A Filmmaker's Guide to: Death on Screen
Film Studies (Pt.128)
In this chapter of ‘the filmmaker’s guide’ we’re actually going to be learning about literature and film together. I understand that many of you are sitting in university during difficult times and finding it increasingly hard to study and I understand that many of you who are not at university or not planning on it are possibly stuck of what to do, need a break or even need to catch up on learning film before you get to the next level. This guide will be brief but will also contain: new vocabulary, concepts and theories, films to watch and we will be exploring something taboo until now in the ‘filmmaker’s guide’ - academia (abyss opens). Each article will explore a different concept of film, philosophy, literature or bibliography/filmography etc. in order to give you something new to learn each time we see each other. You can use some of the words amongst family and friends to sound clever or you can get back to me (email in bio) and tell me how you’re doing. So, strap in and prepare for the filmmaker’s guide to film studies because it is going to be one wild ride.
Death on Screen
What is it?
The character and symbols of death are many in cinema. Evolving from "Der Müde Tod" by Fritz Lang as being a physical person, to Ingmar Bergman's amazing game of chess against Death in "The Seventh Seal" and all the way down to various entities and themes throughout modern cinema. Examples of characters experiencing death, seeing death or even having something to do with death makes for a great viewing experience and even what is shown after death seems to make an appearance now and again on the screen as being part of various films and their legacies.
How is it used?
As we have discussed, there can be many ways in which death is used:
- A physical character
- A theme
- A symbol
- A result of something
- A scare tactic
- An inevitability
There are probably more that you can think of but when we look at death in film, there is something either massively frightening, violent, extreme or - even possibly, serene about it. It comes as one of two extremes which, in reality, is probably not the case at all. Let's take a look at some case studies to see how it is used in different ways.
Case Study 1: The Seventh Seal (1957)
Death as a physical character who attempts to reason with our main character who does not want to die. Death is seen as someone to be feared but someone who must do their work, so he wagers with the main character. In the end though, we can see that Death as a character is not that frightening at all, and the main character is actually fairly happy. These are the two extremes of character - both frightening and serene. It was a revolutionary way to signify death and still is to this day.
Case Study 2: "The Shining" (1980)
In "The Shining" (1980) Death is considered a symbol, that symbol is the hotel itself. The Overlook Hotel serves as constant warnings and reminders of death, violence and terror as it drives the protagonist slowly but surely insane. It is the very reason that when his wife and child exit the hotel that the threat is no longer there for them, the hotel having already overtaken the thoughts of the protagonist. Since the symbol is unmoveable, there is a requirement to move away from it when the characters recognise what it stands for. The violence of death, not just death itself - is one of those things.
Case Study 3: "The Devil's Messenger" (1961)
Slightly different in this case, "The Devil's Messenger" (1961) shows death as not only an inevitability, but also a trick. There is a strong proponent of what happens after death as well as most of the film is set as a result of death. The posthumous quality of the film creates a storyline that is not only frightening but also shows the sorrow of something like this since the main character has obviously, was driven to suicide. Since this happens, we can understand the requirement to have death as a main component of the storyline in order to help the audience follow the storyline.
Of course there are a number of less obvious films in which death plays a huge part of what goes on in the plot. Recent films such as "The Prestige", "Inception", "The Conjuring Universe" and "Inglorious Basterds" are amongst only some of the films that have subverted the notion of death to bring us a range of emotions from insensitivity all the way through the sorrow and madness.
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Film and Writing (M.A)
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