Movies about death
A cheerful topic as we head into the weekend...
[The Seventh Seal: facing Death]
I teach a course titled “Faces of Death: Death in Human Nature and Culture.” Have been doing it for about 7 or 8 years now. I don’t know if it’s surprising or unsurprising that it always fills.
Along with stuff to read, I give them a bunch of films about the topic. Nineteen, to be precise. Of course I don’t require them to see all of them. Students are assigned to write a summary of one, so each of them is required to see at least that one, and then I encourage them to look at the ones on subtopics in which they’re particularly interested.
My general position on using film/video in class is “only when really necessary.” I co-taught a course a few times with a colleague who seemed to prefer that they see video rather than read and wanted to saturate them in visual material. I like them to read in my class. I feel pretty sure that they’re going to watch video without my requirement. I’m not so confident about them reading.
But I make an exception in this course just because there is so much good film to watch. About 2/3 of what I give them are documentaries, the remaining third a mix of drama and horror. One I’d class as ‘historical’: United 93, the dramatization of the events that took place on that plane on September 11, 2001. I wrote a bit about this one in my book on the hijacking, crash, and memorialization of that plane. (Looking for a link to the book, I just stumbled on this generous review that I saw in the scholarly journal in which it was originally printed just after the book was published but didn’t realize was now online and not behind a paywall.)
They’ve had four of the films so far:
Death by Design, a look at apoptosis, programmed cell death (we start with a day or two on the biology of death, which ought to have an entire course to itself as fascinating a topic as it is.)
The Road, an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel. Every now and then, though not nearly as frequently as one would like, a film about a great novel is also pretty great.
The Seventh Seal, or as I present it to them “just the most splendid film you’ll ever see.” Max von Sydow is one of the actors who represent the art for me. That he did this role and Father Merrin in The Exorcist (another one they see in this course, about which I have a bit to say in a forthcoming essay) would be enough to elevate him to the elite. But he also did ten other films with Bergman, and memorable characters and lines in each of them. Here’s the conclusion of a piece I wrote on his death two years ago:
“In speaking nearly a decade before his own death about his longtime friend and collaborator, Ingmar Bergman, von Sydow credited the great director with helping him resolve his own struggle with the question of death. He expressed his skepticism about the immortality of the soul to his friend, who was having none of it. “I will prove it to you by coming back to you after my own death,” Bergman told him. The television interviewer laughed at the story and then gave an account of a variation on it from his own life, in which one of his friends had come to disbelieve in the afterlife when her deeply faithful mother failed to make her presence manifest to her from beyond the grave. Von Sydow quickly interjected: “But I have heard from Bergman. Many times.” “Tell me about it,” asked the startled interviewer. Aptly, laconically, mysteriously, the man who played Father Merrin responded, with a warm smile, “I can’t.”
May perpetual light shine upon him.”
A Family Undertaking, a touching little documentary about the home burial movement.
Maybe I’ll report back periodically on this as we move through more of the films.
I watched this and appreciated that it nails pretty much everything. My parents and my husband's parents all died of cancer. In the case of the mothers, I did a fair amount of caregiving, especially my MIL. I share here one experience which you are welcome to read to your students if you wish. At the end of her life she had a stroke (probably from chemo side effects) and went into a coma. We brought her home from the hospital so she could die in her own bed with her beloved dog at her side, although she seemed to lack any awareness. We stayed in the house with her. Despite being given no feedings or fluids of any kind and being told she would only live three or four days, it took an entire week. My thoughts here have to do with the importance of vigil and allowing a difficult process to play out in its natural time frame. It is impossible to describe what it is like, waiting for a loved one lying comatose in a bed to die. It was unclear if she could hear, but we talked to her. It was unclear if she was in pain, but I was in charge of medications like morphine to keep her comfortable and it was recommended that I give it regularly. By about the fourth day it all was taking a particularly huge toll on my husband. I was aware that it would be incredibly easy for me to gently hasten things along with the amount of morphine I was giving, and truthfully it crossed my mind. But that decision did not seem appropriate for me, or anyone else, to make. Who knows what inward processes she was working through, what necessary time frame the universe intended for her to traverse? And with every death I have experienced, the end, even when it completely expectedly comes, is still absolutely shocking in its "final-ness." The entire experience was terribly hard, but also one of the most meaningful things we have gone through together in ways we could never explain.
"Maybe I’ll report back periodically on this as we move through more of the films." Please do. I am going to try an watch these. Also prefer text to video as a learner, myself. But your list here sounds interesting for sure.