Every once in awhile I come across one of those lists of “100 Films You Need To See Before You Die.” I always peruse it, making sure that if I were in fact hit by a bus tomorrow, I at least died with the knowledge that I finally saw the complete un-cut version of Erich von Stroheim’s Greed. Rather than going on great adventures, like any good cinephile my bucket list is mostly filled with films. And yes, I am ashamed and will eventually get around to seeing La Dolce Vita. The point is that these lists recently got me thinking about a different subject, albeit one still dealing with death. The morbid question I want to know the answer to is: What film would you want to watch as you were dying?
I am terrified of death. This is mostly because I have no idea what happens when you die. Is there a God? I like to know what I’m doing the next day and if I don’t know if there’s an afterlife, how can I plan for it? But if I have to die I always figured it’d be nice to do it quietly at age 97 while attending a screening at my local AMC Multiplex. The pimply faced theater worker could just sweep up my old bones with all the half empty popcorn boxes.
But what if I die while watching a terrible film? That wouldn’t be a peaceful way to go. Sure, I thought I wanted to die while I was watching Snow White and the Huntsman, but is the last image I want to take in really the emotionless gaze of Kristen Stewart? And do I really want to see a new film? What if I die before the climactic ending? Could you imagine dying just seconds before learning who Keyser Soze was? It’s too risky.
No. If you are going to drift off into eternal nothingness while watching a film it has to be something you’ve already seen. But what film do I want to be wheeled into a screening of on my death bed? The other night I posed the question to some friends. This made me realize there are a few possible ways to look at it.
First of all, you can go with something you simply love. One friend brought up The Shawshank Redemption. It’s hard to argue with that. It makes you feel good about life. Hopeful. The Pacific being as blue as it is in your dreams. Then a girl I didn’t know so well proposed Troop Beverly Hills. Really? Surely for some reason she must love that film. I became too upset with the idea that she wanted to die while watching mediocrity. I will never let anyone I know die while watching something starring Shelly Long. It wouldn’t be right. My favorite film is A Clockwork Orange, but I don’t know if it’s the last thing I want to see before I die. I don’t want to go out on a violent satirical note.
My friend Swan mentioned Return of the Jedi and immediately people jumped down his throat. Obviously Empire is better. You should die watching the better film! But Jedi makes a lot of sense. It’s the ending of his favorite trilogy, and it’s a triumphant note to go out on. There are a lot worse things to hear as you die than Ewoks singing. You get to die thinking about all your fond Star Wars memories. Not only the whole trilogy, but your youth. Star Wars would be the perfect vehicle to allow your life to flash before your eyes. However this too could backfire if in your final moment you remember someone called Jar Jar Binks.
I feel you need to watch something transportive as you die. Something that can take you out of this world and hopefully into the next. Something that would clear your head of all thought. A true experience.
In that case my film of choice is easy: 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s the ideal film to die to. As the film travels beyond Jupiter you will be taken on a light show that will allow all your synapses to fire at once. There will be a true understanding of the death bed sequence. Now you can relate to Dave Bowman. You’re in his shoes. It’s possible that full understanding of the film and thus life itself will sweep over you, and if you are lucky, maybe, just maybe, you will be reborn as a Star Child! This is the film that would put me at peace, that could give me hope of a world beyond ours. I want to die while watching 2001!
I pick 2001 because it helps me deal with the spiritual aspects of death. In reality, I don’t think there is an afterlife. This is probably it. And yet, in film I like to be given hope that there is something beyond this. I want my art to comfort me in a way that reality and science can’t.
My new favorite film of the year is Cloud Atlas. I find it bold and ambitious in a way few films are. It gets richer and the connections more clear with each viewing, and I have seen it three times. It’s wonderful. I know the editor in chief of this site would disagree with me about this and may I suggest a point/counterpoint article in the future? But I’m not going to review it here, just kind of tell you what it’s about. Souls travel throughout time. We are all connected. A man who becomes an abolitionist in the 1800’s will be continuing that journey four hundred years later. A soul you meet and fall for in 1973 you will finally get together with in the 24th century. The film basically tells us we are all drops in the same limitless ocean.
In a film this idea gives me peace. It makes me feel my time and life have meaning. However if someone came up to me on the street and said “What is an ocean but a multitude of drops?” I would run away from them as quickly as possible. I don’t want to hear about inner peace and reincarnation in my reality. It’s all bullshit. Don’t bother me with your religious hokum. Yet as a theme in a film I love it! I’d imagine as I lay dying a spiritual film like Cloud Atlas would be the only thing I’d want to see. Why is that? Why can’t I stand spirituality in life but love it in art? That might be a question for a different article. Or maybe something I won’t fully understand until I’m in a movie theater for the last time watching 2001.