blackbirdonline journalSpring 2021  Vol. 20  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Movies You Must See Before You Die

I’m eleven, visiting relatives in North Carolina with my parents one Christmas, when we stop at a used bookstore in Chapel Hill across the street from the university, picking up last minute holiday gifts, my Mom looking for Jan Karon’s latest Mitford novel. We step through the front door and enter a space that feels unreal at first, one of those old stores so impossibly crammed full of books it looks like the place is constructed from them, volumes stacked floor to ceiling, propping up a bowed-in overhead beam here, filling a closet full there—romance novels, gardening guides, dilapidated old textbooks, self-published science fiction, and on and on. It’s like standing in someone’s mind, each book a collected experience, a small memory.

I get lost quickly though the shop is not very big. Off in a corridor I find a section of tall books, their titles printed in bold block letters on the spines, each one with a name that means nothing to me: Welles, Kurosawa, Godard. I examine the various covers, all of which seem to feature black-and-white photos of men, only men, on movie sets, photographed in the middle of saying something very important while wearing an eccentric, slightly mussed outfit.

Below these, the books by film critics and scholars. Their titles range from Italian Neo-Realism: A History and New Wave: Reinventing American Independent Cinema in the 80s to Mick Martin and Marsha Porter’s Video Movie Guide and Roger Ebert’s Your Movie Sucks. And then I see the one that threatens me from the shelf. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, edited by Steven Schneider.

For the first time those two realms of thought converge in my mind: movies and dying. Or rather, not dying per se (even the movies I’d seen as a child were full of moments of death), but rather, movies and existence and purpose. If you see enough of them, if you see these exact 1001 movies, then, the book promises, something will open to you, the knowledge of good and evil will become yours. I flip through the book to a random page (Videodrome, 1983, David Cronenberg) and taste something strange and electric. And it’s not just the picture of James Woods with that vaginal VCR-slot in his torso. I want to watch all 1001 movies right then, just sit down, and watch all of them no matter how long it takes. I will watch and they will become mine, they’ll prove something somehow. This is my calling, I realize, my mission. And already I’m running out of time.

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell with the smoky sexiness of Aldo Ray, the swagger of John Wayne, and a salty fussiness that is all his own) is taken to an underground lab operated by some secret division of the U.S. military. Snake’s tough, of course, in his leather jacket and eye patch, an outlaw looking for a way out. A skinny lab tech injects him with needles on either side of his neck. Snake thinks it’s an antitoxin, but state operative Bob Hauk (Lee Van Cleef, still exuding the same maddening slipperiness he had as the “Bad” in The Good, the Bad, & the Ugly) explains they’ve just put capsules in his neck that will explode his arteries in twenty-two hours if he doesn’t rescue the president from the prison island of New York where Air Force One has crash-landed. The capsules are already beginning to dissolve. Snake is running out of time. As is the movie.
Escape from New York / 1981 / John Carpenter

It’s Christmas, an older Christmas. We’re in the suburbs of DC, visiting my grandfather, Clarence. We park our minivan on the street outside his house which is absolutely covered in Christmas lights, including a nearly two story music note stretching up the east wall that blinks out the rhythms of all the traditional carols.

The lights are just one of his collections. Inside there are stuffed animals, little toy birds, arrangements of fake flowers everywhere, all kinds of musical instruments including three full-sized harps, two sitars, two pianos, and a harpsichord. Elsewhere, hanging baskets of plants, board games, night lights, busts of all his favorite composers but mostly the Germans like Bach, Brahms, and Beethoven. One room’s sole purpose seems to be the display of nothing but faux brass floor lamps, some two dozen or so. The backyard is littered with miniature palm trees and covered bridges, a small Dutch windmill, and a castle for the mini-golf course he’s planning. Each of these collections needs its own house, I think to myself.

One thing my grandfather Clarence doesn’t collect is movies. Doesn’t care for them. “And then the ghost comes out and says Boo!” he says, throwing his hands in the air and contorting his expression into one of cartoonish shock. He objects to the predictable endings, the same old tragedy, the fantasy dissolving away as the protagonist wakes up. But he loves telling stories. He loves taking down his four decades worth of slides from his study and projecting their scenes of past family trips on the wall in the living room. Yosemite in ‘70. Grand Canyon in ‘72. And when we come over he especially loves to play the magic specials he’s recorded off the TV. Each time we visit it’s a different magic show (even if it’s the same video cassette). His favorites are the ones where the magician shows how the tricks are done. The woman sawed in half before our eyes, the man strapped into his straight jacket and submerged underwater are never really in danger. All that on-screen death is an illusion. My grandfather delights in the cleverness of the trickery. “All smoke and mirrors,” he laughs.

A man stands on an old truss bridge. It’s Christmas and a cold, December night has settled across the town of Bedford Falls which stretches off into the distance of the matte painting background. The man standing on the bridge thinks he is dead, or was just dead, or is about to be dead. “Clarence! Clarence!” he screams into the boundless darkness hanging above the river. “I want to live again! I want to live again!” He buries his head in his arms. Just then the magic studio snow begins to fall, and his wish has come true, he’s left one reality for another. Later, when the man realizes that his death was only a vision like a movie playing in his mind, he runs home. When he sprints up the stairs to see his children and accidentally knocks off that one loose finial at the bottom of the bannister it will make him glad. Glad to have such a crowded home full of rickety old things. Such a wealth of mess.
It’s a Wonderful Life / 1946 / Frank Capra

A thick fog rolls down the empty streets of my suburban neighborhood outside Dallas, city of RoboCop, of The Thin Blue Line, of Benji. The roads are carless in spite of the hour, five in the evening, a time most of my neighbors would be returning home from work. Instead they’re all indoors behind their closed curtains. Scanning the street it seems my house is the only one with the windows opened and the lights on. I wonder what they’re all doing in there, my neighbors locked like me in their little hovels.

There’s a crisis on, of course. A virus that has exposed other kinds of rot, other deeply-rooted malignancies. Everyone’s talking about how much this end of the world is so much like the movies, and also not like the movies at all, everyone calibrating this particular extreme of reality against film and television, our barometer for existential extremity. And now we’re stuck.

Here it’s a wet day. But I can’t quite seem to remember when it rained. Water just started seeping out of everything. The rose bush. The mailbox. The asphalt of the empty streets themselves. Everything covered in shimmery little droplets. The news says Americans have begun to turn to their screens for answers and for escape, but also to be shown when this has all happened before, this fear a familiar one.

A deserted cobblestone street in a large city. Rows of Bavarian houses rise over the empty avenue like a canyon, their roofs casting jagged shadows below. Then a solitary figure in police uniform comes ambling forward, dwarfed by the houses on either side of him, a field drum strapped around his back. The man stops and rolls on the drum with his drumsticks. Faces begin to appear in the windows, looking down at the man. He reads the mayor’s announcement: Ill or plague-stricken people should not be seen on the streets and cannot be taken to the hospital. They must remain in their homes.
Nosferatu / 1922 / F.W. Murnau

Looking out my window, I imagine my neighbors before their screens, still as stones, hoping the images will transfigure them for a time, carry them off into some other reality. But I suspect they can’t sit and watch for too long without sensing death in the backs of their minds, the death that has sent them back inside their houses. Doesn’t the escapism of movies backfire for them too? How often, even in the most banal, have they recognized some artifact, some fly in the ointment from their lived experience that has dislodged and become trapped alive in the machinery, some living shred of themselves screaming back at them from the fantasy?

Liverpool, 1950s. A young boy casts the arc of his flashlight into the night sky, returning a bit of light back to the stars overhead. “Some of those stars are dead,” the boy says, though their faint light still finds him here sitting in his window. Somewhere bouncing around in the radio waves of space the voices of Orson Welles and Martita Hunt slip past those of his old science teacher and that of his mother still singing, “If I had my life to live over, I’d still fall in love with you.” Later, the boy will walk into the darkness of a cellar. His childhood is over. It’s long gone.
The Long Day Closes / 1992 / Terence Davies

At least as early as 1935 when Walter Benjamin publishes his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” critics have thought of movies as both an expression and a consequence of modernity, a reflection of modernity’s overstimulated, hustle-and-bustle pace of life, full of flash and bang. And certainly this has proven true since nearly the beginning of film. But film has also always possessed an array of sleepier, oneiric qualities, sometimes suggesting an errant daydream, half of a train of thought, a string of visions, a confused sequence of memories or sensations. With the right timing and little tricks of lighting, those early filmmakers realized, movie images could expand into other dimensions, acknowledging multiple perspectives and expressing a kind of collective experience. And if done properly all these perspectives might meet somewhere in the middle in a place that doesn’t exist.

When early filmmakers figured out that one of film’s greatest magics had something to do with sleight-of-hand editing, with the manipulation of time, they may have been interested in cultivating a disruptive and shocking approach to modern storytelling, but they also unlocked something that seemed to resonate with deeper aspects of consciousness. Movie became synonymous with Dream. In form and substance, film began to be seen as the closest we could get to stepping into our own ever-shifting memory-scapes, the territories mined by our dreams.

In 2017, three researchers at Hadassah Hebrew University in Jerusalem publish the results of their studies of life review experiences, a phenomenon reported to occur in people who come close to dying, often referred to as “your life passing before your eyes.” The researchers studied seven patients and sent questionnaires to 264 others who had had what would medically be considered near death experiences. All of the participants reported having some form of the life review experience, images and details appearing suddenly from all across their lifetimes. Many, however, reported that the images did not occur chronologically, but rather in a kind of “video collage.” Others reported that the memories were from episodes they’d experienced, but from someone else’s point of view. The conclusion of the study found that a version of the life review experience may also occur in healthy people. It proposes that “a representation of life-events as a continuum exists in the cognitive system, and maybe further expressed in extreme conditions of psychological and physiological stress” (Katz et al. 76).

I’m twenty years old and I’m walking into a hospice for the first time. As I walk around I gradually become struck with a kind of low-level panic by the televisions in each room. I tell myself not to be surprised—hospital rooms have televisions, why shouldn’t hospices? But I can’t get over it. I imagine the whole hospice filled with all of its fragile, failing bodies, and all any of them can do is watch some movie or show, nothing more profound or important to do with their waning hours, minutes, seconds. The hospice TVs all have a kind of default channel with images of natural landscapes that dissolve in and out, accompanied by soft, ambient sound. A branch of autumn leaves. A distant, snowcapped mountain range. A slow-moving river. Is this what the dying want to see, images of the planet they’d spent time on devoid of any other people? Is this better than the images of your life?

A black-and-white photo of a young man standing by the rim of a canyon. The voice of Laurie Anderson explains that the man was her friend and that when he had twenty-four hours left to live he invited his friends to his hospital room and read to them. Anderson says that when her friend died two Buddhist lamas standing on either side of him shouted instructions into his ears from the Book of the Dead for how to pass on. Later, Anderson says, she saw the ghost of the friend, walking around at first, then vanishing. “Every love story,” she says, quoting David Foster Wallace, “is a ghost story.”
Heart of a Dog / 2015 / Laurie Anderson

The grief instant is almost always a more compelling on-screen moment than the death instant because we know the actors are just actors and they’re not really experiencing death. It’s more or less a dramatic guess. But in those scenes where someone absorbs the loss of a loved one, those scenes where the actor is really giving up something of a private self, you can feel their proximity to death. In the unreal space that hangs between the screen and me, I touch one of the actor’s hands. Their other hand extends back through time and touches the space that death now occupies, which is simultaneously empty and full of death, a space that is bounded by the actor’s body up unto the moment of their releasing it, at which point it extends toward eternity.

My dad sends me a single text that says my grandfather Clarence is dead. There is no phone call. There is silence before he dies and silence after. It happens very quickly. He dies alone in his room.

Floating above a river. Dense fog, poor visibility, something massive floating into the foreground. A long raft, nearly barge-sized, composed entirely of logs lashed together. A few men on board steer the wooden barge with long poles, but the river is moving very fast and runs along a sheer rock face on one side. They have to move their poles quickly to avoid careening into the rocks or tipping over. The barge passes and in the middle there is a man on board who is visible only for an instant. Suddenly he takes the torch he’s holding and hurls it into the river before collapsing, writhing in pain. His betrothed is dead.
Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors / 1965 / Sergei Parajanov

A naked woman tears furnishings from the walls of a room, flailing her body violently, clutching at blankets and curtains, tearing at them and throwing them to the floor. She pounds her fists into the walls, her eyes wide, her expression deranged. She opens her mouth and the name of her dead husband appears, flashing in huge letters in the intertitles. Elsewhere a herd of wild horses comes galloping over the hills. They surge forward and overwhelm the frame.
Earth / 1930 / Alexander Dovzhenko

In a 2008 article in The Spectator, author Scott Combs describes the use of figures he calls ‘registrants’ in early films that showcased death, both real and staged. The role of the registrant as Combs describes it was to approach the corpse just after the moment of death, after the audience has seen the transformation from live body to dead body. The registrant then interacts with the body in such a way to demonstrate that the death the viewer believed they witnessed on screen has, in fact, occurred. Sometimes the registrant looks at the body, sometimes they interact with it in a more physical way, but their job is to confirm the permanence of the death that has taken place. Combs specifically cites an 1895 short directed by Alfred Clark entitled The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots or The Execution of Mary Stuart, writing that it was perhaps “the first cinematic attempt to visualize a death” (Combs 32). Clark’s short was the first known film to use the “stop trick.” Mary is led to the chopping block where she kneels and bends down her head. When the executioner raises the axe, the actor is suddenly replaced with a dummy, so that when the blow lands the decapitation is quite convincing, but the real person left the frame several seconds ago. The executioner then, serving as registrant, bends down and triumphantly raises the dummy’s head. It lasts all of eighteen seconds.

I see my grandfather Clarence’s body lying in its casket, and I run out of the church. Not because I’ve become any more emotional than I already am at the sight of his body, but because nobody had told me that it wouldn’t be him. I look down and it isn’t my grandfather, but somebody else. Somebody who’s smaller somehow, with a different face. I wasn’t present for the death instant, no one was. But at some point my grandfather has gone somewhere. He certainly isn’t in that casket. So, not knowing what else to do, I run. In the parking lot outside the church, it’s a relief to look at the cars parked in their parking spaces, the traffic passing and stopping at the red lights, the day proceeding in all its predictability.

A teenage boy rides his motorbike into Morningside Cemetery where his older brother has just been laid to rest. As the boy glances around at the hundreds of headstones, he thinks he sees, out of the corner of his eye, dwarf zombies ducking to hide behind the grave markers. Later, the boy will discover that the mortician who cared for his brother’s dead body actually turned it into a dwarf zombie. All those supposedly interred at Morningside are actually dwarf zombies the mortician sends back to his red hot home planet where he uses them for slave labor. I used to not understand this movie. Now it makes perfect sense.
Phantasm / 1979 / Don Coscarelli

While I stare out the window, the mailman arrives, later than usual, and deposits the mail in the mailbox. Today it’s just junk and the newspaper. I look at the front page. Several hundred cars are gathered in a parking lot outside a church. Except they’re not in parking spaces. They’re arrayed in a kind of half circle around one side of the church where a huge projector screen has been displayed. On the screen is an altar where a dead body rests inside a casket, the face of the dead person projected many times its actual size across the outdoor screen. This scene is playing out several thousand times over, the newspaper says, as the virus prevents the procedures of a normal funeral. Bodies appear on a screen or through a pane of glass and then vanish into thin air.

“Run, Bambi!” a mother deer orders her fawn. Bambi runs pell-mell into the forest, his mother exiting the frame. Bambi doesn’t know yet this is the last time she will appear. A shot rings out. There is no body. She’s just gone.
Bambi / 1942 / David Hand & Others

At the bottom of a gorge, a lion cub inspects his father’s dead body, not yet believing in the death, hoping his father is only sleeping. But look, he lifts the big lion’s paw and it slumps back down again, limp and dead. The lion’s death has, in fact, occurred. Except maybe it hasn’t. Later, the young lion will look up at the clouds and see . . . something. It looks like his father and it speaks his father’s words. But then it rolls back up into the clouds like a memory.
The Lion King / 1994 / Roger Allers & Rob Minkoff

About a week after my grandfather’s death I drive back to his house by myself. Nearly all his belongings have been stuffed into trash bags and piled up at the curb, small mountains of artificial flowers and knick-knacks that, I suppose, meant something to him, like a 3D collage of his entire life suddenly manifest out on the street, a thousand pieces of him, a thousand things to say goodbye to, or not. Inside the house I begin taking pictures of what’s left; rooms, windows, furniture, whatever hasn’t been hauled off or bagged up. All of it like so many still life paintings I want to make sense of, his collections disorganized and strewn about the house.

I am a son of collectors. I collect movies the way my grandfather collected so many things. But for what purpose I’ve never actually been able to articulate. In the hope that what’s collected will preserve some other memory, that will establish a timeline of memories, maybe even construct a narrative? In his study I find several dozen boxes of my grandfather’s slides. They aren’t arranged chronologically, as I thought they might be, but alphabetically and by his own categories: airplanes, Baltimore, cactus, cats. Several other boxes of slides have already been bagged and are lying out on the street, a collection proving its owner’s existence to no one.

A woman tells of letters she once received from someone visiting Earth for the first time. During his visit he made little films in an effort to capture evidence of happiness in images. The images begin to play on screen. Three children on a road in Iceland. A fighter jet descending into the bowels of an aircraft carrier. The Earth-visitor wrote that he’d tried to link the images, but it had never worked. Later, the woman will talk about how the visitor was concerned about the function of remembering which, he wrote, “is not the opposite of forgetting, but rather it’s lining. We do not remember. We rewrite memory much as history is rewritten.”
Sans Soleil / 1983 / Chris Marker

Because of the virus my wife and I have relaxed (read: done away with) our regulations of our son’s screen time. In the past few weeks he’s watched who knows how many movies. In 2010, I started tracking all the movies I watched on an online film database. In the past decade or so I’ve watched 1,113 movies, not including television shows or other videos. That comes out to about one movie every three days, or about 1.9% of my average day if we assume the average length of a movie is ninety minutes.

Scrolling through the record of my movie-watching life, I admit to myself that I can’t remember many of the plots of the films I’ve seen or characters’ names or central themes. What I remember are little fragments, a tone or a feeling, the color of an object, a particular shot, a mood, a line of dialogue disconnected from other context. What I remember is how I felt watching them. I think of those movies where the protagonist has only an image or two to solve the mystery with, a few photographs or seconds of film, but it’s the key to everything. Somewhere hidden in the picture is the clue that will connect all the dots. Blow-Up, The Cat ‘o Nine Tails, The Eyes of Laura Mars, Blow Out, JFK, Zodiac. All those scenes when a character says, “Enhance!” and we push deeper and deeper into an image. But it’s not so much a particular killer’s identity or motive that draws me in as the notion that all of the chaos can be made sensible, that the random collage of images that keeps flashing in the back of my mind is simply a code waiting to be deciphered. A mystery plot is just trappings for the various details of much humbler narratives. When the end comes, all I’ll have are images in my head, my own fragments. All I can do is hope they’ll make sense. So maybe if I go on enhancing and enhancing I’ll find whatever it was I was after this whole time.

A man leads an elephant by a rope. Then the elephant is tied down with copper sandals on her feet. She sways back and forth. Then she freezes rigidly as bolts of electricity flood her body. Plumes of smoke begin to rise quickly where the elephant’s feet are strapped down. She collapses awkwardly, her body disappearing for a moment into the smoke. Then the smoke clears. A man walks into frame and inspects the body. She’s dead.
Electrocuting an Elephant / 1903 / Thomas Edison

Grandpa brings my sister and I popcorn as we settle in, sitting on the floor of his living room. “Here we go,” he says and pops a video into the VCR. The screen turns blue. There’s some kind of clock with a countdown in the upper right corner. Then we see a stage. An airplane hangar-sized door opens and smoke drifts in. The masked magician is about to perform his biggest trick yet. A 7,000 pound elephant emerges through the smoke, striding slowly onto the stage. The elephant is led into a cage, the door closed and locked behind it, but we can still see the elephant through the bars. The masked magician walks over, shows us the cage is locked, struts around the stage a little bit, then waves his hands. Blam! A puff of smoke and in an instant the elephant is gone. We see through the bars now only an empty cage. But look, the narrator says. Suddenly we’re looking over the top of the cage and there’s the elephant. It never moved. It’s still there.

One application of the Kuleshov effect, the phenomenon by which two or more moving images are presented in a sequence, prompting viewers to intuit different connections between the images based on their sequencing, is the ability to create what filmmaker Lev Kuleshov himself called “artificial landscapes.” An actor could walk out the front door of a cottage in a studio and emerge on the top deck of a sailing vessel. Kuleshov determined that you could leave it to a viewer to travel the distance not shown, that cinema encompassed not only everything seen, but certain things that were unseen as well. All kinds of unreal geographies could be created. As could bodies.

I’m walking around a neighborhood at night. There are lots of other people out walking too. They amble down the sidewalks, stopping to look at each house. They point at the houses, admiring certain features. Each of the houses in this neighborhood is the exact same model. They’re small homes with just one room stacked on top of another, connected by a narrow staircase at the back. Each of these houses has nothing but a big plate glass window on the front side, like looking into a diorama. You can see everything. In all of the bottom rooms there are modest furnishings; a chair and a table, maybe a lamp and a woodstove. In all the upper rooms is a single bed. And in all the beds is a body.

“Look, that’s him,” I hear someone say, “That’s the man who made all these houses for them.” I turn and notice someone is pointing at me. All of a sudden a whole crowd of people is moving quickly toward me.

“No, I’m not,” I say, walking toward the house closest to me, “I’m not him, the man you’re thinking of.”

I walk inside the house I’ve just retreated to. The bottom room is lit entirely by night lights. They’re plugged in everywhere. On top of a small table is a little toy bird next to a vase of fake flowers. The house is warm and there’s a humming in the air. I walk slowly up the stairs. Outside the whole neighborhood seems to be looking in at me through the pane of glass.

As in all the others, there’s a body in this house’s bed too, and I can see immediately, though only his hair is visible sticking out from under the covers, that it’s my grandfather. I take off my shoes, and then my coat, fold them and set them down on the floor. Then I sit on the edge of the bed. As soon as I do I hear my grandfather exhale. The exhalation sounds as though he’s been holding his breath for a long time and was waiting for someone to sit next to him so he could let it out. His sigh lasts for several minutes. When it ends, I climb into bed next to him and settle in under the sheets. I look over and gently pull the covers back from his face. It’s him. A bit younger and with grayer skin than I remember him, but it’s still him. I realize that he’s only been on pause this whole time. He just needed someone to unpause him.

He smiles at me the way he always did. “I’m so glad you showed up,” he says.  

Combs, Scott. “Cut: Execution, Editing, and Instant Death.” The Spectator, vol. 28, no. 2, 2008, pp. 31–41.

Katz, Judith, et al. “The life review experience: Qualitative and quantitative characteristics.” Consciousness &
, vol. 48, Feb. 2017, pp. 76–86.

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