Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Loved One: Dying in Movies

I’ve just come from a memorial service for a good man who would seem to have deserved a longer stay on earth. He was a husband and a father, with two college-age sons. He wasn’t ill. Instead he fell victim to a cruel twist of fate: he was waiting on the sidewalk to cross a busy street when a driver (distracted or drunk) jumped the curb and plowed into him. I’m told the driver is now in jail. And this good man is dead.

Movies give us a warped perspective on death and dying. When my father succumbed – extraordinarily painfully – to pancreatic cancer, I was relieved that his suffering was over. But I also felt irrationally cheated that we’d been denied the kind of death scene I knew from movies, where the family gathers around their loved one’s bedside for a touching farewell scene. It’s a classic moment, in which wrongs are righted and old grudges dissolve into heartfelt declarations of love. In Love Story, Jenny and Oliver had such a moment, but my father never did. At the end, and for far too many days, he was not a person at all, simply a body waiting to breathe its last.

Then, of course, there are those movies where body count is all that matters. In most action flicks, we don’t get to know the dying: they are nothing but the modern equivalent of cannon fodder. I remember the late David Carradine telling me about the fun he’d had making Stray Bullet 2 at Roger Corman’s studio in Galway: “I think we kill every cop in Ireland.” And, yes, I remember Carradine’s iconic role in New World Pictures’ midnight-movie classic, Death Race 2000. In that outrageous indie (much bleaker than the big-budget Jason Statham remake), race drivers like Carradine’s “Frankenstein” scored points and encouraged fan adulation by running over as many pedestrians as possible. In meetings with screenwriter Chuck Griffith and Corman story editor Frances Doel, I personally helped invent creative ways for Frankenstein to rack up points without striking the audience as unsympathetic. One solution: a scene we called Euthanasia Day at the Old Folks’ Home, in which caregivers wheeled aged inmates into position to be mowed down by Frankenstein. Our script called for him to detour off the road and run over the cartoonishly evil-minded attendants, letting the oldsters live on.

Death Race 2000, like most films of its era, was relatively short on blood. But Bonnie and Clyde introduced two jolly killers whose own bullet-riddled demise -- shot in slow-mo and living color -- made for deliberately painful viewing. Pauline Kael famously wrote that Arthur Penn’s masterwork, “by making us care about the robber lovers, has put the sting back into death.” Maybe so, but Bonnie and Clyde could also be accused of paving the way for the string of increasingly grisly horror films we now call slasher porn, in which the yuck factor is part of the thrill.

Then there’s the notion of death as black comedy. The idea of satirizing the funeral industry goes back to 1965, with Tony Richardson’s darkly funny adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One. Richard Linklater’s Bernie can be viewed as an update, but has the distinction of being a true story, about a prissy undertaker (the bravura Jack Black) so well liked by his small-town Texas neighbors that they’d gladly see him get away with murder. To them, the grumpy old lady he shoots in the back wholly deserves her fate. Do we too, as moviegoers, prefer perps to victims? Death, where is thy sting?


  1. My mother's passing was a combination of the movie version and a compressed version of your father's last days. All of her immediate family there with her, but it was several hours of time when she was hanging on in the privacy of her own world...and then finally moving on from her pain wracked body as my father told her he loved her and to let go.

    I've enjoyed most of the movies you listed, but we'll talk about those another day.

  2. I'm so sorry to read about your mother, Mr. Craig, but glad that your father was able to finally ease her passage.

  3. Ms. Gray - I got a little wrapped up in myself there. I'm very sorry that you lost your father.