Sunday, November 7, 2010

Hereafter - Are You Talking to Me?

The departing soul hovers about as a dream. Homer - The Odyssey

It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators
. Freud - Our Attitudes Toward Death

But at the very instant he died, having made an effort, he awoke..., "Yes, it was death! I died and woke up. Yes, death is an awakening."
Tolstoy - War and Peace

Spirituality is a tricky business. Ask ten random people on the West side of Los Angles if they are religious and my bet is that eight out of ten will respond, "I'm not religious I'm spiritual." This is sociology of course, not theology. The spiritual smorgasbord seems to offer everything from organic foods to yoga - Herman Hesse to Deepak Chopra.

Clint Eastwood's new film Hereafter, is a movie about alienation, companionship and love as well as the despair that results from incomparable loss. It is a reflection of that distinctively American phenomena - our faith in faith, our belief that belief itself offers its own reward. Religion is in the vicinity of the film but God has been banished from town. The faith, such as it is, is that there is in fact an afterlife and it is possible to communicate with those who inhabit it. The film is spiritual - not religious.

The movie involves three separate stories that converge too neatly at the end, as if we all meet in the end or at least meet the same end. George (played by Matt Damon) is a working-class loner who loves Charles Dickens. He is also blessed and cursed with the ability to talk to the dead, a gift that can attract worshipers or get you crucified. Marie is a French political journalist who has "come back from the dead" after drowning in an Indonesian Tsunami. And Marcus, a young English boy, goes in search of his twin brother Jason who has been killed in a street accident.

Presenting metaphysical images in film is not easy. If we can never imagine our own death, it is even more difficult to picture a satisfying or convincing afterlife. Dwelling for too long on the threshold of the invisible induces boredom and incredulity, which is the main reason why Eastwood offers only brief and gauzy glimpses into the other world.

The movie opens with a horrifying scene of nature out of control. A Tsunami separates Marie and her boyfriend and reminds us that there is a thin division between the serene and the violent. After Marie is swept away, dies and comes back, she and her boyfriend stumble upon each other amid the wreckage of thousands of homes and lives.

For all of the main characters things fall apart. Marie loses her job at a Paris television station and decides to write a book about Socialist Prime Minister Francois Mitterrand. George is laid off from his factory job after a downsizing agreement "cooked up" between the union and management. After losing his twin, Marcus is taken away from his drug-addicted mother and is sent to a foster home.

Marie starts her book on Mitterrand but quickly decides that a book about politics is too mundane and turns to a memoir about her own death experience - a change in direction that she regards as an awakening of sorts. While the film isn't hectoring about the spiritual quest, you can almost hear Eastwood whisper that politics and the prosaic world are not significant given what awaits us. Forget about the struggles in the material plane and the things that we eventually lose. Concentrate on what really matters.

Go back and read the conversation between Odysseus and the dead Achilles in The Odyssey for an alternative view of this life and the next. When Odysseus visits Achilles in the underworld he observes that Achilles rules as a King there as he had on earth. Achilles admonishes Odysseus to cling for as long as possible to life on earth as even the lowliest position there is superior to life among the bodiless phantoms in the kingdom of the dead. This life-affirming attitude was later turned upside down by tendencies within monotheism which saw the after-life as the real prize and reduced our current existence to mere preparation.

The title of Marie's autobiography is The Afterlife - A Conspiracy of Silence. This is laughable of course as the search for the supernatural is a massive industry. Capitalism, which "endlessly assimilates," long ago transformed what passes for spirituality into a commercial enterprise. After the movie I Googled "Communicate with the dead" and generated 8 million references. While it is fairly easy to create a cultural guru or fad, deep faith cannot be willed or marketed into existence. As Michael Harrington has noted, "An isolated philosopher can dream a faith that should be, but only masses of people, responding to something very real within their own experience, can make a church."

George has a different dilemma - in some sense he wrestles with the dilemma of the creative artist. He lies in bed at night listening to Dickens audiotapes and spontaneously travels to London for a Dickens tour. Searching for the sources of his artistic hero's literary work, George reject's his brother's (think of a shallow Hollywood agent) attempt to turn his unique talents into a business. Like a number of Dickens characters - Jacob Marley comes to mind - George lives in spiritual chains, paralyzed by a gift that is also a burden.

In a way, Eastwood's exploration of this character and his "powers," is also an exploration of the hope and risks of artistic creation. What happens when you attempt to conjure the healing power of art and inspiration doesn't appear? What risks are you taking when the "miracles" you used to perform have become empty gestures?

The most effecting of the three stories follows Marcus and his twin brother Jason. It's impact lies not merely with the immediacy of the loss, but because the story profoundly reminds us that we are the others that others think of. Marcus works his way through a number of charlatans and impotent Church figures before - like a Dickens street urchin - he finds George. When Marcus finally talks to his brother it doesn't amount to much but a few familiar cliches; in the afterlife you are both weightless (the thing that Achilles lamented) and "all things all at once." But Marcus' struggle to survive a death that is also the death of a big part of himself, is deeply moving.

Eastwood finally attempts to create an image of order out of all this chaos and death. He looks briefly over the brink but pulls back to provide the audience with something comfortable and reassuring - mundane earthly love.

George's power of intimacy comes through his hands. At the beginning of the film Marie reaches for a young girl who has been swept along with her in the flood. She yells to the girl, "Grab my hand." The last scene of the movie is Marie and George holding each others hands. The Hereafter returns to the here and now. After all the spiritual hokum Eastwood might just be saying, "reach out to one another."

As for Francois Mitterrand, I definitely would have liked to have read a book about one of the political architects of the modern French social system that Nicolas Sarkozy is now trying to dismantle. With respect to Marie's book on the afterlife, I'll just have to wait and see.

Further Reading

Garrett Stewart - Death Sentences - Styles of Dying in British Fiction

Michael Harrington - Politics at God's Funeral - The Spiritual Crisis of Western Civilization

Roy Foster - W.B. Yeats - Volume II - The Arch Poet - I'm reading this one now and it is fascinating how much Yeats was obsessed with communicating with the dead through mediums, seances, automatic writing and even through a machine that supposedly received and amplified messages from the spirit world. A similar machine appears in Hereafter. Even so, he pushed himself away from the Ouija Board long enough to write the most lasting poetry of the Irish rebellion.

Brian Friel - Faith Healer - Ireland's greatest living playwright explores the link between healing, artistic creation and sacrifice