Deathwatch

Deathwatch: American Film, Technology, and the End of Life

C. SCOTT COMBS
Copyright Date: 2014
Pages: 288
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/comb16346
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  • Book Info
    Deathwatch
    Book Description:

    The first book to unpack American cinema's long history of representing death, this work considers movie sequences in which the process of dying becomes an exercise in legibility and exploration for the camera. Reading attractions-based cinema, narrative films, early sound cinema, and films using voiceover or images of medical technology, C. Scott Combs connects the slow or static process of dying to formal film innovation throughout the twentieth century. He looks at Thomas Edison'sElectrocuting an Elephant(1903), D. W. Griffith'sThe Country Doctor(1909), John Ford'sHow Green Was My Valley(1941), Billy Wilder'sSunset Boulevard(1950), Stanley Kubrick's2001: A Space Odyssey(1968), and Clint Eastwood'sMillion Dollar Baby(2004), among other films, to argue against the notion that film cannot capture the end of life because it cannot stop moving forward. Instead, he shows how the end of dying occurs more than once and in more than one place, understanding death in cinema as constantly in flux, wedged between technological precision and embodied perception.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53803-9
    Subjects: Film Studies, Philosophy, Art & Art History, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. vii-x)
  4. INTRODUCTION: AN ELUSIVE PASSAGE
    (pp. 1-26)

    JUST A few years after Oscar Wilde observed that “life imitates art far more than art imitates life,” the cinema was born, promising an unprecedented mimetic accuracy. The names of the early cameras—cinematograph, kinetoscope, bioscope—hailed the instrument’s creation of life through believable vital images. Cinema was “watching life” and “writing movement.” But not all early spectators felt so confident about the realism of the moving image. In a now well-known response, Russian literary figure Maxim Gorky bemoaned the cinematic image as a sad modicum of the world he inhabited. Viewing moving images projected by the Lumières’ cinematograph, Gorky...

  5. 1 MORTAL RECOIL: EARLY AMERICAN EXECUTION SCENES AND THE ELECTRIC CHAIR
    (pp. 27-64)

    IN THE FIRST DECADE of their production movies took a formal interest in strategies for screening dying. Gorky’s feelings about the moving photograph’s frail vitality, his impression that screen figures seemed to inhabit a world of dead eternity, may not have missed the mark by far. From 1895 to 1905 American and European producers made good on Gorky’s suggestion that violent death would prove endemic to the medium. Showing the transformation of bodies from “alive” to “dead” provided one of cinema’s earliest and most unique “attractions.”¹ Where Gorky chastised readers with the specter of a Turkish impaling, American films delivered...

  6. 2 POSTHUMOUS MOTION: THE DEATHWORK OF NARRATIVE EDITING
    (pp. 65-102)

    AT THE END of D.W. Griffith’sThe Country Doctor(1909) Little Edith goes limp in her mother’s arms while her father—previously called away on a house call—is en route back home to treat her. Edith’s mother falls over the child’s body in grief just before Dr. Harcourt arrives home too late. Feeling for a pulse, he recoils, eyes open in shock, disbelieving arms loosed. Harcourt nestles himself in his wife’s bosom as they pose behind their daughter’s recumbent corpse. The film could end here. But Griffith keeps looking for an image of closure. He chooses a panoramic shot...

  7. 3 ECHO AND HUM: DEATH’S ACOUSTIC SPACE IN THE EARLY SOUND FILM
    (pp. 103-142)

    IN A December 2002British Medical Journalarticle a number of doctors, clinicians, and bioethicists were asked to nominate music they would play while facing their final moments. “People say that birth and death are lonely events,” write the editors. But “music can be a birth or death companion piece.”¹ Choices in the study range from the predictably classical (Rachmaninoff and Handel) to the unorthodox (Velvet Underground and Nico’s “Heroin”). Imagining a terminal playlist is an exercise in fantasy that suggests an intimate connection between melos and dying. Funerals, of course, have long been musical events and are frequently personalized...

  8. 4 SECONDS: THE FLASHBACK LOOP AND THE POSTHUMOUS VOICE
    (pp. 143-178)

    IN THE EARLY SOUND FILM (1927–31) the soundtrack enveloped the dying body, connecting it to its environment. But in the examples we have considered, the camera itself has yet to be identified with a dying character’s gaze or voice; rather, it has so far been associated with the present or absent registrant and, behind that figure, the director, image maker, or “narrator system.”¹ But the mobilizing, offscreen voices in the early talkie period are not lost to practice: starting in the 1940s, speaking voices hover prosaically over the process of dying, drifting in their status from obituary to posthumous,...

  9. 5 TERMINAL SCREENS: CINEMATOGRAPHY AND ELECTRIC DEATH
    (pp. 179-214)

    IT IS TIME to consider an overlap in popular imagery to which I have until now made only passing reference—the similarity between what plays out on the cinema screen and what plays out on the hospital monitor beside a terminally ill patient. This chapter’s title refers to two screens—the movie and the monitor. We have been watching how the cinema camera clinches the end of dying—by picturing human witnesses, or “registrants,” that recognize it is over; by imaging nonhuman forms that stand in for that gaze (including objects, doorways, valleys, oceans); by cuing death as the stop,...

  10. CODA: END(INGS)
    (pp. 215-220)

    THE HISTORY of cinema death is cumulative, not evolutionary. Movies have compiled an arsenal to go to work on the outside (cutting, framing, registration) and the inside (heard sound, voice, montage of epiphany). There are other supplements than the ones discussed here, of course. Some of these developments, such as the squib, update techniques found in earlier experiments (the use of electricity in early cinema, for instance). But the rhythm, reverberation, and ambiguity in static dyings illuminate the technique and staging of more spectacular ones. Dying has more than one end in the cinema—be it slow or sudden, at...

  11. NOTES
    (pp. 221-258)
  12. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 259-269)
  13. INDEX
    (pp. 269-276)
  14. Back Matter
    (pp. 277-278)