Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Death in film

You too must be of good hope as regards death, gentlemen of the jury, and keep this one truth in mind, that a good man cannot be harmed either in life or in death, and that his affairs are not neglected by the gods.
-Socrates to his jury upon hearing the verdict of execution.

Now is a time for healing and not lamenting.
-Lady Philosophy (Wisdom - Divine Sophia) to the poet and philosopher Boethius as he awaited execution.

The great philosophers and sages all saw the search for wisdom as a preparation and training for death. Moreover, the wise men and women of both East and West understood that the person who knows how to die well knows how to live well. This is a particularly important message for us to contemplate today since we live in a culture where we are increasingly unable to contemplate and face the inevitability of our death. Death is taboo and anathema from our cultural consciousness, hidden away, ignored and fled from in every and any manner possible to us. There are a few majestic exceptions to this norm in modern philosophy, such as the powerful treatise of Heidegger in Being and Time where the fundamental existential aspect of our being is analyzed as our being-towards-death. Kierkegaard also bravely faced this difficult issue in many of his works. The existentialists, facing the nihilism and absurdity of the death of God and a world ravaged by the horrors of World War II saw death as being the essential philosophical question.

It has also been the great task of our artists and poets in the past century to awaken us to a consciousness of our death and the potential spiritual authenticity that we might derive from it. Hemmingway faced death head on, both in his life and in his works, doing battle with it by any means possible, through women, booze, bullfights, war, blood, pain, eventually losing that battle and embracing death in the most horrifying way. Georges Rouault, the divine French painter and poet, depicted the living death of the beautiful losers, the lost and broken ones, the prostitutes, the homeless, the forlorn, as well as the death of the monakos, the "alone one," as the ancient monks of the desert used to call him (and from whom they took their name), the Son of God whose death "trampled down death." The history of 20th century music is replete with those who danced with death. As many of our singers and poets get older they come increasingly to enter into conversation with death, opening up horizons of appropriation for us, their audience, allowing us to listen in on the secrets. Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan and Nick Cave all come to mind.

In the history of cinema there have been great works of art that allow for a dialectic between life and death, counteracting the awful presence of those countless films that belittle the mystery of death with gratuitous violence. The great master Akira Kurosawa brought death to the forefront of many of his films, perhaps the greatest of which was his wondrous Ikiru, a tale where death is seen as transformative, a passage into a new life, not only in the sense of an afterlife but rather in our ability to appropriate it and be changed here and now. 

The theme of death as rebirth runs throughout many of the great films that deal with the subject, continuing the great lineage of myth and poesy throughout the ages the symbols of which bring us into contact with these mysteries, allowing us to partake of the vivifying energy of the reality in question. Art, if it is devotional and true, is therefore able to make the mystery of death live-giving, bringing to us a glimpse of the mystery of the resurrection that lies at the heart of all the great spiritual traditions of humankind.

A particularly poetic and lovely example of this theme on film is Wim Wenders' Himmelen über Berlin (rather strangely translated as Wings of Desire) where an angel played by Bruno Ganz "falls" (dies) for love, becoming human, passing over into another state of existence, the journey of which is extremely painful and frightening. Yet this death allows him to experience elements of reality he could only heretofore imagine (wonderfully conveyed by the late Peter Falk: "To drink coffee, and to smoke. And if you do it together... it's beautiful."). There is something deeply Christian, in the best possible way, about Wenders' film. It conveys the physicality of death, counter to the teachings of many Eastern religions as well as the ancient Greek philosophers such as Plato, that death is a blessing because the soul is released from its nefarious prison, the body. Instead Wenders turns the equation on its head, showing a disembodied spirit dying and gaining a body, gaining physicality, sensation and limitation. The notion of an incarnate God and a resurrection of the body is so difficult to comprehend (it was considered nothing less than grotesque by the ancient Greeks) that even many Christians don't attempt to face up to it, preferring to believe in souls "going to heaven" (as vague a metaphysical claim as they get). Primarily Christianity teaches the sanctity of matter, that spirit and matter, divine and human have become one, forever connected in and through the mystery of the God-man, Jesus Christ. Wenders, though not tackling these issues explicitly, allows for a spiritual entryway into meditating on these mysteries through his beautiful film, the script of which was deeply inspired by Rilke, one of the greatest poet/philosophers of the Western world.

A final film worth considering in this context is Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet (The Word). Deeply influenced by the works of Kierkegaard (one of the characters seemingly goes insane after reading the works of Kierkegaard and thinks himself to be Jesus) the film is a kind of dialectic where life and death form not opposites but rather two ways in which the same mystery can be approached. The two religious sects portrayed in the film, one representing death, the other life, are both caricatures of true spirituality and it is only in the person (as opposed to the doctrine, the teaching - læren) that the paradox of these two poles can be reconciled and lived out. Johannes, the Jesus figure who represents resurrection both literally and figuratively, is able to reconcile reason and faith, life and death through a certain way of being a person, of opening himself up to the philosophical and spiritual exploration that is necessary for the fulfillment of our human potential, our capacity to rise beyond our desire and need for material comfort, leisure and entertainment and to become truly spiritual beings. The last scene of the film remains among the most powerful ever filmed, the kind of moment that could only be fully conveyed through the medium of cinema and a testament to the devotional character of the art.


e said...

why hasn't reid turned this post into something about zombie's/the theology of zombies....

Reido Bandito said...

It's been done.