Saturday, March 6, 2010

Miscellaneous Musings – Making a Mockery of a Tragedy

March 6, 2010

Movies have found a way to make death romantic. When I say this, I’m not talking about movies about serial killers or the mob, for in those kinds of movies, it is all too often the killer who is made romantic or sympathetic. In fact, when some viewers think about such characters as Hannibal Lector or Michael Corleone, they speak of them as if they were tragic or fascinating figures and completely ignore the carnage and misery they cause others, somewhat reminiscent of the way some people in the 1920s looked at criminal icons such as Al Capone as if they were heroes. In the case of films such as Pulp Fiction, murder and mayhem is made to look rather cool, especially when it is committed by characters as smooth-talking as Vincent Vega and Jules Winnfield.

No, when I say the movies have made death something bordering on wonderful and poetic, I’m referring to movies such as My Life Without Me, a movie in which a woman is told she has two months to live and uses that time to find her replacement, or 1998’s Stepmom, in which Susan Sarandon proclaims that she can die in peace because Julia Roberts is there to take her place as the mother of her two children. I can even throw in Jonathon Demme’s Philadelphia for the odd moment towards the end of the when Tom Hanks looks at his long-time love and tells him, “I’m ready.” A more recent example would be The Bucket List, about two men who decide to do all of the things they have been putting off for years before they die of cancer, and judging from the box office receipts and some of the comments from satisfied moviegoers I’ve heard, people enjoyed seeing Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman finally getting to live life to the fullest.

However, if you saw the title of this rant, you know that I do not entirely share these sentiments.

A few years ago, a teacher whose class I was assisting was diagnosed with cancer. She did what I suspect many people in her place would do. She put on a brave face, went about the business of securing substitute teachers for each of her classes, and immediately had an operation. I have no knowledge of her behavior outside of work, but I doubt she went looking for a new mother for her children or a new wife for her husband. How do I know this? Because she looked straight at me one day and told me, “I am not going to die.” And she didn’t. She beat the disease, and she continues instructing and inspiring students to this day.

What got me thinking of this topic was Nick Cassavetes’s recent film My Sister’s Keeper, a film that I both liked and wanted to throw things at. What caused this conflict in emotions was the character of Kate Fitzgerald. Kate is an incredible likeable character, and everyone around her seems to adore her. It’s always these characters that bad things happen to in movies. (In fact, if a character in a movie says that the woman he’s just met loves life more than anyone he’s ever met, that’s a pretty good indication that she’s not only going to die by the end of the film but also going to be OK with it.) Through flashbacks, we see Kate struggling with her illness, worried about how she looks without hair and, in one powerful scene, ingesting a large handful of pills in front of her frightened younger sister.

One particular flashback introduces us to a kind young man named Taylor. He is also going through treatment for cancer, and the two of them soon begin what proves to be a truly amazing and heartfelt romance. In fact, this storyline was my favorite part of the film. However, I felt a small pain in my stomach when Taylor confesses that he doesn’t regret getting cancer, for it brought the two of them together. So let me get this straight – Cancer is good if it allows two people to meet and fall in love? What a completely ludicrous notion. I wanted Kate to correct him, to borrow a line from Lasse Hallstrom’s film, An Unfinished Life and reply, “I wish neither one of us had cancer.” She doesn’t, and the scene quickly fades out, leaving viewers with the impression that what may have sounded romantic in the moment was in fact logical. This allows Taylor’s death to be seen as romantic, for he found his true love before he died. However, he is still a teenager who dies of a terrible disease. Exactly where is the romance in that?

Later in the film, it is revealed that Kate too has come to terms with her fate and no longer wants to continue having operations to prolong her life, operations that for as long as she can remember involved her sister undergoing often painful procedures. Kate’s decision leads to an emotional scene in which a child comforts her mother, telling her that it’s time to let go and that everything will be OK in the end. I imagine the scene brought tears to some viewer’s eyes. To me, the scene just seemed wrong. Kate doesn’t last much longer either, for in movies, characters always die after they have said something wise or healing. If only life were really like that.

There is another reason to dislike Kate’s acceptance of her fate, and that is that it robs the film of any possibility of real drama. Just imagine the possibilities if Kate wants to live and her sister doesn’t want to keep donating her organs. Then the court case would mean something. We would be watching it intensely, knowing that Kate’s life hung in the balance. Instead, the eventual court decision has absolutely no bearing on the story at all. And as the credits roll, we’re left with the erroneous notion that when a fifteen-year-old girl dies, it is somehow beautiful. I just don’t get it.

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