who locks up his gates in a futile attempt to keep the plague at bay, he plays cards with a little peasant girl from the village Price has earlier--half out of sadistic whim out of plague-times necessity--burned to the ground.

Poe would never be so populist in rooting against such a charismatic monster and usually screenwriter Charles Beaumont likes him too, but it doesn't matter, for when this weird death in his robe with a mask that makes him look like a fuller brush come to life gets to deliver the comeuppance Price's Prospero has been secretly longing for all along, the now dripping red paint Prospero leads the cast in a wild interpretive dance!

6.a)  María Casares as the Princess / Death - Orpheus (1950)
Jean Cocteau's dreamy allegory finds a brooding cafe poet Orpheus (Jean Marais) haunted by regal Spanish actress María Casares, who reaches out to him from the reflective pool / mirror. Orpheus' clueless wife, Eurydice (Marie Déa) would prefer her husband stop listening to his muse's sweet words, which are coming over his car radio like a ghost transmission from WW2, the days when broadcasts regularly included long strings of seemingly jumbled code words meant to confuse the eavesdropping Nazis. I had a strong yen for Cesares seeing this the first time as she reminded me a lot of my then wife, an Argentine socialist intellectual filmmaker. Now I think avoid the film como de proverbial plaga.

6.b) Death - Black Orpheus (1959)
A spurned lover gone homicidal puts on a theatrical skeleton mask and stalks his ex through carnivale in this entrancing, uber-rhythmic festival of color, movement, and amour. The film electrified art house crowds and put bossa nova on the map. And the death figure here is genuinely scary. We know what's going to happen: Eurydice will die and Orpheus will make his deal (here with some voodoo practitioners hanging out in an empty theater) and so forth, but knowing what's going to happen just makes it that much more tragic, as if death was an inexorable magnetic force that all the dancing in the world can't keep at bay for long. Sooner or later, even carnivale ends.

"C'mon Billy..."

7. Billy Mahoney - Flatliners (1990)
Keifer Sutherland's 'return of the repressed' is the worst of all the others in his bratty pack of med students who've been experimenting with NDEs: a mysterious incarnation of a bully who used to torment him in grammar school named Billy Mahoney. Dressed in Halloween hoodie and toy scythe, Billy beats the crap out of grown-up Sutherland with the force of a Scorsese bouncer. Later, Sutherland has grown used to the assaults and every night develops a new strategy to deal with it, like trying to get rid of the hiccups through sheer will power-- which sometimes works... with hiccups, not with Billy Mahoney. In a great scene we see Kief's become a kind of death junkie: he rocks back and forth, chanting, "Come on, Billy Mahoney! Come on Billy!" daring him, invoking him. (I like to think PJ Harvey's song "C'mon Billy" is based on that scene). Anyway, a chill enters the room, and his skin gets paler and skulls are superimposed everywhere, not in the cheap EXORCIST THE VERSION YOU'VE NEVER SEEN way, but in the barely noticeable way... the way you can only detect if you're very sick or otherwise open to hallucinations (for what are hallucinations but the ability to see all of life as it really is, alive with dying?) -more

8. Robert Redford as Harold Belden - Twilight Zone (1962 - "Nothing in the Dark")
There are certain TZ episodes we all remember - Burgess with his glasses, Shatner with his gremlin, and Robert Redford as a wounded cop who's really death personified, come to claim some old broad scared who's been locking her door to all visitors for she knows old death is comin' soon.

Redford was just a kitten at the time, but he's perfectly cast - who could resist his gentle beauty? When he comes for you, a feeling of flattered grace subsumes all dread. Look at him, that unwrinkled brow and eyes used to charming girls of all ages without strain; why, he wouldn't even hurt a fly.

9. The Rube Goldberg Variations - Final Destination (series)
What makes these films fascinating as artifacts of modern horror cinema is the personification of death isn't anthropomorphic but rather the entire environment: electrical current, turning wheels, weather patterns, freight, breezes, asphalt, airplanes, roller coasters, horses, and even a 3-D multiplex theater itself. The concept that somehow a premonition of death 'shouldn't' have happened, forcing death to work overtime in claiming the lives of those who escaped their scheduled demise suggests, in a sense, that certain agents inherent in our DNA are at war with the inescapable force of mortality, that death has a regimented schedule which our premonitory powers are forever trying to disrupt.

What makes these films effective as 'fun' stems from the very easy way we can recognize death's movements in random events; there is no single figure of malice but just as we as viewers effectively occupy a 'no space' omnipresence in the films we watch, we have no trouble recognizing the work of this invisible Goldberg coincidence time-space serpent.

We're there, after all, to see it 'perform' its repossessions. The temporary escape from fate provided by the protagonist's vision might even be a 'head start' kind of approach on death's part. And, in a sense, by making Death appear vulnerable to being even temporarily escaped, and making it resemble us as invisible, omniscient viewers, the Final Destination films ally us with Death in a temporary partnership, making us feel immortal.  As long as we see what death sees, as long as we remain invisible within the narrative frame, we're safe from being seen, and therefore 'taken'.

10. TV monitors - Scrooged (1997)
As the maker of the medium (the executive producer of a major network), Bill Murray's Scrooge is a new kind of miser, hogging the time his employees would spend with their families to force them into making a live Xmas eve broadcast. When the Ghost of Xmas Future finally arrives it's ingeniously through the one place this Scrooge feels safe - the TV, ala Samara in THE RING, trashing all sense of immortality, which a life spent as a free-floating ghost inside the televisual image tends to instill. There's no arguing for mercy with a TV monitor showing a metallic skull shouting down at you in a howl of white noise. The program has begun. When it turns its eyeless sockets towards thee... oh man, there's no off button that can save you. You've grown so used to the simulacrum there's no way out; it's like the very air you swim in suddenly becomes cognizant of your presence, and hunts you down. Turns out you were never a friendly invited ghost - just a mouse that, once discovered, warrants immediate extermination.

11. Charlotte Rampling - Vanishing Point (1971)
Here lies the blurry mile marker between the couple on the run in a car across the expanse of the American dream (see Cinemarchetype 22, the Outlaw Pair-Bond) and the driver alone who has already, in a sense, broken free. How many victory laps does he need before Charlotte Rampling appears? Or is she the signpost for Nirvana? I loaned my DVD to some dirtbag who got it dirty, and she's only in the British side, (a dual sided disc), she was cut out of the American print -- too Bergman-esque for them, I guess. But right as they're getting it on my dirty disc stops and artifacts and it starts back at the beginning but after the opening credits, just enough you think the elliptical nature of the film's two-day span is just snaking up on itself. On the other side it does the same, after a different ending.

Either way, the next time we see our speed freak hero after his Rampling experience, he's jumping for Sunday morning gospel joy, suddenly clad in a white shirt, eyes and smile suggesting a profound peace, headed for the flowery grace of the steam shovel gates. Once you have found the Rampling - you just know that Death has kindly stopped for you. You don't need no ticket, you just thank the Lord and unbuckle up. 

My advice, videotape yourself when at the height of your being in love and totally happy. Ten years later after the bloom has faded you can watch it and realize yes, you were in love, you were happy, even if  you don't remember it. That's the trade-off. To paraphrase Tolstoy, that's why truly happy people are invariably uninteresting writers. That's why all the best couples need to die at the end, or else escape to Mexico, beyond the reach of cameras, because who wants to see them fat and middle-aged and yelling at their kids? With heroism always rides death. That's why even if you're all alone and speeding across the country, you will receive a lovely hitchhiker just before you make it through the Monte Hellman celluloid burn. But if you avoid the burn and marry her instead, prepare for the Hell of Slow Mortal-Starter-Coils.

12. Marius Goring as Conductor 71 - A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

He lost his head "in the second germinal of the so-called French revolution." and so, being French, Goring's fey psychopomp is secretly on the side of the British WW2 bombardier (David Niven), whom he was supposed to collect after he he plummeted sans parachute into your so-called English Channel. It's that British fog! In the meantime Niven hs fallen in love with radio operator Kim Hunter, a Yank! So he should get a pass! Along with the great Roger Livesy as Hunter's platonic pal, a brain surgeon, they form a kind of allied foursome front in arguing against the necessity of Niven's going at his appointed time. The French may be many things, but when it comes to l'amor hey are always on its side - prizing it even above death. A big trial begins in heaven, and Goring's mix of having a duty to perform and being won over, as we all are by Niven's (he's never been better) and Hunter's (always great) romance, as his case is argued on up the heavenly stairs, and he receives life-or-death brain surgery down below.

His horror movie eyes alight with merriment, Goring hardly seems at all like the self-centered composer romantic interest in THE RED SHOES. The Archers's heaven is a an impersonal black and white indoctrination center with lots of elbow room and industrial/Roman architecture; Great Britain is the Jack Cardiff Technicolor reverie (reversing the OZ equation). Each scene of stout-hearted wartime life along the shore is so beautiful it seems like heaven. So Conductor 71, while embarrassed by his failure to bring Niven in on schedule, secretly appreciates being compelled to linger. He even jokes "Do you play chess? We could play.... every day," as if riffing on a film still eleven years from being made.

Bonus! Death as PCP hallucination, Disco Godfather - been there, bro

Putcha weight on it!


  1. Notable additions:

    Herk Harvey as "The Man" in "Carnival of Souls" (1962).

  2. Oh lord! I totally forgot him. Thanks ido!

  3. I'm sure I'm missing lots from Japanese and Hong Kong cinema, but my brain isn't working right now. Representations of death work differently, though. Usually not one specific "death" figure.

    Also, I always saw Michael Myers in "Halloween" as an avatar of Death. Faceless, random, unfeeling, unstoppable. At least in the isolated world of the original Carpenter film. Before everything was screwed up in the needless and useless sequels.

  4. I put Michael in the Animus section here - as I think of death in this context as far less personal and having nothing to do with sex or rites of passage into maturity - which slashers do - and even to a certain extent the ghoul in Carnival of Souls. Death, espec. as presented in the FInal Destination films is way less personal than that, which is why I've belatedly begun to find those films refreshing. It's rare to find a teen horror franchise in which "punishment' for sexual maturity is nonexistent, replaced by a kind of cat vs. mouse toying.


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