Death in the Movies, February 2017

Every once in a while I want to use media to reaffirm or to challenge some idea about death, and so I’m using this as an opportunity to tentatively broach a recurring segment called ‘Death in the Movies’ (or books, comics, music, etc.).

In two weeks’ time, my partner and a fellow hearse hobbyist friend have been to the movies twice for two different death-related flicks in February. One was a new release in the cinema itself, The Autopsy of Jane Doe, the other was Harold and Maude in the park. The rest of the month is largely TBA, with the exception of True Romance on February 14th (thematically appropriate), so I can’t rightly claim whether the theme of ‘death in the movies’ is actually a recurring theme or just a timely coincidence.

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Not timely enough to anticipate the cold snap we had this past weekend, though.

But even still, we have two movies with two radically different approaches to death and to intimacy back-to-back.Jane Doe is a supernatural horror movie, while Harold and Maude is preserved in film history as a ‘romantic dark comedy drama’. Without delving into too many spoilers (at least in this post): the former regards a father-son duo, close as close can be in some apparent aspects, but worlds away in other matters; the latter is an unlikely love story between a septuagenarian kleptomaniac and a chronically depressed teen boy.

I have to confess that I actively feel frustrated with and repelled by both movies. I should clarify that I don’t mean ‘repelled’ in the sense that I feel a repulsion toward the movies themselves, but that I feel like both movies in a coalition actively attempt to push me away as a viewer. I find it outrageously difficult to find understanding or closure with either.

Both movies share in common two young men with extremely close ties to death. Emile Hirsch’s character in Jane Doe is a medical assistant and forensic pathologist in training, while Bud Cort’s titular Harold is extremely well versed in all manners of dying and makes a hobby out of recreating some of the more gruesome ‘c.o.d.’s. Both movies also close on two young men trying to rationalize a world without their elderly companions. Yet where Harold and Maude is apparently muddled with “life-affirming pretensions,” the opposite could be said for Jane Doe, which left me at least feeling bleak about how much I wanted to enjoy it.

In the case of Jane Doe, I want to blame this on a phenomenon of millennial generation storytelling, particularly in horror movies, where the traditional endings have a ‘twist’ that extends the plot an additional 10 – 20 minutes of resolution to lure to audience in and then pulls a 180, restoring the conflict. Cut to black, end credits roll. See also: Blair WitchBeyond the Gates, Jug Face, It Follows, Krampus… the list could go on forever, but basically anything on Netflix under the horror category will ping on this. It all comes down to “the day is saved, but not really, and it’s silly that you thought it was–gotcha.” It’s easy to resent what feels like conceding to ‘hey, look at the headlines, we’re all screwed.’ But I could go on about that in a whole other post (and dutifully intend to).

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But Harold and Maude predates this by 40 years and also isn’t a horror movie. Much of the film is devoted to teaching by example How to Enjoy Life, yet I still have a hard time reconciling, maybe even a harder time with the implication that Maude, who we know virtually nothing about except that it is implied that she is an Auschwitz survivor (all holocaust-era camp tattoos come from the Auschwitz complex, though on rare occasions these prisoners may have been transported to other camps) and that she is chipper to announce her belief that 80 is *the* appropriate and ideal age at which to die, and not a day younger–but also apparently not a day older.

It’s almost silly for me to feel this affected by these movies! But as Harold and Maude is held up as a scion of death positivity, I have to admit that I’ve fallen a bit for the Hollywood star struck demeanor of the average movie-goer. I look to the movies for answers to life, to relationships, to trauma and tragedy. I watch more documentaries than I do read books. I can engorge myself on all manner of inconceivable and niche topics. But when it comes to death, and the deeper and deeper I go into death education, more and more becomes arrestingly true: no one has any idea what they’re talking about when it comes to matters of death and dying.

No one has all the answers, and no one can claim with authority what makes life worth living or what makes death meaningful, and sometimes there’s just no comfort even if there is the honest attempt to convey it, because sometimes the empathy just isn’t there, or sometimes the empathy has to take a backseat to more ‘pressing’ matters in the course of bereavement—-how do we move on? instead of how do we take this with us?

Even such, I want to believe that there’s something I can learn from two critically acclaimed movies about death, and there is, but it’s going to be footnotes rather than definitive theses.

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