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Saturday, Feb. 4, 2006

The end in sight

Globe and Mail
Saturday, Sep. 6, 2003

Death be not proud, though a certain degree of smugness may be forgivable. You do have a forbidding reputation and a habit of getting the last word and you also seem to have emerged as a bit of a movie star of late. Must say you're rather B-list though. (''And dost with poyson, warre, and sicknesse dwell,'' sneered the poet John Donne.)

Certainly, you're unwelcome past the velvet rope into the VIP section at the choice parties at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.

Yet, in a year when the festival has been promoted as being about your antithesis, that old standby, SEX!!!, you are throwing your famous long shadow this way and that. You're especially big in Canadian films these days (though perhaps that will change with the new, more "commercial" agenda of the Canadian film-funding bureaucracy) in movies such as The Barbarian Invasions, The Saddest Music in the World and one of the most powerful Canadian documentaries in a long time, Dying at Grace. Our morbid inclinations might be expected from a nation known to be more saturnine than our southern neighbours. Though American popular movies often feature many people dying, it's usually in a fireball at a distance, not one individual struggling on a hospital gurney.

Death probably stars in more Canadian movies than Don McKellar and Sarah Polley combined, although technically, it co-stars with them. McKellar stars, and his character dies, in The Event, about a young man with AIDS who is helped to die by his friends and family. In Spanish director Isabel Coixet's Vancouver-set film, My Life Without Me, Sarah Polley plays Ann, a young woman who discovers she is terminally ill with cancer.

She keeps the news to herself, while she completes a final to-do list before she goes: saying what she thinks to people, buying fake fingernails, taking a lover, preparing her children to live without her.

There are several reasons why death is in demand in the movies right now. Almost all of them are captured in Denys Arcand's The Barbarian Invasions, the most celebrated Canadian feature this year and winner of two awards at Cannes. In it, Arcand revisits the group of characters he made famous in The Decline of the American Empire and takes the death of one character, Rémy, as a metaphor for many things.

Yes, acknowledged Arcand in Cannes earlier this year: It relates to that old media favourite -- the baby boomers. The generation that believes it discovered everything first, has recently discovered death. An increased consciousness of mortality comes with watching parents decline and die, and with the medical warning signs that arrive in middle age. Arcand watched his own parents and grandmother die in Quebec hospitals, and as he said, he wanted to imagine the death he would wish for himself.

Here, Arcand's surrogate is Rémy (Rémy Girard) a history professor in his mid-50s who finds himself in a noisy, badly run Quebec hospital facing his end. He is rescued by his estranged millionaire son, who bribes hospital administrators and reunites friends and family from around the world. Finally, everyone gathers at a beautiful lakeside resort where, after a gourmet meal, some marijuana and frank talk, Rémy slips away at the moment of his choosing, surfing on a dreamy wave of heroin.

As oddly upbeat as the ending is, The Barbarian Invasions touches on a larger anxiety of the times, a questioning of the old beliefs in progress, in rationality, in universal assumptions. The "invasions" of the title, says Arcand, are an all-purpose metaphor covering all kinds of senses of impending threat and encroachment -- from cancer to global epidemics such as SARS and AIDS, refugees and the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

"Every one of these is a kind of invasion and we're going to live with these more and more in the next century."

In Quebec, the movie has been interpreted as being about the death of various ideas -- for example, as Globe and Mail columnist Lysiane Gagnon noted, it can be seen as a metaphor for the disappointments of a generation in Quebec. With the collapse of the Roman Catholic Church in the 1960s, Quebec intellectuals embraced a series of "isms", from Marxism to nationalism. Now the new generation is interested only in money and global culture, and the dream of an independent Quebec has been replaced by a cumbersome, ineffective bureaucracy. While cancer invades Rémy, terrorists attack Western civilization and there is a sense that an epoch is over.

Arcand uses a clip of the World Trade Center attacks in The Barbarian Invasions to introduce a historian's comparison of the United States to the Roman Empire. Viewers at Cannes and in Quebec accepted the comparison, though a test audience in New York was upset by the footage (and indeed, the harshest critics of the film have been from New York).

The World Trade Center events, and the images of carnage that so imprinted themselves on people's imaginations, have created a collective sense of human fragility. The falling towers have a campy appearance in Guy Maddin's The Saddest Music In the World (transformed into the glass legs of a domineering tycoon played by Isabella Rossellini) and they also make a brief appearance in The Event, the new movie by Nova Scotian filmmaker Thom Fitzgerald, set in the Chelsea neighbourhood of New York. The movie spans the last couple of years of a young cellist's life, and the movie shows the towers dissolving, and then U.S. flags hung at half-mast after Sept. 11, 2001. Sept. 11 here is acknowledged by way of saying this is not the only tragedy. "The AIDS crisis is not over," says Sarah Polley (here, the deceased's sister) as she hands out leaflets to passersby in one of the movie's final scenes.

The movie concerns a crusading assistant district attorney (played by Parker Posey) who investigates the death, after a party, of a young man who suffered from AIDS. She suspects, correctly, that his death was an assisted suicide.

The death of Matt (Don McKellar), we learn, was like Rémy's death in The Barbarian Invasions, a kind of theatrical sendoff. Why they chose this route is explained by the apprehension of future suffering. We see that Matt has become incontinent and subject to seizures. Before the brain tumours he suffers from lead him to incoherence, and he adds to the suffering of his friends and family, it would better to check out in style. None of these films -- The Barbarian Invasions, My Life Without Me and The Event -- is about sudden death. They are about deaths by disease that are approached, clear-eyed and consciously, before loss of control. Here, death gives life completeness, a conclusion to the haphazard series of incidents that make up actual living -- though, in every case, the importance of the event has nothing to do with religious meaning. It's about signing off a job well done, rather than moving on to the great reward.

There is also a kind of vicarious parlour game at work in such films: What if you were told you had one day or a month to live? You would do all the things you always meant to get around to doing. You would gather all the people you love together and have a wonderful party. In the case of both The Event and My Life Without Me, you would leave recordings behind -- simulations of yourself to communicate from after death.

This use of technology to forestall or delay grief is, in itself, a theme in Canadian film. Atom Egoyan, in particular, often shows how characters try to use technology in this way, often exacerbating the pain of loss. In Mike Hoolboom's essay film, Imitations of Life, the entire Hollywood image-making industry is seen as a way of trying to delay the inevitable, with catastrophe movies serving as a displaced version of the death we are trying to deny.

Inevitably, looking at one's own death is like looking into the sun. We all bring a lot of baggage for the journey, even if we don't know where we're going. Then we hit the wall of paradox: How can you imagine the end of your own imagination? You can't. As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said, "Death is not an event in life. It is not a fact in the world." There is one film in the Toronto film festival, which is not fictional, which looks directly at death, and if you think you can handle it, I recommend it.

Dying at Grace was made by Canadian documentary filmmaker Allan King, who had a retrospective of his films at last year's festival. King broke quite a few taboos in the sixties. He raised a storm in Parliament when he showed the wife of an unemployed man crying on camera. Warrendale, his movie about emotionally disturbed children, was banned by the CBC, and he shocked audiences by looking directly at the nuclear family in A Married Couple. Now he has done it again, breaking into an event at once commonplace and seldom regarded straight on: His new film is about five people dying in the palliative-care unit at the Salvation Army Toronto Grace Health Centre.

King approached them and asked them if they would help him make a film that would help others manage their fear of death. They agreed and allowed us to watch them die. This is both hard and painfully illuminating. (I was up until 5 a.m. after I saw it trying to sort out my feelings.) The film brings to mind Wallace Stevens's poem, Credences of Summer; it's the real thing seen with "the hottest fire of sight" "without evasion by a single metaphor." King spent two years researching, and then 14 weeks shooting the film with people who had agreed to have their last weeks recorded. The film is presented without voice-over or titles after the initial introduction. The only punctuation is the morning nurse's tape-recorded report of the patients' condition through the night. Though all five patients are fortunate enough to be in a palliative-care unit -- where the care is exemplary and morphine available to control pain -- their bodies struggle hard.

Each death is as individual as the person who dies and each viewer will probably draw his or her own conclusions about what those deaths mean. As King says, what he saw was reassuring. He got to know the patients and like them.

In a couple of cases, he held their hands as they died, and he learned from the nursing staff, who could both be coolly efficient when required and also break into tears when one of the patients succumbed. Pain isn't necessary, though for the majority of patients who don't have palliative care it may be a fact. Human lives are irreplaceable; but Death, really, is not so much after all.

"You never lose your fear of death entirely," says King. "Though personally, I think this has made me more composed about the matter. A couple of people who have seen the film have said it terrified them, but only a couple. Nobody has ever said the movie depressed them." ROBTv Workopolis