The end of a reel

The fun never stops here on Cinema Rant. First I wrote about the bizarre suicide of Tony Scott and now there’s been a significantly sudden death in my own family, so things will remain a little heavy for the time being. Sorry about that. This post will probably be a little more personal, messy, existential, cosmic, philosophical, scientific, religiously-oriented, emotional, and probably even a little more pretentious than anything I’ve written here before. – so please bear with me. You’ll have to be a little forgiving of the ambiguity, but I don’t feel that this is the place to divulge any fine details on the matter. All you need to know in order to understand my motivation behind this dense and unrestrained slab of text is that someone, who was much loved, recently concluded their time on this earth after going toe-to-toe with cancer for a number of years.

A lot of sadness is boiling in another part of the world because of this, far removed from me. That’s not to say that I’m entirely cut off from it, just that there is a physical isolation. There are a lot of condolences being given and although I will certainly give mine, I have to be honest and say that I find death to be a simultaneously baffling and awkward affair.

I wasn’t really sure where to go with this. After someone dies do you “not talk about it” and risk creating an atmosphere of insensitivity, or do you “discuss it” and gamble on the possibility that your dwelling on the subject might be preventing fresh wounds from healing? Well, those who know me well know that my preference lies in the realm of dialogue and debate. I don’t think much is achieved from a philosophy of silence. We can only grow in our understanding as a society by taking a long hard look at every facet of life, including those we don’t like and don’t understand – like death.

The greatest villain of all time, or at least that’s how we usually perceive it. Death, as we emotionally grasp it, is the immaterial and inescapable void that all-too-often permanently separates us from each other. We can’t stop it or negotiate with it. Some see it as a positive being; a creature that somehow strikes in the night and callously takes from us – where as others see it as a simply a negative, an absence; the empty space between lives. What is death? Is there an afterlife? What is the experience of dying like? 200,000 years of human history, art, science, and religion – and no one has answers, just opinions. I’m afraid I’m no different (I know, weird right?), but not having answers to something never stopped me from flapping my mouth before. So what are the opinions? What does, say, the world  of cinematic art have to say about death?

If you’re looking for a movie about life and death that’s unique, epic, beautiful, and symbolic – then I recommend The Fountain. This movie had a very troubled history with a bloated budget and creative differences which ultimately led to its unraveling. Only five years later were the filmmakers actually able to complete the film with significantly less money, only to have it savaged by critics and thrown into the corner.

I understand why people didn’t like it, because to be honest – it’s very confusing! It appears to be an unstructured collection of ideas and beliefs about humanity’s battle with death.

“Spanning over one thousand years, and three parallel stories, The Fountain is a story of love, death, spirituality, and the fragility of our existence in this world.”


Hugh Jackman plays three different characters in three different eras; 1500 A.D., 2000 A.D., and 2500 A.D., The past, the present, and the future. In all three he plays characters attempting to cure death – A conquistador searching for a tree that is said to be the fountain of youth, a scientist searching for a medical cure based on samples from the life-giving tree, and a futuristic space traveller attempting to reach a distant golden nebula in order to save the tree from dying.

Did that make sense?

I think I understood the main point of this film, but suspect I probably didn’t. The plot being spread over three different time periods suggests to me the the theme is: death is incurable. If they were searching in the past, are still looking for a cure now, and will continue on in the future – then it’s a lost cause. That doesn’t, though, mean that the movie is void of hope.

Darren Aronofsky –  director of PiRequiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, and Black Swan – did something that was very unusual for him. He took on a big-scale project and attempted to make a modern 2001: A Space Odyssey. My university lecturer referred to this film as a “failed masterpiece” and I can understand why. Whether it’s a failure or not is something you’ll have to decide for yourself, but it’s clear why the movie carries such a bittersweet reputation. It’s one of those experiences that you walk out of thinking “I’m not exactly sure what the hell that was all about – but it was clearly profound.”. Concepts about meditation, purpose, meaning, time, space, and the quality of life versus the quantity are all poured with equal measure into – The Fountain.

The great thing about Disney-Pixar is that they don’t shy away from harsh realities, despite making movies for children. It’s important to ease kids into the discussion of death from an early age, because – if you don’t, life sure will in a much crueler way. The creators of Up understood this and made a family films that dealt with the sadness left behind after a loved one passes on.

“After his wife dies, 78-year-old Carl ties thousands of balloons to his home and sets out to fulfill his lifelong dream of seeing the wilds of South America.”


Don’t worry, it’s not Pixar’s version of Schindler’s List, but the opening 10/15 minutes of the movie include a montage that will break your heart a thousand times over. It then goes on to give you an uplifting tale (get it?) about enjoying life and pursuing dreams even when you’re at your most melancholy. If you want less of deep professorial piece, and instead a simple emotional experience that leaves you happy, try going Up.

Both these movies are musings on death as an event, and the life that goes on afterwards. I could point you in the direction of thousands of movies which include the death of central characters. Hell, nothing is as essential to almost any movie as death. It’s by far the most overused source of internal emotive conflict ever depicted on the silver screen, and of course that’s the way it is. “What’s the saddest thing ever, man?” – “When someone dies!” –  *Writers give themselves a high-five*.

Ok, so snatching a lovable personality away from the bosom of an audience is gut-wrenching, but what happens to them after they exit the frame?

I’ll give you my opinion of the afterlife at the end of all this, cause I know you’re all just dying to hear my neural diarrhoea on that particular subject – as always. First, however, I want to divert your attention over here:

What Dreams May Come is what happens when someone tries to literally put their vision of heaven on screen. That is, if it actually is heaven. There is the suggestion by some that this film depicts purgatory, ergo we never truly see the real heaven on screen.

 “After dying in a car crash a widowed man searches the afterlife for his wife.”


Vincent Ward really pulled every string to try and give us visions we’d never seen before, complete with living paintings and  epic scenery. Nowadays CGI green-screen backdrops are commonplace, but the visual-effect-undertakings that this film has to offer were pretty mind-blowing back in 1998. I’m a little torn on it myself because depicting the afterlife as some sort of sweeping Lord of the Rings fairytale almost seems to be missing the point. There is an assumption that the afterlife is automatically grander in scale than this life. Well, the universe is made up of billions of stars inside trillions of galaxies light years apart – so how much grander does it need to be exactly? On the other hand – it’s a film! What’s the point of a film if not to utilise the visual tools that the medium provides. Only in the movies can we mix intimate storytelling with awesome moving imagery. What the hell, go for it!

Also, I can’t hate this movie – because it features a cameo from Werner Herzog as a hell bound suicide victim buried up to his head in sand!

Nice touch, but for me the movie’s scenery is not the most important thing in it. The small moments are the keys to its true dramatic potential. Forget the large backdrops, the flying people, the painted landscapes, and the fantastical action scenes – what’s most moving about the film is the quiet cathartic moments when Robin Williams searches for his children. It cuts right to the heart of why people believe in heaven in the first place; so they can see their lost loved ones again. Take the following scene, for example, where Williams describes memories of his daughter to a stranger he meets in the afterlife. Perhaps it requires the context of the entire film to truly affect you – but we’ll see…

Talking of epic backdrops, Peter Jackson‘s last film follows a similar line.

“A young girl who has been murdered watches over her family – and her killer – from heaven. She must weigh her desire for vengeance against her desire for her family to heal.”


This movie is actually much darker than any of those previously mentioned because of the way that the central character dies. I remember watching it and wondering exactly how Jackson was going to depict the murder of a little girl. It’s a hard thing to decide how much you should show, and when it happens it’s both graphic and gentle all at the same time. I thought he handled it very well, and the whole piece reminds me a lot of one of his earlier films – Heavenly Creatures.

Originally this movie was going to be directed by Lynne Ramsay, who later went on to direct We Need To Talk About Kevin, and the critics of the film would eventually declare their passion for “how things could have been” if she had stayed with the project. I’m not so sure. While the film as it is now certainly plays light and fluffy with many of its more nihilistic themes, there is a delicate balancing act being attempted here. If you think it’s a failure then you at least have to admit that it’s an honourable failure.

Who says the afterlife has to be all peaceful and rich with tranquility? I feel like someone one day asked Tim Burton about the hereafter and his answer was to make Beetlejuice. Sure, it’s a very “interesting” envisioning of the great beyond – with planetary deserts and giant sand-shark monsters – but can you honestly tell Tim that he’s wrong?

“A couple of recently deceased ghosts contract the services of a “bio-exorcist” in order to remove the obnoxious new owners of their house.”


The twist is that the main characters are ghosts trying to exorcise the humans who are haunting their home, as opposed to the other way around;  a great idea marvellously realised. 

In Tim Burtons world; when you die you become a “floating dead” and you can do anything. That’s the fun of the movie. It’s like a child making up a story, with loads of “and then”s continuously propelling the plot into stranger and stranger territory. It makes about as much sense as the poster would suggest. Maybe it’s not a serious look into the central questions surrounding human mortality, but hey – if all opinions are valid then this one sure is too.

“She didn’t believe in angels until she fell in love with one” Nawww, is that just a sappy tagline or is it actually the plot?

“An angel, who helps ferry the dead to the afterlife, is spotted by a female doctor in an operating room and the two fall in love.”


Oh, it’s the plot. Ok then…

So, in this movie we see angels walking invisibly amongst us, reading our minds and guiding us through life. Just as with What Dreams May Come, the important emotional points come into play every time the lovers are reminded of their separation. Death is the wall that separates them and each character is on either side of it, an all too familiar reality for many of us.

The only thing that can unite them both is if one of the characters commits an act akin to suicide. If or how they make that change…you’ll have to find out for yourself. That’s part of the journey you’re on when you watch it. I’ll admit that I liked this movie and was surprised by some of the tragic turns that it ends up taking. If you think this movie will simply fade out as the couple walk down the beach into a warm glowing sunset then you have a few surprises in store.

People use the word closure a lot when they’re talking about the recently deceased. You hear statements like “I haven’t had closure” and “maybe such-and-such will help you achieve closure” all the time. I’ve never felt the need for any sort of closure after someone I know passes, so I suppose I’m not qualified to talk about it…

…and therefore, here’s me talking about it.

No modern film director is more obsessed with death and the afterlife than M. Night Shyamalan, so I would be remiss to not include him here. Four of his first films; Wide Awake, The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, and Signs all dealt with death, belief, and immortality in their own way. He seems to have an obsession with these core issues. The movie which most deals with closure is of course The Sixth Sense.

Unfortunately I can’t really explain how, because to do so would give away important parts of the plot – so I’ll keep shtum. Seriously though, if you haven’t seen the ending to The Sixth Sense you need to watch it right now!

This movie is remembered as a horror flick, and it certainly has some very scary moment, but in the end it’s actually a drama about a little boy who’s cut off from the world because of the phenomena’s he experiences. When you’re not jumping out of you seat you’re merely sitting there feeling endlessly sorry for this child who is suffering so much right in front of your eyes.

The Sixth Sense might not be the best recommended viewing experience for when your feeling sad, safe for the ending. A horror movie isn’t generally everyones first choice to cope with a bad situation, but if you can find the worthwhile drama that’s baked into this particular cake and take something from it – then it’ll be a good investment of your time.

Alright guys, you knew it was coming and here it is. You cannot talk about life-after-death movies and not mention Ghost. Ghost has everything you want in a film, and thats clearly why it’s remembered so fondly. It has a good premise, great actors, funny dialogue, danger, groundbreaking effects, and of course (as the poster suggests) a little bit of romance too. If you’re sitting there thinking to yourself “Hmm, don’t think I’ve ever seen Ghost.” then I’m sitting here looking like this:

Not possible! I can’t believe it! I won’t!

Well, if it’s true then here’s the synopsis for you…

“After being killed during a botched mugging, a man’s love for his partner enables him to remain on earth as a ghost.”


…and now here’s the ending of the film. That’s right, I’m spoiling it for you. It’s your own fault for not seeing it even after it’s been available for 22 years. The final scene of Ghost is so damn touching that it’s impossible to overstate. This is the film you cuddle up on the couch with when you want to have a good cry, and I stress the word good. The most powerful thing in this clip is the look on Demi Moore’s face. It conveys what she’s feeling so perfectly; that moment she never thought would happen, where she is actually given a chance to see her long lost love after all this time.

If that doesn’t make you cry then you must be…me!

I don’t cry because apparently I’m an iceman with a heart of coal, or so everyone tells me, but that doesn’t mean I don’t cherish it in my own internal way. The music, the framing, the lingering stares, and the watery eyes – this is sentimental art of the best kind. If you say it doesn’t choke you up even just a little, then you’re lying!

Wow, I ended that with a sweeping accusation, nice. Way to get the readers on my side.

Ok, so Ghost is great…but it’s not the best. Believe it or not, it’s actually not my favourite movie about death, the afterlife, love, and closure.

This is…

I love Always. The reason why it’s not as fondly remembered as Ghost is because…to be honest it’s very similar.

“The ghost of a recently dead expert pilot mentors a newer pilot, while watching him fall in love with his surviving girlfriend.”


You can see why people would feel forced to choose between them, but here’s the kicker; Always was made before Ghost. Does it really matter though? Always may be my personal favourite, but that doesn’t mean that have to choose one instead of the other.

Now what’s so great about Always? Well, it has a lot to do with Steven Spielberg – he simply is the greatest. The story is gorgeously told through a magical use of cameras and editing with a perfect cast. You just can’t go wrong with Richard Dreyfuss, Holly Hunter, and John Goodman. The best thing for me isn’t just that it’s beautifully sad when it needs to be, it’s also funny. It’s really funny. Take this scene, for example – where Dreyfuss’ character realises that even though he can’t communicate with the living, he can affect their thoughts and actions…

The central theme is that Dreyfuss needs to help his friends move on with their lives after his death. That’s not an easy thing to do, for either him or them. At the same time he must pass on the skills and positive qualities that he possesses to a fresh pilot, also not a simple task for an arrogant one. It speaks to a defining element of mankind; the importance of passing on our dreams, memories, and love to one another – imparting our happiness to others.

Alright, So now we know what Darren Aronofsky, Vincent Ward, Peter Jackson, Tim Burton, M. Night Shyamalan, and Disney-Pixar etc. have to say about death. It’s all very interesting, and certainly worth exploring, but what do I have to say about death? Not much of importance I’m afraid. I’m less interested in talking about death than I am in talking about…

…and by that I don’t mean “life after death”, I mean life.

I don’t believe in the afterlife. That’s not to say that those who do are somehow stupid fools, just that it’s not my thing. I take pleasure from what I know, and the things that I don’t know are fun to speculate and great to be entertained with – but ultimately they’re less interesting to me. What exactly do I mean by that? Well, I know it’s been a long post and I’m sorry about that, but if you’ll lend me your attention for a few more paragraphs I’d really appreciate it.

I want to engage you in a simple exercise:

Hold up your right hand and look at it. …ok not forever, I still need you to read what I’m writing. So you’re looking at your hand and thinking: “Why is he asking me to do this? I’ve seen my hand a million times before. In fact it’s one of the things I’ve seen the most in my life, it’s never more than an arms length away from my face.” Those things are all true, but I’m going to try to make you look at it a little differently.

(By the way, if you’re an amputee then I’m so sorry but this will probably not be wholly successful.)

Now, as you look at your hand, begin to think of it as a collection of unified atoms rather than a single appendage. It’s a boring scientific fact that you may take for granted, but your hand is a collection of protons, neutrons, and electrons. However, have you ever thought of where those atoms come from? Every example you can find of every element on the periodic table was once formed in the bowels a star. Afterwards they travel to and fro among the universe, in and out of galaxies, solar systems, and planets; a constant diffusion of particles.

I now want you to hold up your left hand and look at it. Again, “…a collection of atoms. So what?”. Well what if I told you that the atoms in your left hand come from different stars than the atoms in your right hand? And that, considering the vastness of the universe, those stars more likely than not exist at completely opposite ends of it. That means that those atoms have been travelling for up to 14 billion years, since the birth of the universe itself, through the tapestry of space and time – and have ended up here in the tips of your fingers, or to form the lines in your palms. Everything that you will ever do with your hands – picking up things, putting them down, reading a book, cooking food, eating, playing sports, making art, making love, building something or destroying it (and in my case writing this blog) – will be done with the use of those atoms. They will be there for you every time you need to reach out and caress someones hair, every time you hold your child, every time you use a weapon or physically deter someone from using theirs. You have these atoms at your disposal and what you do with them is up to you. They don’t ask for anything in return, nor can they make any promises. They just exist, as do you, and as do I…for a little while.

Then when your time is up, or mine for that matter, the atoms will no longer be held together. They will disperse back into the earth and eventually into the space they came from. They will travel on and become part of other planets, perhaps even ones with their own forms of life – and again be part of someone else’s existence. If you want to see it as something which unifies us, brings us all together, then I can certainly get onboard with that. For me, this most astounding fact has been best summarised by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins…

“Matter flows from place to place and momentarily comes together to be you.”

– Richard Dawkins

…and that’s it. That is life in a nutshell. Maybe it sounds cynical or nihilistic to you, but I think that upon further dissection that statement turns out to completely sum up the wondrous simplicity of life. We all want to make our existence, and the existence of those we love, into some sort of cosmic pinnacle by believing that death can be survived somehow. Well maybe we can’t survive our own death, we can’t beat the physics, but what we can do while we’re alive is so much more important – don’t you think? The lives we change, the memories we impart, and the art or poetry that we create will all outlive us. For one brief moment in time; you existed, you loved, you laughed, and you cried. You had bad luck and good luck, ultimate highs and ultimate lows. Along the way you may have thrown out a sentence or two to a passing stranger which meant nothing to you, but may have changed their outlook completely. The things we do that we consider trivial and unimportant can often have the greatest impact, and we’ll never even be aware of it. There is no such thing as an insignificant person, even if there are 7 billion souls to compete with. I don’t care if there are 107 billion, nothing you do will ever be completely lost on the world. A human life may just be like a flash bulb that goes off once. Comparatively it blinks for only an instant, but can shine with a remarkable brightness.

I want you to look at your hands again for one last time. Take a good long look. Those hands are borrowed, those atoms are borrowed, you don’t get to keep them forever. What matters is what you do with them. What are you going to touch? What are you going to show? What are you going to make, break, paint, patch, and plaster? Who are you going to hug or punch? Will you learn an instrument – or sign language? Whatever you do, those hands and those atoms are there with you every step of the way. They’re yours to build the kind of life and legacy that you want to carry on after you in any and every way that it can.

I know some people pray and attempt to talk to the dead in various ways. I’m afraid I don’t participate in that sort of activity, but instead I make it a point to remember the deceased. I try to remember the effect a lost loved one has had in my life; to remember what they said, what they did, and how they might have handled the situations I now have to face going forward. When a movie that you like ends, it’s sad, but what that experience has given you is something to be utterly thrilled about. Likewise; death is sad, but we can take comfort from the fact that those who are dead were once alive, and that for that brief moment in time…we were privileged to know them.

– Rant Over

5 thoughts on “The end of a reel

  1. Pingback: Fright-sized scares « Cinema Rant

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