Alternate Endings: Six New Ways to Die in America


Saying goodbye doesn’t have to wait until you die.

(2019) Documentary (HBOLeila Johnson, Linda Johnson, Steve Berkoff, Guadalupe Cuevas, Guadalupe Cuevas Jr., Amalia Cuevas, Alicia Cuevas Gonzalez, Barbara Jean, TJ, Sarah Singer Green, Lisa Bransine, Dick Shannon, Will Corbett, Ryan Matthews, Emelie Matthews. Directed by Matthew O’Neill and Perri Peltz

 

Death is a taboo subject. We tend to shove it to the back of our minds; we don’t like to think about it and we certainly don’t like to talk about it. Our mortality makes us uncomfortable, regardless that all of us are eventually going to die. Most of us have little clue as to how we want our endgame to play.

The Baby Boomers who are of an age now where they are beginning to get visits from the Grim Reaper with regularity are changing the way we think of death and dying. While some still opt for coffins that cost as much as cars, a ceremony in a place of worship and a viewing at the local funeral home, there are other ways to say goodbye now.

This new HBO documentary revisits the way we look at the end of the road. A visit to the National Funeral Directors Association convention in Boston reveals holographic final messages from the deceased to their loved ones, elaborate urns – don’t call them urns, they’re memorial art – and boxes of good Irish soil so that the deceased may get buried at home, even if their casket is thousands of miles away.

Others may prefer having their cremated remains shot into outer space as one teacher’s family did in New Mexico. His family was one of 45 whose loved ones became part of the final frontier. Although I would imagine that would be fairly pricy, so those cost-conscious about final send-offs may want to be aware of that.

There are also things called “green burials” which Texan Barbara Jean has selected. She wants instead of a coffin to be wrapped in biodegradable material and have her decomposing remains nurture the life of a new tree. I admit there is some appeal in having your corpse be put to good use.

One of the hardest segments to watch was that involving a celebration of life. 5-year-old Garrett Matthews was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He told his mommy and daddy (Emilie and Ryan) that he didn’t want a funeral. He wanted a party complete with fireworks, bouncy houses, snow cones and an appearance by the Caped Crusader himself, Batman so after their child passed on, his parents did exactly what little Garrett wanted. Yes, it was a celebration of life but I don’t know if I could have had the emotional ability to approach it with the kind of joy they did and to be honest, one imagines there was a whole lot of tears and grief that didn’t appear on-camera.

Silicon Valley engineer Dick Shannon had terminal lung cancer and decided he wanted to decide for himself how and when to die. California’s “Death with dignity” laws enabled him to do that so Dick had a cocktail of drugs that would ease him off into the void peacefully and painlessly. Before he goes, Dick helps design (and build) his own coffin and also throws a farewell bash with a hefty amount of gallows humor.

We are shown Dick drinking his hemlock and sharing his final moments with his wife and family and that was a little uncomfortable, like we were invading the privacy of the family at a particularly painful time. I suppose we are conditioned to think that way.

The option that I’d go for was the first one presented; having your ashes mixed with concrete and made part of a Memorial Coral Reef. Considering the harm we’ve done to the ocean, it feels like the least we can do. Again, though, that one might be pricier than some of the other options presented here.

Some of this might seem a little new age-y to you (certainly the green burial had some elements of that) which might detract from the merits of the various options here, so try to keep an open mind. As Dick Shannon accurately says, the dying in America have no part of their own process of dying. They are removed from it to a large degree. Obviously those who die suddenly may not have time to consider what they want for their end of life choices, but it behooves most of us no matter how young we are to have at least some idea of how we want our families to handle our final arrangements. And death doesn’t necessarily have to be more about those left behind; I must admit I take some comfort in that.

REASONS TO SEE: Presents different viewpoints on death and how to deal with it.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some might find this a little too new age-y.
FAMILY VALUES: The matter-of-fact approach to death and dying may be too intense for the sensitive and the immature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In 2018, more people opted for cremation than for traditional funerals in America for the first time ever.
BEYOND THE THEATER: HBO Go
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/17/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Gates of Heaven
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Xenophobia

The Taiwan Oyster


I wouldn't buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

I wouldn’t buy a used car from these guys, let alone let them bury my corpse.

(2013) Drama (Spoonbill) Billy Harvey, Jeff Palmiotti, Leonora Lim, Erin King, Fu-Kuei Huang, Chia-Ying Kuo, Joseph Shu, Sean Scanlan, Will Mounger, Jimi Moe, Hai-Sen Ni, Eva Liao, Michael Jian, Catherine Li, Magnus von Platen, Bob Bloodworth, Bin-he Feng, Klairinette Wu. Directed by Mark Jarrett

 Florida Film Festival 2013

When you’re an expatriate in a country radically different from your own, it’s not that hard to sometimes be caught by the current that flows between cultures, adrift on that current without much effort on your own part. When that happens, ascertaining what the right thing to do is can be murky viewing at best. It’s easy to do the right thing for the wrong reasons in circumstances like that.

Simon (Harvey) and Darin (Palmiotti) are a couple of Americans living in Taiwan. They earn their living as kindergarten teachers by day and put together a very dodgy fanzine by night. Their ‘zine, called The Oyster is their ticket out or so Darin thinks. Simon just wants to write for any magazine. He has an opportunity to return home but he’s unsure what to do. About anything, really.

One night the two of them are drinking with some fellow ex-pats when tragedy strikes. One of their number dies in a terrible miscalculation of his own limitations. He has no family to claim his body and the state will eventually cremate his body and dispose of the remains in some anonymous grave. However, Simon discovers to his dismay that the man signed his “funeral wall” – a wall in the apartment Darin and Simon share in which they and fellow ex-pats have left instructions on what to do if they should die in Taiwan. The two realize they must claim the body and bury it in the right spot, a mournful song by Hank Williams blaring on their boom box.

This is easier said than done. An officious clerk (Feng) won’t release the body to non-relatives and their attempts to disguise themselves as American embassy officials is embarrassing at best. So they steal the body – with the help of a sympathetic clerk (Lim) who Simon quickly develops a crush on, feelings which are reciprocated.

The two then take a journey throughout Taiwan, trying to find the perfect place to bury their countryman, whom they barely knew. As they discover Taiwan, they begin to discover a sense of responsibility that they both have been lacking and figure out that growing up doesn’t have to be so painful after all – but it always is.

Taiwan is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and it wouldn’t be hard for anyone to make a decent-looking movie while filming there but Jarrett and cinematographer Mike Simpson have good eyes and make a great-looking movie. It’s worth seeing for the visuals alone.

Darin, who in indie-quirky fashion rips the sleeves off of all his shirts (which I don’t think he understands how that is the 21st century equivalent of a mullet) and Simon both start off the film as kind of typical young guys who are more interested in their next good time than in making something of themselves. Simon in particular is capable of deciding nothing, preferring instead to drift on whatever wind finds him. Darin is not much better but he at least instigates things, although they are often the wrong things.

Harvey and Palmiotti are pleasantly surprising with strong onscreen presences the both of them. They have good chemistry together and the bickering between them, which sounds a lot like good friends in their mid-20s, is believable. Lim is there pretty much as a love interest and as an audience surrogate; her character is a third wheel at times and she knows it. Still, Nikita (her character’s name) can sense the potential in Simon and while he isn’t ready for a relationship with anyone, he is changed for the better for his relationship with Nikita.

Jarrett characterizes this as a Texas road film set in Taiwan and that’s as succinct an appraisal of the film as you’re likely to get. There is a good deal of insight here into the nature of being a young man with no direction in a foreign land. While the plot is resonant of other incidents (and the very self-aware Darin probably knows it – he’s more interested in becoming a local legend than doing right by a man he barely knew) it also carries with it a kind of Texas feel to it; while there’s no sagebrush or badland prairie to be seen here, Simon and Darin could easily have been traveling from Plano as they were from Taipei. Larry McMurtry, the noted author, would certainly recognized some of his own style here as would Tim Burton – the ending reminded me a bit of Big Fish in some ways (more in the feel of it than anything else – nobody turns into a giant catfish here).

The screening I was attending was plagued by technical problems, causing it to run late into the night and so I was fairly tired when I saw it which might have something to do with me not giving it a higher rating. I have changed my rating upwards since I saw it, something I rarely do and chances are if you ask me a week from now what I’d give it a higher rating still. Some movies grow on you long after you’ve seen it and this is one of those movies for me. That’s certainly something to consider when deciding whether to see it or not yourself.

REASONS TO GO: Gorgeous cinematography. A road picture with insight. Resonates like the work of Larry McMurtry and to an extent, Tim Burton.

REASONS TO STAY: Drags in places.

FAMILY VALUES:  Some morbid humor, a bit of bad language, drinking, smoking and drug use and some sexuality – not a Disney film by any means.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jarrett was inspired by William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (which is quoted at the beginning of the film) and his own experiences while residing in Taiwan from 1999-2001.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/18/13: Rotten Tomatoes: no score yet. Metacritic: no score yet; the movie has been on the festival circuit for the past year.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Lonesome Dove

FINAL RATING: 6/10

NEXT: Magical Universe

The Way


The Way

Sometimes the little things we encounter in our journey have the most profound effect along the way.

(2011) Drama (ARC Entertainment) Martin Sheen, Yorick von Wageningen, Deborah Kara Unger, James Nesbitt, Emilio Estevez, Tcheky Karyo, Spencer Garrett, Angelina Molina, Carlos Leal, Antonio Gil, Simon Andreu, David Alexanian, Eusebio Lazaro. Directed by Emilio Estevez

It is a popular aphorism to make life a journey along a road that makes many twists and turns, making it often impossible to see what lies on the horizon. It’s not the destination that matters so much as the journey itself and sometimes, just getting out the door and out on the road.

Tom (Sheen) is a successful ophthalmologist living in Ventura, just north of Los Angeles on the Pacific coast. He is a widower whose relationship with his only son Daniel (Estevez) is rocky; Tom has trouble understanding his son who seems so very different than himself. He drives his son to the airport; Daniel has quit his doctoral thesis in cultural anthropology because he has gotten frustrated with learning about things and has decided to take some time to experience them directly. He goes to Europe, which his father makes clear he doesn’t approve of.

Shortly thereafter Tom gets a call that his son has died in Europe while hiking in the Pyrenees. Devastated, Tom goes to France to retrieve the body of his son. A sympathetic gendarme (Karyo) accompanies Tom to the morgue to identify his son’s body and gives him Daniel’s possessions. As Tom goes through them he realizes he really didn’t know his son at all.

It turns out that Daniel’s intention had been to walk the Camino de Santiago – the Way of Saint James. It is a pilgrimage that has been going on for more than a thousand years with pilgrims walking from the French Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. Tom, raised Catholic but not actively practicing, decides to complete the pilgrimage with his son’s ashes, stopping to leave a little bit of his son’s remains at various places on the route.

Along the way he meets a variety of people – a jovial Dutchman named Joost (Von Wageningen) who is walking the route to lose weight but can’t stop eating and drinking the delicacies of Spain; Sarah (Unger), a Canadian with a chip on her shoulder who is out on the Camino to quit smoking (which she intends to do when she reaches the terminus at the Cathedral in Santiago de Compostela) and Jack (Nesbitt), a garrulous travel writer from Ireland suffering from writer’s block and an excess of bonhomie.

Tom doesn’t really want the company; he’s a private individual who wants to grieve on his own terms. However he can’t help but open up to his travel companions and along the way, not only is there magnificent scenery but he meets a variety of people – from a kindly American priest making his pilgrimage to a group of generous Basques in Roncesvalles to a Gypsy father in Burgos. And the question becomes – is he taking this trip to honor his son, or for reasons he can’t begin to imagine?

This is a movie I expected to like but not as much as I did. Being a lapsed Catholic myself, I’m familiar with the Camino de Santiago and its importance particularly to Spanish Catholics. The remains of the Apostle St. James are supposedly beneath the Cathedral and all along the Way are stops of significance both historical and religious. There is something thrilling about seeing what pilgrims from centuries ago also saw. We are taken along on this journey and it is a road trip of a lifetime.

Sheen, brilliant for so many years on “The West Wing,” continues to show why he is one of America’s most underrated actors and has been for a very long time. There is an honesty, an authenticity to his performance. It’s very subtle and understated and not at all the kind of performance that attracts Oscar’s notice, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t an amazing piece of acting.

There are some very wrenching moments. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a child – even if he is an adult – and I hope I never have to. Given what the family was going through as this was being filmed (yes, it was when Charlie Sheen was the center of media attention), it makes me wonder how Sheen and Estevez could muster up the concentration to do their jobs as well as they do here.

This had a powerful effect on me, not just for the obvious reasons of confronting grief or my Catholic upbringing but also because it is about some of our most fundamental values and how they serve us – or don’t – in times of crisis. This isn’t preachy in the least and those thinking that this is all about converting you to the Catholic way, think again – the Catholics haven’t particularly embraced this movie, at least not officially. However, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a spiritual element to it, particularly on a humanist level. This isn’t a movie about religious denominations, but what drives us as human beings and what is important in life.

This isn’t revelatory in the sense that you’re going to learn anything new about life, but it does give you the opportunity for personal insight. You may not necessarily be motivated to convert to Catholicism but you might very well be motivated to start walking yourself. The Way is the biggest surprise so far in 2011 and may well wind up being the best movie this year.

REASONS TO GO: A film that is both uplifting and deals honestly with grief and reaching out. Gorgeous cinematography.

REASONS TO STAY: May be too slow-paced for some.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some thematic elements that might be a little much for the younger or more impressionable set, as well as a few bad words sprinkled here and there.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The inspiration for the film came from a pilgrimage Sheen made with his grandson Taylor Estevez several years ago. Estevez met someone and fell in love on the pilgrimage and elected to remain in Spain.

HOME OR THEATER: At this point it will be difficult to find in a theater but if it’s playing near you, by all means make an effort to see it.

FINAL RATING: 10/10

TOMORROW: The Secret in Their Eyes