Johanna Blakley

Media | Entertainment | Fashion

Death & Dying in the Movies

My seventeen year-old cat died a week and a half ago and so I found myself in need of some cinema therapy.

I’ve always argued that people who think of entertainment as simply escapist fare are not being honest with themselves. Yes, we use entertainment in order to check-out of our present situations, but, quite inevitably, we step into another world, one with some pretty clear connections to the world we live in, and we can’t help but use the time we spend in those virtual realities (like movies and games and concerts) to test some of the premises that guide our lives outside the cineplex, game or concert hall.

Sex and death are the bread and butter of compelling storytelling, from The Odyssey to Avatar.  That tradition takes on new hues in Beginners, the new film by Mike Mills that features a thoroughly beguiling performance by Christopher Plummer, who plays a man in his mid-seventies who comes out as gay. Through constantly shifting chronologies and flash backs, the film addresses his sexual awakening and his imminent death simultaneously, making both more poignant. We’re not allowed for one moment to think that this film isn’t about death (his son, played by Ewan McGregor, is packing up his father’s house as the film opens), but in my melancholic state, it was oddly comforting. I realized that what I was longing to escape from was not the subject of death, but my lonely slog through it. It was a relief not only to see other people grappling with it on screen, but to be among 100 strangers in a room who were going through the emotional obstacle course with me.

So when my mother and I scanned through the 50 or so films on DirectTV that we might watch over this holiday weekend I wasn’t surprised that we settled on Marley & Me. No doubt there was a masochistic impulse in the choice, but, post-Beginners, I think I realized the practical value of going through the death and dying grinder again . . . and this time, edging a little closer to my own source of misery.

I was pleasantly surprised by the way this film dealt with the death of a pet. Once Marley started demonstrating his physical decline, the family tried to deny it until they couldn’t anymore. When the straight-talking vet tells Owen Wilson the terrible odds against Marley’s survival, Wilson launched into a tirade about exceptionalism that made me worry that this film, like so much other Hollywood schlock, would be about that glorious statistical oddity, suggesting to sad sacks like myself, that if you just adopt the right attitude, if you just believe, you’ll be able to conquer the odds and defy death. If you’re special, the rules that apply to everyone else don’t apply to you.

Thankfully, Marley declined swiftly and the vet’s dire prediction was true to the letter. This gave me great solace, as I watched Marley’s entire family grieve for their loss. Even in Hollywood, beloved pets die and everyone just has to make peace with it. I’m just about ready to adopt a kitten now.

 RIP Circe Blakley! We will miss you . . .



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