Book Review — “Death in Classic & Contemporary Cinema”

Patrick Shen
Sep 24 · 4 min read
Cries and Whispers (1972, 91 minutes, Sweden, Dir. Ingmar Bergman)

Death in Classic and Contemporary Film: Fade to Black (Sullivan and Greenberg, Palgrave Macmillan, 2013) is a fantastic collection of essays which surgically examines cinema as a lens through which to understand our relationship with death. If cinema is as Shakespeare believed the role of dramatic performance to be “whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” then it’s no surprise that the authors of this book would look to it for insight into our relationship with mortality. Indeed, throughout history artists have often found more illuminating and interesting ways to shed light on the things that lay at the core of being human than many other disciplines could. And which other medium best embodies the art Dewey referred to as “refined and intensified forms of experience” and which so regularly gives us a glimpse of life under extreme circumstances, life in extremis?

As Sullivan and Greenberg state in the preface of Fade to Black “mortality is a recurrent theme in films across genres, periods, nations, and directors.” Though there were some surprising omissions such as contemporary Mexican director Alejandro González Iñárritu and his excellent “death trilogy”, I suspect that selecting the works to be featured in this volume was no simple task and find the result to be gratifying on that level. Many of the anticipated cast of characters were present alongside some nice surprises. Master filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa and contemporaries like the beautifully enigmatic Lars Von Trier and the late Stanley Kubrick all get ample coverage in the book. Fade to Black is relevatory in its extensive examination of how humanity’s concerns with death and yearnings for immortality are reflected in the work of these celebrated auteurs.

Susan White’s wonderfully written chapter on “Kubrick and Death” is as beautifully complex as Kubrick himself. White touches upon many intimate details of Kubrick’s work pulled from interviews with the filmmaker and the volumes of material his admirers have written over the last several decades theorizing about the hidden meanings within his films. “Death is more than a preoccupation in Stanley Kubrick’s films,” as the chapter begins before diving into a Kubrickian analysis of his cinematic dealings with mortality — everything from the use of particular scores such as Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary in the opening of A Clockwork Orange to “engrave the rhythm of death in the mind of the listener” to Kubrick’s preoccupation with the still image or “freeze frame” as a representation of something that has been, a small version of death, and has now “disappeared into time’s passage.”

Equally fascinating as the analysis of the work itself is the analysis of the people behind the work and how their own relationships with mortality evolved and shaped their work over the course of their careers. Ingmar Bergman, whose work struck a chord with audiences of the late 1950s and early 1960s, a time of great uncertainty, became obsessed with death as a child when he began accompanying his father, a hospital chaplain, to work where he’d regularly see corpses of dead patients laid out for burial. Death and an unquenchable yearning for answers permeate every film such as his 1957 classic The Seventh Seal in which the Knight pleads with Death himself demanding “…knowledge, not faith, not suppositions, but knowledge…” Upon close examination life permeates his work too, like in the beautiful conclusion of his 1973 Oscar-winning classic Cries and Whispers who many consider to be his most depressing film. While recalling a walk through the park she had taken with her sisters, Agnes, who is dying from cancer, expresses in her diary a quiet defiance to the uncertainty of death and gives us a reminder of the power found in the eternity of the here and now: “I closed my eyes tightly trying to cling to the moment and thinking: Come what may, this is happiness. I can’t wish for anything better. Now, for a few minutes, I can experience perfection. And I feel a great gratitude for my life, which gives me so much.” When revisiting these films, which I now feel compelled to do after reading this chapter contributed by Peter Cowie, I expect I will experience every line of dialogue as if uttered from the lips of Bergman himself.

Other chapters I found quite interesting were those examining cinema through the lens of Terror Management Theory and those discussing some of the collective death-denying psychological underpinnings that gave birth to or are mirrored in specific genres like superhero films and horror films. Though some of the academic lingo within some of the chapters had me Googling on several occasions I was nevertheless intrigued with every turn of the page of this volume. I expect that filmmakers, scholars, and film fans alike will appreciate the insight Fade to Black offers to the understanding of where art intersects with our concerns with mortality. Above all, what I find most fascinating (and which Fade to Black touches upon briefly) is cinema’s potential — under the authorship of visionary artists with a deep understanding of the human condition — to provide “a new mythos for the emerging age” as Kirk Schneider writes in his chapter on the films of Lars Von Trier, one that allows us to move forward in this “moment-to-moment exercise of living” with a sense of awe.

Patrick Shen

Written by

I make things mostly of the cinematic sort. Interested in art as process of self alteration. See my latest IN PURSUIT OF SILENCE in select US theaters now.

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