What movies can tell us about dying

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The climactic death of Sometimes a Great Notion
  • The climactic death of Sometimes a Great Notion
Sometimes a Great Notion (1970), which screened Monday night at the Patio Theater, climaxes with an unexpectedly long death scene—one of the most excruciating I've ever watched. It comes as the result of an accident: an inexperienced lumberjack fells a tree incorrectly, and it lands directly on his father, shattering his arm; it also knocks down some other trees in its wake. One of these lands in a river where the character's half-brother (Richard Jaeckel) is standing, pinning his legs to the waterbed. The young man drives his father to the hospital; his other half-brother (Paul Newman) stays to assist the trapped man. No one else is around to help—by this point in the film, the family has alienated everyone in the region with their headstrong behavior (stonewalling unions especially).

The Jaeckel character claims not to be in any pain. He may be trapped, but no bones are broken—the water comes up only to his waist. The Newman character says he'll split the trunk with a chainsaw. The scene grows terrifying as he carves. With no music on the soundtrack, we hear only the violent mechanism of the saw and the indifference of the surrounding Redwoods. Whenever Newman is in the foreground, the saw appears to be just inches away from where his brother sits helpless. Is he going to slice into him along with the wood?

Instead the chainsaw's motor fills with water and becomes inoperative. Jaeckel remains optimistic—once the tide turns, he says, the trunk will move and he can swim free. The trunk does move, but in the wrong way. The water's now up to Jaeckel's chest. In moments, he will be completely underwater. Newman tells him not to worry—he can breathe for him when he goes under, putting his mouth to his brother's once a minute. "Will you stroke my hair while you do it?" Jaeckel jokes, a homophobic slur that also expresses the individualist family's contempt for altruism.

The worst happens. Jaeckel gets lodged underwater and Newman must breathe through his mouth. For the next several minutes, all other concerns go away (so does the large-scale perspective that's defined the movie up until this point) and this character's survival becomes the sole focus of the film. Every breath is a major narrative development, each success more impressive than the last. But Newman can't keep this going and work on moving the trunk, nor can his brother continue breathing secondhand. He opens his mouth at the wrong moment, water enters, and he drowns.

"The human body wants to live," I remember a high school teacher saying, after explaining to our class how difficult it was to asphyxiate yourself. Once you lose consciousness, he told us, you can't apply pressure to whatever it is you're pushing to your mouth and nose, and air reenters your body. (He taught world history; I'm not sure how the subject came up.) In most cases it takes a long time before a body expires—even typically demure people discover unknown strength when violently attacked or pinned beneath a heavy object. This is why the climax of Sometimes a Great Notion is so devastating. As the scene goes on, the voice of instinct tells you that this victim must survive, no matter how terrible the situation gets. It's an instinct supported by countless narrative films, which train us to think that death happens quickly and that long, suspenseful sequences will resolve well.

Alfred Hitchcock tried to counteract this conditioning by making murder appear messy and complicated in several of his films, most notably Torn Curtain (which, coincidentally, also starred Paul Newman). And more recently David Cronenberg achieved something similar in his films A History of Violence and Eastern Promises. There, the ending of a life drags the entire movie to a halt, forcing the viewer to reflect on what an extraordinary object his or her body is. ("My movies don't have high body counts," Cronenberg has said. "I kill two or three people and I mean it!") Of all the arts, cinema may provide the best vehicle for inspiring this sort of reflection, as the manipulation of time is such an important aspect of the medium.

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