I don't mean to sound morbid. Or maybe I do. I don't know. It's just something that's been on my mind quite a bit in recent weeks, even before the sudden (to me) loss of Wes Craven. Maybe that has contributed to my inability to deal with losing him, or maybe my inability to deal with losing him has only exacerbated how much I've been thinking about the subject. That's a chicken/egg debate not really worth having, because the chicken is sad and the egg is stillborn.
The truth is I've always thought a lot about death because I'm scared of it. I'm not special in this way. We all are. But I can remember sitting on the basement stairs at my grandma's house in Missouri on my sixth or seventh birthday and crying because I realized that a) another year of my life had gone by and I hadn't accomplished anything and b) I was now a year closer to dying. With that kind of darkness I could have been the next Tim Burton. All I need is the desire to take good things and make them more terrible.
The more I've thought about it recently, the more I've come to realize that it's not the dying part that really scares me. I was not raised with any kind of religion or spirituality, so I'm not really a believer in an afterlife (though I will not identify as an atheist, because those people tend to be know it alls). So while I'm weirded out by the idea that one day I will exist and the next day I won't, I'm ok with it. The part that scares me is my own feeling that if that's where this is all heading, what was the point of of being here in the first place? I know, I know, life is precious and I must appreciate every day I get. In my better moments I look at my wife and my kids and I'm happy to know them (and, in some cases, helped make them). They're the best. I'm also lucky to have been here long enough to see Universal turn the Fast & Furious series around, because Fast Five is a gift. My problem isn't that I'm a take-my-ball-and-go-home kind of guy; my problem is that I'm a stay-home-and-never-go-play-ball-in-the-first-place kind of guy. Knowing that I'm just going to go out there and lose makes me never want to get in the game. And I'm eventually going to lose. We all do.
I think I've told the story before. I got around to seeing Meet Joe Black on a Wednesday or Thursday afternoon in 1998 a few weeks after it was already in theaters. Most of the tickets sold for the movie were for people paying to see the trailer for The Phantom Menace and then bailing from the theater faster than you can say "Brad Pitt plays Death in a three-hour romantic drama..." (and even with those ticket sales, the film limped to just over $40 million domestically, which would have been a total disaster had it not grossed an additional $100 million overseas). I was nearly alone in the theater; it was just me and two middle-aged women who talked loudly to one another through most of the running time. I didn't care. From its opening moments -- a looong sequence in which Anthony Hopkins is visited several times by Death and comes to the realization that his days are numbered -- I was completely invested. Emmanuel Lubezki's photography is impossibly beautiful. Same for Thomas Newman's score, which some critics accused of being cloying and treacly and which can still make me start crying to this day. I think I cried for the last 45 minutes of the movie all the way through the end credits set to Israel Kamakawiwo'ole's cover of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow." (Incidentally, this was the first time I had ever heard that version, which I found to be beautiful and an inspired choice of music; now it's become so overplayed that it inspires mostly eye rolling.) This is crazy because watching it with any sort of emotional distance reveals that it's super repetitive as Anthony Hopkins says goodbye to one person after another. Didn't care. Still don't. That shit worked for me.
Of course, it helps that Anthony Hopkins' character, a media tycoon named Bill Parrish, is a billionaire. Living a "good life" comes more easily to those with all the fuck you money in the world. This is an aspect of the movie I struggled with for a long time, because for all its universal messages about dying I felt like it completely removed itself from the real world by focusing on an incredibly wealthy and powerful family planning an incredibly huge and extravagant party. But it comes in part, I think, from the fact that Martin Brest's screenplay is an adaptation of the 1934 film Death Takes a Holiday, in which Frederic March plays Death taking over the body of a nobleman. It's a movie about a royal family, and clearly Brest chose to suggest that the Ted Turner-like media tycoon of his version is the American equivalent of royalty. Or maybe it's a choice driven by plot; would Death (now Brad Pitt) want to hang out on Earth for a week if he came across a family crammed into a two-bedroom apartment? Maybe he just wanted to live the good life for a few days.
But what it really comes down to, I think -- and the reading that makes me most comfortable with what the film is about -- is the idea that death comes for us all. It is the great equalizer, and while Bill Parrish is able to pass away in greater comfort than someone wasting away in a hospital bed or a homeless person freezing to death on the streets of a Chicago winter, the end result is the same. It's inevitable, and Meet Joe Black is about that inevitability. All the money in the world doesn't change it.
Ironically, he's at his best when he's just doing his nice-guy romantic comedy stuff early on in the film (before some terrible late '90s CGI kills him off with one of the most shocking and weirdly mean-spirited car accidents ever committed to film). He has a long scene in which he has coffee with Claire Forlani -- what the great Roger Ebert dubbed the "meet cute" -- and their chemistry is lovely and adorable. We're totally ready to watch a movie about these two people falling love, and Brest understands that this scene has to work in order for us to feel the loss that comes immediately after. He overplays his hand by having them say goodbye and go off on their separate ways, only to then take turns stopping and looking back at one another six or seven times (it gets to be as ridiculous as Cameron Diaz running towards the fence at the end of The Holiday). Still, the moment works for me. This is the last time these two characters will see one another as they are, in a matter of speaking. It's a moment about the sadness of missed opportunity and the road not taken.
And yet. And yet.
None of this matters to me. I see the problems, I see the bloat and it does not bother me. We cannot argue with our own emotional responses to a film. We can try to understand them, but it is pointless to fight them. It would be like taking a bite of food and trying not to taste it. We must let movies happen to us, and for whatever reason Meet Joe Black happened to me. I have convinced myself time and again that it was just the place I was in on that day in 1998 -- I was heartsick in love and feeling very alone and hopeless -- but I have gone back to it since and it continues to work. It continues to happen to me.
It seems odd that I would have such hangups about death, as my two favorite movie genres are horror and action -- the two genres where the body count is practically the narrative. In its way, Meet Joe Black makes death a little less scary. The movie doesn't tell us that Bill Parrish is going on to any kind of afterlife, but makes it known that he will continue to live on in the memories of the people who knew him and loved him. The best I can do is hope for the same.
If nothing else, at least I know that when Death does come it will look like Brad Pitt.