It’s no coincidence that the idea of an afterlife came to fruition around the time that our species, in a collective sense, came to terms with the concept of our mortality. Death, as we now know, is an absolute. Someday we all will depart from this plane of existence, leaving behind only the experiential extensions we accumulate – the supplements to our being. And yet, we are the progeny of survivors; we’re predisposed to endure. If our physical essence must fail, it’s natural to seek catharsis in the notion that we’ll be survived by more than mere memories. These interpersonal branches we spend our entirety nurturing – our bonds familial and social, our projected character, our perceived accomplishments – are similarly fated to wither in the wake of our passing, in the time we’re no longer here to tend to our legacy. Hence the longing, the hope, and the sense of mystery surrounding the mortal beyond become contemplative rites of passage for human trek forward.
Enter the cinema. Art in general – though strictly for the purposes of our discussions, film – provides us with a filter through which we can sift our fear and bewilderment. The cinema does not exist in juxtaposition to life; rather, it’s housed within it. Like many projections of hereafter, life and film are one in the same, indistinguishable entities that coalesce in what we call reality. Thus, the barriers we perceive between the two are not even of abstract constitution – they’re apocryphal. Similarly, aren’t dreams and cognizance, finality, and – if we choose to believe in it – eternalness just elements of an existential synergy? Our individual experiences, simply stated, unconsciously work toward building a multidimensional model of the world around us. But my model exists within yours, and yours within mine, and in spite of this inherent connectedness, they needn’t be congruent. In this context, the cinema allots us context to others’ thoughts on the entirety of the self. Just as the individual is a unique entity, possible multiverses notwithstanding, so too is the regard in which we cerebrally and emotionally hold death. There is no visual or lingual normalization, no proper codification for examining our finiteness. Thus, film affords us the opportunity to invent new imagery and, quintessentially, construct our own language for dealing with oblivion.
This column will serve as less a guide than a confab on the ways morality has been interpreted through the cinematic medium. We will examine artists who represent Death via anthropomorphic flourish, liking the force’s (for lack of a better descriptor) unfeeling hands to those of a cold, pulseless reaper; others who take this conceit further, assigning such a character distinct traits in order to hypothesize what a literal dialogue between the doomed and their fate would be like; filmmakers who view a fatality as some sort of prophetic judgment that’s to be challenged, perhaps even bested; and even those who approach the paradigm as something august, like an altered state of consciousness. Obviously, other examples and gradations exist, and we may find that the perspective of some artists shift in accordance to their own proximity to the subject. In Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus, for example, the eponymous protagonist, a poet, laments his own artistic trivialization of death, saying, “I’ve spoke of her, dreamt of her, sung of her…but I didn’t know her.” Like all other things in life, our interpretation of mortality, even for us atheists, is something we give more credence to when it’s timely and pertinent. But there’s still much to be gleaned in considering the vantage point of others, particularly those with the acute vision and compositional sense to filmically actualize our mortal denouement. Through this, we hope to better grasp how our species explores cinema through death, and death through cinema.