Thursday, February 28, 2008

O DEATH, O DEATH: Two Perspectives, One End

"Death? Why this fuss about death. Use your imagination. Try to visualize a world without death! Death is the essential condition of life, not an evil."

- Charlotte Perkins Gilman

"If my doctor told me I had only six minutes to live, I wouldn't brood. I'd type a little faster." - Isaac Asimov

“One of the great pleasures of No Country for Old Men has been the huge amount of introspective analysis it has inspired in critics and bloggers and blog commenters and the movie-going community in general. It's been going on to a degree since the movie played Cannes, it really picked up when the movie was finally released, it has continued these months before the Oscars and it continues even today. I don't know how else you could describe a great movie.”

Craig Kennedy, from a comment posted under the article “No Country Under the Skin” found at Jim Emerson’s Scanners


The few words Craig left under the latest consideration of the workings of No Country for Old Men at Jim’s site really hit home with me. It did so because it made me realize just how valuable the amount of intelligent discourse on this movie, which some, as is their right, dismiss simply as a well-crafted genre thriller, has been to my appreciation and understanding of it. There have been miles and miles of great back-and-forths at Jim’s sites, and here as well, as to the relative merits, weaknesses, meanings and intentions of No Country for Old Men, and as with any great film the discussion is unlikely to stop now that it has received the official coronation of awards season.
It so happens that the centerpiece of the article under which Craig’s comment appeared was a letter written to by a man named Nicholas Rizzo who was in the midst of considering his own mortality “on several fronts” when he wrote it. Rizzo’s point of view reframed the discussion of the film yet again, away from thoughts of the historical consistency of dark forces crushing men’s souls, or of Chigurh as Evil Incarnate, toward one in which the movie speaks about the inevitability of aging and death. Rizzo wrote:

“I don't think this movie was so much about an ultimate evil so much as our ultimate ending. Rather, about our ultimate aging, decline in usefulness whether true or not or simply relative to the youth of any generation. The ultimate finality of time. Its categorical nature is represented by Anton's "code of ethics" that can't be broken. People always saying, ‘You don't have to do this,’ is their bargaining with the finality of their own death... not with Anton.”

I read Jim’s article again today, and Craig’s comment for the first time, on the same day that my best friend’s mother sent along an e-mail linked to a video that she insisted would change the perspectives of those on her e-mail list who would just take the time to watch it. Oh, great, more time-consuming Internet platitudes, thought I, having been rendered just a little bit cynical about all the feel-good pieties and other such stuff I’m routinely subjected to by well-meaning family members of my own. One other hurdle for me: it was an excerpt from the Oprah Winfrey Show. I usually like to get all my literary advice, as well as thoughts on matters emotional, psychological, sociological and financial from friends, family and/or professionals—for years it’s been good, solid policy for me to leave Oprah the hell out of as much as I possibly can.

But I weathered the embarrassment of watching a 10-minute segment of Oprah at work today, and I must say I’m glad I did. The segment is a reprise of Professor Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture,” a talk he gave to students and faculty at Carnegie Mellon University which became a viral hit on the Internet, which was taped and has been viewed over a million times since its original posting. Pausch is a virtual reality pioneer who originally gave the lecture as a way of dealing with the fact that he was recently diagnosed with terminal cancer and had, at the time of the Oprah taping, but months to live. Pausch’s decision to deal with his situation in a head-on manner is intended to inspire others in similar dire circumstances, to be sure, but it’s also a legacy to communicate his philosophy of life to his three young sons, who are likely too young to understand exactly what their father is going through, let alone his perspective on it.

And it is a particularly illuminating video to consider in light of the most recent discussion about No Country for Old Men. Sheriff Ed Tom Bell makes certain decisions about how he will live out his life with the knowledge that he has faced death and will continue to face it, even as he recedes from a life that forces him to confront it on a daily basis. The discussions on Jim’s site and elsewhere surrounding these points of view on the film tend to make it an even richer experience. I’ve been shaking and stirring Pausch’s remarkable fortitude and strength around in my head all day, mixing it up with the brutal realizations afforded by the Coen Brothers’ film, and I must say the resulting cocktail has been inspirational indeed. A clear-eyed perspective on death may be a difficult thing to come to grips with, and no two of us, I dare say, is likely to come away thinking about the subject in the same way. But no matter how we approach it, death does indeed come to us all. And it seems to me that experiencing No Country for Old Men and Randy Pausch’s “Last Lecture” are two not-mutually-exclusive ways that we can face it up to it ourselves and decide what we can do until it comes knocking.

Randy Pausch presents a reprise of his “Last Lecture” on The Oprah Winfrey Show


bill said...

Dennis, I can't watch the video from work, so I'll have to wait on that. I will say that even when I have the opportunity, it will take a force of will on my part to actually click "play", because I find this sort of thing terribly difficult to watch, regardless of Pausch's strength and eloquence. It's too straightfoward for me. Too on the nose. I guess that's why "No Country for Old Men" is so powerful for me: it's talking about these issues, without telling me that it's talking about them.

I will say that one of the most amazing, inspirational things I've ever seen is the last interview Dennis Potter gave before he passed away. In case you don't know, Potter was the brilliant, highly controversial writer of the great British mini-series "The Singing Detective" (among many other works). At the time of the interview, he knew that his illness was terminal, and he only agreed to the interview because it was with Melvyn Bragg, who was always a good professional friend of his. Throughout the interview, he's smoking cigarettes (why not?) drinking champagne, and occasionally sipping from a flask of liquid morphine. It is one of the most powerful hours of television I have ever seen in my life, if not the MOST powerful. Check it out, if you can find it. When it's my time, if I can go with half the grace and wisdom and strength of Dennis Potter, I'll be in good shape.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill, thanks for reminding me about that Dennis Potter interview. I wonder if that's available on YouTube or one of the other wonderful avenues for research we have these days.

I certainly understand your hesitance. In addition to the lecture being Oprah-approved (almost always a stigma in my eye), it's difficult for me to imagine how I would react under the circumstances Pausch faces. Surely the professor has had his dark days and nights, and I'd like to think I'd be able to face the end with a fraction of his resolve and dignity. But the truth is, I don't know if I would.

That said, my own mortality has been a subject that has taken up a good portion of my attention ever since I entered my 40s, and I've become increasingly comfortable with thinking about it, at least in the abstract. And I couldn't help but be struck by parallels between this lecture and certain threads that run through the Coens Bros.' movie. They by no means address the subject in the same manner, but I did think that Nicholas Rizzo's letter clarified, at least for me, how the two very different considerations could be raised in the same breath.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Bill, and anyone else who may be interested, I found the Dennis Potter/Melvyn Bragg interview, from a British series entitled Without Walls. It's in several parts, and because the labeling on the links is unclear I'm not sure if all the parts are there. But even incomplete this should be a fascinating addition to what we've talking about. Again, Bill, thanks for the reminder.

At the risk of being accused of morbidity, and speaking of brilliant and eloquent interviews with dying masters of their art, YouTube has also coughed up the final appearance on Late Show with David Letterman by Warren Zevon (in four parts). This was one of the most moving hours of television I've ever seen, and I'm so glad that it's available to look at again.

bill said...

That Warren Zevon appearance was fantastic, but I haven't been able to bring myself to watch the VH-1 special about him. In fact, I have trouble listening to certain songs from "The Wind" lately. Losing him and Johnny Cash in the same week was a hard pill to swallow, I don't mind telling you.