Saturday, May 9, 2009

As Sentimental as Death and TV

I didn’t cry at the funeral. I stood around feeling awkward and wondering whether or not I should look at the body. I wanted to – not to say goodbye so much as because I’ve never seen a dead body before and I knew that the person who owned this one wouldn’t mind if I satisfied my curiosity with it. In the end I didn’t, just because it meant moving outside of the inertia I had been sleeved in for days. I still had the capacity to dry the tears of loved ones and to listen but if I had to touch a stained cheek, my cold hands would make goosebumps from the grieving flesh. I was hardly there at all.

I’ve never been to a funeral that was a scratch on the life of the person it farewelled. It doesn’t help that all the funerals I’ve been to have been suicides and there are always hidden parts of a suicidal life. The shadows and dark places and intensity can’t be eulogized in a ritualized half hour. In many ways a suicidal life is an ‘inappropriate’ life and therefore at odds with an appropriate, fitting tribute. It’s difficult, hard to celebrate and hard to morn.

In my life I rely on texts to situate my emotions. The neatness of form of a film or a novel gives the reader an analytical, experiential distance that we aren’t afforded in the sloppy, overpopulated, interactive reality of everyday life. And somehow that allows me to get closer to what’s at the heart of the feeling. To let go. You might think this is fucked up, but it’s as legitimate as any other way of understanding the world. This is why, now, home from Sydney after a long, real week ritualising loss and grief, the thing I want to do most of all is rewatch the last episode of the last season of the HBO series Six Feet Under.

I have needed to rewatch this episode before. Always at times when life seems fucked up and difficult. When things are senseless and unspeakable – lacking eloquence. It's sentimental. It's fitting. It’s catharsis inducing TV. It allows me to experience that shaking, rasping full body cry that seems to beat all the moth dust and splinters from your body and heave you out of inertia.

For those of you who haven’t watched Six Feet Under, I’m sorry for your loss. It’s a classy soapy about a Californian family who run a funeral home where dead bodies are constantly sitting up and philosophizing about the plight of the living. It flirts with corn but the characters are very real and fucked up and sad and beautiful. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and call it an important ontological drama. I’m not alone in my feeling about this. After watching all five seasons of Six Feet Under a friend of mine confessed that through the show she finally felt as though she was grappling with some of the emotional turmoil surrounding her mother’s death when she was still small. The show is insightful and wise without being dogmatic or Christian in its approach to death and how we the living can deal with the fact of it.

Another reason that Six Feet Under is such a unique and astounding television series is that it ends. In the competitive industry of American network television so many of our favorite shows either never reach conclusion (see Deadwood, Carnivale), or ramble on forever, never wanting to definitively prevent the possibility of another season or a spin off from being made (see The Simpsons and every Aaron Spelling show ever made).

The tag line for the final season of Six Feet Under is: Everything. Everyone. Everywhere. Ends. As in the scope of this TV show is no less than everything that you have ever seen or felt. As in this show will end and so will you and everyone else.

I’ve gotta break from my death theme for a second here to admit to you that I did have something of a Six Feet Under psychosis in 2007 (the year that the final season was released on box set). It had to do with my over empathising with Claire, one of the show’s main characters. Claire is an intelligent, narcissistic artist type. She is precocious and awkward. She is compelling and charismatic but also completely annoying in her arrogant tantrums and ridiculously naive, emphatic judgment calls. She is the same age as me, born in 1983. And she graduated high school one year after I did - the first year I watched her on TV and saw myself in her.

By the fifth season I was beginning to see more and more parallels between my life and the life of Claire Fischer. In 2007 I had just finished an isolating, slightly uncomfortable honours thesis, and thrown myself into a graduate school in which I became disillusioned with what I saw as industry driven, factory style education. Claire Fisher felt a similar way about her arts degree and we both decided that the best way to deal with this was to drop out and lie around getting drunk, watching TV (me watching the TV image of her watching TV) and fantasizing about how great life would be once we got the sweet arts grant which would allow us to be truly independent and focus on our ‘art’. Neither Claire nor I received said arts grant and after a period of mild depression and life anxiety Claire moved from LA to New York to pursue a job in corporate photography. I moved from Sydney to Melbourne for a job in the corporate media. It’s not like I was copying Claire. We just had an uncannily similar year. And yes, I know she’s fictional. But I heard on This American Life that studies of people who follow long running seasons of television soaps, found that these people get the same benefits from watching these shows as from having actual friends. I have a real relationship with Claire fictional or not.

I’m sorry if this confession makes you feel a little ill. It will help you understand why I have such a visceral reaction to the Six Feet Under finale.

The reason that there will never be another episode of Six Feet Under is that the final episode shows the actual death of every significant character on the show. It depicts the way in which the character dies, and then textually entombs the life in gravestone style with ‘Character Name. Birth date – Death date.’ solemnly etched on a white screen. This strikes out the common ellipsis of fictional narrative. It cuts straight through all the imagined things that characters do after the story that is told is ended. It gets stuck into the inevitable moment of death. Everybody dies. That is the end of everyone’s story. There is no real mystery in the end. The scenes of death are shown one after another in a montage with the image of Claire, driving back and forth across America to attend funerals and weddings. The significant events of loved ones. Something I have been doing a bit of lately.

By isolating and destabilizing the moment of the character’s death the show is celebrating the poetic nature of death itself. Every death is tragic and awful and beautiful and completely about the person who has died and this is something to dwell on. It’s given me some comfort when I try to come to terms with the suicides of my friends. And it seems to me that suicide is the most awfully poetic death of all in that it is written, a deliberate full stop.

Claire Fischer is a photographer and in Six feet under this is a narrative device to explore the way we capture and recapture moments. I know that the photograph=memory cliché is fuck obvious but death is not as nuanced and subtle as life. The stories and flashes of the person you knew are what you continue with in their absence. Like telling and retelling the story of how the drunkard got caught by the cops trying to break into his own house and was capsicum sprayed when he couldn’t get down off the roof, or how, when his daughter asked what rainbows are made of the physics genius gave her a chemicals and molecules and particles break down that totally punctured her belief in magic and totally affirmed his. Like seeing the ruffian, brat faced and smiling, shirtless on a fallen tree in a freezing river in the Huon Valley, instructing the bright morning world to “Strap on a pair” and dive head first into the dark and deep. Like thinking about how gentle the concerned friend was when I was a teenager hanging around his house mooning after his flatmate, and that day at reclaim the streets when he and I watched a girl skateboard cockily down the ramp at Newtown plaza, straight into a display stack of cooking sherry and now he’ll never know she was trying to impress him. Like closing my eyes and seeing the sweet lonely man sitting on the couch in his home made Johnny Cash tee-shirt with his beloved black dog both real and metaphorical, talking about music and love, talking about how special the people he knew were and how he worried about them well into the night.

I’m not trying to advocate replacing people with narrative but I wanna offer the fragments up to my grief as solace.

The characters in Six Feet Under are constantly haunted by the dead and it is a continuing task to separate the real ghosts - the real presence of that person in our lives and consciousness, from the false ghosts - the guilt, fear and anxiety that attaches itself to our emotions and infects our memories when we think about the fact that these people are dead and we, for now, will continue living.

When someone close to you dies people want to know that you ‘are dealing with it’. They wanna talk about bullshit like closure and peace. They just wanna know that you are ok. But I don’t think that humans ever real ‘deal’ with mortality. We just go on kicking against the pricks of it until we get tired or hit by a train or cancer or whatever it is. Most of us learn to look away in order to focus in on the absurdity of life. That’s what most of us do.

The final episode of Six Feet Under uses TV time to emphasize how short a lifespan is and how when you loose someone that you love you continue to look for them, look toward them and their life for the rest of yours.

Death punctuates life.

Claire fisher dies in a hospice bed in 2085. The walls of her room are covered with the photographs she took of her loved ones, though now her Hundred and two year-old eyes are covered with cataracts and glaucoma and she cannot see a thing. She dies blind as we all do. Memory is only significant to the living.
It reminds me a little of another perfect poetic death, the Rutger Hauer Replicant (100 percent sexy robot) death in the director’s cut of Blade Runner:

Lightening pulses the night and the military model Replicant sits motionless, glowing pale against the rain shredded sky. In his death he performs one final task for the race that created him, to die perfectly. In his final simulation he must die a heroes death, a poetic death, he must die the way a man conceives death. As the world slows down the Replicant speaks -.

“I have seen things that you people could never imagine…
All those moments will disappear
Like tears
In rain.”

In fiction, their deaths exceed.

It helps.

1 comment:

  1. Hopefully that was as cathartic for you as it was good.