Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Death at the Movies: Hollywood's Guide to the Hereafter

Among the many attributes of art is its instrumental value. Art can teach. It can educate. Not all art, of course, much of it is soggy crackers. But the good stuff can get you thinking and might even make you a better human. The book Death at the Movies by Lyn and Tom Davis Genelli shines a spotlight on a particular genre of film called Film Blanc first identified in a 1978 article by Peter L. Valenti. This genre is characterised by several traits including but not limited to a character’s mortal death or lapse into dream; the subsequent encounter with otherworld beings, some kind some not; ultimate transcendence and a return home. All of this seems like deep water but the authors eschew obtuse philosophical and/or theological analysis and instead simply focus on movie examples. This is a fun book because it identifies what is implicit in some of the world’s best loved movies and makes it explicit.

Before continuing on to the movies it will be helpful for the remainder of this book review to elucidate one important technical term: transit. The word naturally conjures images of movement, of starting in one place and traveling to another. This isn’t necessarily how the word is used in the book, though movement is an aspect of it. The term transit is used mainly for its explanatory power to suggest a consciousness stage or state in the protagonist’s development. Characters enter, or pass through, the transit state and into what is essentially another world. Film Blanc can be understood almost by definition as transit movies.

Now the fun part, examples of Film Blanc movies. I will briefly mention two: Casablanca and The Wizard of Oz.

Casablanca is a movie I have always enjoyed and it seems fresh even after multiple viewings. I will assume you have seen it. At the beginning of the movie we are told of the harrowing journey the cast of characters must take to reach Casablanca in Morocco. All of these characters are looking to move on to freedom, perhaps in America. Rick, the proprietor of the CafĂ© Americain, has left the U.S.A to run this transit place. The story involves many elements including a long lost love (Ilse), Nazis who act as the demons of this transit world, letters of transit (symbols for dogma, or truth—we all want letters of transit to get through life). Ultimately Rick achieves transcendence when he overcomes selfish desires to keep Ilse with him forever. He lets her go by stating they will always have Paris. He has come to recognize that love is eternal and that in some sense Ilse will always be with him. He helps Ilse leave for safety. Rick, transformed, will remain and fight the good fight against the evil forces of the world (i.e. the Nazis).

The Wizard of Oz is another great example of a transit movie. Dorothy lives a humdrum life. She dreams of going over the rainbow to another world of truth and beauty. Her house is caught in a tornado. She is magically transported to another world (she is lying in bed while this happens, is this her deathbed?). She meets the kindly Good Witch of the East who gives her a pair of magic shoes. She travels on a yellow brick road to meet the Wizard (God?). She must struggle against the wicked Witch of the West. She is aided in this quest by the Scarecrow, the Tin Man and Lion (who represent in their various ways her mind, heart and body). She ultimately faces her fears and in a moment of self-forgetting, or rather selfless concern for another, she saves her friend the Scarecrow from the flames by dousing him with water. The water also destroys the wicked Witch of the West. Dorothy does not fly home with the Wizard but is instructed by the Good Witch to tap her magical shoes together (this magic has been with her the whole time though its power went unrecognized). She returns home to an enriched home-life as is evidenced by the presence of the farmhands the Tin man, Lion and Scarecrow as well as the Wizard all in their everyday (earth-world) guise.

These aren’t the only movies mentioned that exhibit the transit and transformation characteristics of Film Blanc. The book also discusses Groundhog Day, Ghost, Interview with the Vampire, Sixth Sense and several others.

Death at the Movies is an intriguing read. Part of me thinks that over-analysing art will drain it of its experiential power, but the other part believes such analysis is helpful if it nurtures awareness of those implicit and eternal themes of love, self-sacrifice and hope that are a simple click of the TV remote away from full HD expression.   

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