Back when I was in college, I went out a couple of times with a Seventh Day Adventist who took me one Sunday to a church supper. As we strolled into the meeting hall, she whispered nervously, “Some of us are vegetarians, and you’re going to see some strange stuff here.” Most of the food I saw on the long trestle table turned out to be no stranger than the covered dishes you’d run across at any other small-town potluck dinner, though I boggled at the meat substitutes. Some were as innocuous as soya-link sausage, but others were homemade all-vegetable preparations cunningly crafted to make you think you were eating something tasty and sinful, when in fact it was neither.
Hollywood movies are like that. As far back as 1974, the famously dyspeptic John Simon, who revels in cursing the darkness, was pointing out that American films “do not (cannot? dare not?) cope with serious, contemporary, middle-class, adult problems….What is virtually nonexistent is serious filmmaking about the urban bourgeoisie and its ordinary problems of existence and co-existence–not something about beautiful young women dying of mysterious diseases, to say nothing of demonically possessed teenagers.”
Simon got it on the nose: in Hollywood, ordinary middle-class life is a state to be escaped, not examined. The only thing missing from his pithy indictment was the reason why. Today, the answer is plain to see: even more so than in 1974, American movies, like Trix, are for kids. The business of Hollywood is business, and since teenagers go to the movies far more often than their parents, they are the audience for whom those movies are made. Grownups stay home and watch workplace sitcoms; teenagers go to the mall and watch films in which none of the characters is married or has a real job. That is the world they know, and they expect to see it on the screen.
One thing that most teenagers neither know nor expect to see in movies is death, the ultimate reality of life. I’m not talking about the ersatz mass murders that are the subject matter of your average Hollywood shoot-’em-up, but the real wrong thing itself, the knowledge of which is not normally accessible to young people, least of all by going to the local multiplex. Truth sometimes finds its way into the movies–accidents happen–but when it comes to death, Hollywood is incapable of honesty, and the bigger the budget, the balder the lies. Movie stars live forever or die nobly, uttering memorable last words and expiring with a smile; you never see the catheter, or smell the pus. Even the appalling simplicity of violent death is beyond the imaginative grasp of most directors. It always seemed to me perfectly appropriate that when Janet Leigh took her last shower in Psycho, the blood running down the drain was really chocolate syrup.
I used to think that filmmakers lied about death in order to avoid upsetting the public, but now I think they’re more afraid of upsetting themselves. Wrinkled faces can be lifted, troublesome mistresses traded in for newer models, but there is no arguing with the inescapable reality of one’s own demise. Better, then, simply to ignore it–except that the baby boomers who run Hollywood can no longer pretend that old age is for other people. Most of them, like me, are old enough to have buried a parent or a friend, and after such knowledge there can be no forgetting.
It happens that I’ve never seen anyone die. I came late to my father’s deathbed, and one of my best friends died shortly after I left her bedside for the last time, but that’s as close as I’ve come, not counting pets. It wouldn’t be exactly right to say that I’m curious to know what I’ve missed, but my guess is that most of us who have yet to enter death’s terrible presence wonder what it’s like to look upon a fellow human being as his life draws to a close. This, I suspect, is the reason why so many people take a morbid interest in last words and suicide notes, and why Hollywood has put so many spectacularly euphemistic death scenes on film.
Except for postmodern war movies, the only commercial films I know that seek to show death in all its hideousness are the ones that contain execution scenes. In both cases the motive for honesty is ideological: it’s taken for granted in Hollywood that war and capital punishment are bad for children and other living things. No doubt some part of the reason why the cellphone video of the real-life execution of Saddam Hussein was so widely viewed was the fact that it was real, though I wonder how real it seemed to those of its viewers who were more accustomed to the surreality of imitation death.
I watched the Hussein video, but it didn’t tell me what I wanted to know, and a recent viewing of The Bridge, the 2006 documentary that shows two dozen people jumping to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge, brought me no closer to the heart of the mystery. In the case of The Bridge, the distance was both literally and figuratively physical, for the jumpers were photographed from a great distance through telephoto lenses, and their plunges are commingled with prettified film-school footage of the bridge and interviews with friends and relations of the desperately unhappy, mostly mad men and women who died on camera.
The only person who pulled aside the curtain was a Golden Gate jumper who beat the odds and survived, later telling his unseen interlocutor that as soon as he jumped, he knew he’d made a mistake. This statement is consistent with research indicating that more than ninety percent of people who have attempted to kill themselves by jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge but were stopped by police or passers-by “are still alive or have died from natural causes.”
Watching The Bridge, of course, reminds us in the most vivid way possible that there are two kinds of people who kill themselves, those who do it quickly and without fuss and those who agonize at length before plunging into the darkness, thus making them easier to stop. All of which tells us what the wise man already knows, which is that statistics are ever and always to be juggled with the utmost caution. Behind every death is a story, and in stories, as Flannery O’Connor reminds us, we find the only truths worth knowing:
There is a certain embarrassment about being a storyteller in these times when stories are considered not quite as satisfying as statements and statements not quite as satisfying as statistics; but in the long run, a people is known, not by its statements or its statistics, but by the stories it tells.
Alas, no one can tell us the end of our own story. We must live it, and once we have done so, we can no longer pass it on to anyone else. Even art, which tells us so many valuable things, sheds no light on that climactic puzzle, though it is interesting to know that Richard Strauss remarked on his deathbed that dying was “just like I composed it in Death and Transfiguration.” Maybe–but somehow I doubt it. All we can really know is what Robert Browning told us: Young, all lay in dispute;/I shall know, being old. If not sooner.