Death on Screen

A young writer over at The Onion AV Club describes how the real death of a loved one has ruined most movie-death for him, at least temporarily:

For Abrams and his writers, death is little more than a screenwriter’s tool to evoke emotion, and that cavalier attitude toward one of the universal human experiences makes everything about his film feel hollow.

If the cinema-space is an Underworld, then everyone on screen is, in fact, undead – static pixels re-animated by the sorcery of “flicker fusion” or “persistence of vision.”

And for the undead, be they actors and their characters, or the writers, directors and producers who control them, playing at death is not a big deal. It takes a living human, with up-close experience of the wrenching truth of real loss and grief, to notice that the undead onscreen are, in fact, faking it, and not always in good faith.

The question that remains is, is an exploration of death onscreen, in good faith, possible? Would that be a journey that anyone would choose to take with filmmakers and actors? Could it lead to meaningful insight and healing, or will it always remain 2D to people with intimate experience of the real thing?

I have certainly seen devastating movies about death – Cries and Whispers by Bergman springs to mind, as does one of my all time favorites, The Deer Hunter by Michael Cimino. Neither film is fun and entertaining, but each was a profound experience for me, possibly life-changing.

And on the other side of the equation is the central lesson in Sullivan’s Travels, by Preston Sturges, wherein the main character, a film director, learns via an extended stint on a chain gang that, basically, there’s enough suffering in the world, and that the role of movies should be to bring some lightness and laughter into people’s lives.

All the way back to the Greeks (and surely beyond), those have been the basic, and sacred, modes of drama – comedy and tragedy. But attempting to mix the two into a smoothie of “entertainment” may be a relatively recent invention.

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