A Certain Kind of Death (2003)
Dir. Grover Babcock, Blue Hadaegh
I think you’ll have no choice but to agree with me when I state plainly that I’ve seen some pretty fucked up movies. Gory stuff, THE WIZARD OF GORE, BRAIN-DEAD, CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, you know the type. Psychologically disturbing stuff; SALO, AUDITION, and so on. And just sleazy, sick filth with no redeeming intellectual qualities whatsoever (HUMAN CENTIPEDE, FACES OF DEATH, etc). I never watched A SERBIAN FILM, but not because of its sicko reputation, more like it just didn’t sound that interesting to me and I never got around to it. Maybe I will someday, maybe not, but I can’t really imagine there’s anything in there that would genuinely shake me. I’ve been watching this crap since high school, there’s not really much I haven’t seen. I mean, you name the perversion, I’ve probably watched it. Sasquatch rape - check. Italian woman jerks off a bored horse named Pedro -- check. Sanctuary of 1000 testicles -- check. Alice Krige chainsawed apart with barbed wire -- check. Orson Welles voicing a Transformer -- check. Sometimes it gets a little gross or unpleasant, but I mean, up til last year I couldn’t really remember a movie that had come along and genuinely intimidated me.*
But wow, did this one come out of the blue. Obviously, you don’t watch a documentary called A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH and expect a lighthearted romp, but holy fucking shit. There are things here which you will not be able to unsee. The film has a frankness about death which is so shocking that it may well change the very way you think about the concept. It shook me absolutely to my core. It’s gotta be among the most casually horrifying things I’ve ever seen. Why, you ask? You sure you want to know?
The film starts with coroners in an apartment with a dead body. The apartment is cramped and mundane; squat ceiling and white walls and cheap furniture, unexceptional in every way except that there’s a human corpse in it. The body is sitting on a toilet around a corner, obscured in an recessed alcove behind a wall. The coroners are taking pictures and picking up evidence; this is a daily occurrence to them. Then the camera lingers on a closeup of the corpse’s foot. It’s sticking around the corner and barely visible along with a part of the leg. It’s horrible -- a purple and frayed mess of partially decomposed flesh, a repulsive parody of life, with just enough human features remaining to be unmistakable. This is within the first 30 seconds of the movie.
|Join the government, go depressing places, meet depressing people.|
The workaday officials making notes as they walk around the apartment seem utterly unaware that they’re working in the middle of a nightmare. They’re professional, maybe even a little bored. It’s physically hard to look at the screen while that foot is there, but here they are, wandering around jotting things down in a notepad, somehow maintaining their calm while the presence --and good lord, the smell-- of that thing --that thing!-- hangs over everything like an ominous black cloud. How can they possibly do anything but run screaming out of this room and never look back? You’ll have just long enough to ponder this question before
They cut directly to a frontal view of the body.
The body is wearing a faded plaid shirt, but nothing else; it’s slouched back on the toilet seat, arms hanging resigned at its sides. Its eyes are gone, and the nose it barely in evidence, but the teeth shine white and sharp against the fetid purple flesh of the face. It’s impossible to tell it this was once a man or woman, but even as the features decay and liquify there’s no mistaking that this was once a human. Insects buzz around, flitting in and out through freshly carved holes in the flesh, mocking the inert hands to brush them away.
I gotta be honest with you, amigos, I was not prepared for this. My first, instinctive reaction was actually to reach over and attempt to cover the eyes of my filmgoing companion, to protect them from seeing what I had just seen. Never had that reaction before.
So yeah, this is a pretty brutal movie. But not because it has a particular desire for shock value; instead, it simply has a frankness about death which makes you realize just how squeamish most film are about the subject. This is a movie about death which is not going to cut away when things get uncomfortable, not going to tastefully edit anything out, not going to retreat to metaphor. It’s going to take a clear, steady look, and ask that if we’re genuinely interested in talking about this topic that we do the same. It’s not lurid. But this is reality. That death you see in the movies, where they get last words and slowly close their eyes? That’s a fiction. Death in real life is random and gross; its filled with fluids and bizarre, ambiguous details and when it’s over, you’re left with a pallid, meaty block of dead flesh that gradually becomes a habitat for the insects and microorganisms that will break it down into a brown goo. That’s what happens, that’s what’s gonna happen to us all, and if we’re serious about it we have to admit that it’s kind of rare that someone really forces us to confront that fact.
|Don't be fooled by the yellow gloves, that's not Space Ghost.|
Not that the movie is pushy about it; it’s just uncommonly clear-eyed about the world. You chose to watch this documentary about death, and this is what death is like. Honestly, it would be kind of ridiculous to watch a movie about this topic and not expect to see some images of real death, and yet, our media landscape has absolutely primed us to expect enormous discretion on the subject. Simply taking the romance out of death is kind of shocking in this culture. We’re so utterly horrified by death that we hide behind our poetry and polite language and mythmaking. We have euphemisms and visual metaphors; we say “the departed” or, “he’s no longer with us.” Yeah, well, maybe so, but a big chunk of him is sure still here. There’s no hiding allowed in this movie, no romanticizing. Death has happened to every living thing ever to exist, and it will happen to you. There’s almost nothing more banal, but facing it so bluntly after a lifetime of living in a culture so sensitive about the subject is utterly jarring, shattering even.
But of course, this is not a general documentary about death, it’s about a certain kind of death. The title does not lie. The kind of death in question is one wherein someone dies so utterly alone in the world that there is no one who is legally able or available to take custody of their estate and make necessary arrangements. People who die, and no one notices until someone complains about the smell or gets irritated that the rent hasn’t been paid in a while. This is a documentary about what happens next. You gotta feel for these poor souls. Even in death they’re so isolated from their fellow man that their remains go unclaimed, unwanted; something to be disposed of by disintered career bureaucrats because no one else wants to take responsibility for it. There’s a profound, almost unwatchable sense of loneliness and heartache that pervades this grim arrangement -- you so badly want these people to just have one last flash of genuine human contact, you want someone, somewhere to acknowledge that these were people with lives, with loves, worries, shames, successes. You want someone to acknowledge that they were unique, they were special -- they lived, it meant something. But no one really can, because no one really knew them; they’re like an ancient, forgotten civilization to us, leaving behind only worn artifacts as a testament to the fact that something once stood here.
In a way, the film shares a lot with fellow outrageously depressing documentary DREAMS OF A LIFE; both are, on some level, an exploration of the lonely lives of the people who somehow fell through the cracks, and died without seemingly any meaningful human connection left. But while DREAMS is focused on trying to understand the person at the center of its tragic mystery, A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH is more interested in the process. What happens when there’s no one else to make decisions after death?
The answer is as fascinating as it is mundane: there are government people whose job it is to gather available evidence, try to find anyone who could take responsibility for making decisions for the deceased, and, that failing, to make them themselves as best they can based on the information available. Sometimes that information is in short supply: one man has died in a motel room, with little more than the clothes on his back (in fact, at the time of death he was stepping out of the shower and didn’t even have those). Apparently a drifter, there’s virtually nothing to suggest where this man came from, what he was like, what he would have wanted. So they wrap him in a plastic bag, throw away his few possessions, cremate the body in an enormous government kiln (which burns up to three bodies at a time, apparently sometimes dozens per night) and dump the ashes in a mass grave marked only by the year. In one of the movie’s most sobering scenes (which in this movie is really saying something), we watch as mortuary workers crush the cremated bones to dust with hammers, pour the ashes into a box, and dump the boxes --by hand-- one by one, into an otherwise ordinary grave. There are hundreds of boxes. Maybe thousands more briefly glimpsed back at their warehouse.
|See that dust? Yeah, that used to be people.|
It’s beyond shocking to see something like that, and writing it out makes it almost seem like this is supposed to be some kind of muckraking expose. But really, I don’t think it’s like that at all; I think the filmmakers actually have a lot of respect and compassion for both the dead and the living who spend their lives cleaning up after them. The government workers who do these jobs seem bright, dedicated, trying to do their best to honor the life of someone they never even met, someone who isn’t even survived by a memory. And they’re like you and I -- they’re naturally curious about these people, they want on some deep level to pull some little thread of genuine human contact out of the ashes, even as they take responsibility for picking up the pieces and solving practical matters. The movie is interested in both -- the practical decisions as to who is responsible for cleaning up an apartment after a body has rotted into an unrecognizable liquid or what happens to all that cheap furniture, and the emotional decisions about where a body is ultimately remembered and who and what the person was while they were alive.
The most interesting story which emerges as various agencies pursue different aspects of the case revolves around an elderly man found dead in his apartment in just horrible circumstances. He did not go quietly. He’s naked and seems to have WARNING GRANDMA DO NOT FINISH THIS SENTENCE, IT’S NICE THAT YOU LIKE TO CHECK IN ON ME BUT FOR THE LOVE OF GOD YOU DON’T WANT TO KNOW I SAW THIS shit out most of his blood and internal organs in an unsuccessful attempt to make it to the bathroom. The room is splattered with a caked brown layer of blood and feces, and in the middle of it is the pale, emaciated, naked body of a very old man. A bad death. The apartment is dingy and out of date, weird, framed oil paintings cover nearly every inch of wall.
This all adds up to a situation just as grim as you might expect; it's easy to imagine this lonely old man, no social skills, no friends left if he ever had any. A recluse, a failure, someone hiding out from a life which was too taxing for him. But there are little details which are odd: on his table is literally everything the coroners need to identify what he wanted done in the event of his death; he has made fastidious plans for his burial arrangements, even photographing the location he wants to be buried in. He must have known he was dying and tried to prepare for it. But wait -- as they pursue the case further, they’re surprised to find that someone else is already buried in the cemetery plot he picked out for himself, near his parents. Did someone steal his grave? No, it seems he gave it up to a friend a couple years ago. What the heck is going on here?
Gradually, these odd details start to resolve themselves a little bit: This is not just a tragic, lonely old man who never amounted to anything. His “friend” was his partner since the early 70s; this was an out-and-proud gay man, living with the love of his life until AIDS claimed him a few years back. In pictures, he’s handsome, youthful; his partner, now buried in the grave he was planning to use himself, looks like the life of the party. If his circumstances ended up so grim, its only in contrast to the happiness he must have once known. It all starts to make a little more sense (especially those otherwise inexplicable oil paintings of muscular nude men) and this frail, pallid corpse lying in filth in a dingy apartment starts to become someone, not something.
|Imagine if someone, by law, had to tag and remove every object from your home. What would they think, carrying your weird novelty sized silver cup out of the apartment you died in?|
But of course, he’s also still a thing, and a thing that needs to be put somewhere. They all are. And a lot of the film is simply about the people who have to fill out the paperwork, make the phone calls, push the gurney. There’s an absolutely jaw-dropping sequence where a no-nonsense coroner takes a phone call from her kid while struggling to coax a bloated corpse into a mylar body bag. “Just wrapping up a body,” she explains as she grunts, lifting the dead weight. When she first glimpses the body, her professional enthusiasm is stirred: “Have you seen bridging like this before? It's beautiful! Textbook blunt-force trauma.”** These people do the best they can, and they really seem to be making an effort with each case. But when you’ve seen this much death, it’s hard to treat it with the same reverence those with the luxury of being far removed from it can afford. If you let it get to you, you could never do the job, you’d burn out. Hell, the reason this has even come to them is that no one else cares even a little. As one coroner points out, "I can just imagine if we do find a relative, the response is going to be probably non-emotional: 'Oh, okay. Well, we always wondered what happened to him.' "
That’s a tough thing to hear, but their concerns are mostly practical: someone has to get in there and clean the carpets, someone has to deal with any remaining bank accounts, someone has auction off the furniture. As with anytime you deal with real-life stories, things aren’t always as clear-cut as you might imagine; ambiguities abound just as much as suggestive details do. When a coroner traces down the cemetery plot owned by one of the deceased, it turns out there’s already someone buried there, and no one seems to know who or why (this is a different one than the other story above. How often does this happen!?). The city officials don’t have enough information to press the case, and the cemetery managers just seem relieved that no one is going to sue them over their fuck up, they compromise and bury the guy somewhere else. Another corpse is found strangled, a noose made of wire hanger around its neck, which the corner inexplicably rules is accidental, the tragic result of the deceased trying to adjust his TV antenna --wha? That can’t possibly be a random accident, can it? And beyond that, what was this guy doing here anyway? He’s living in a rat-infested shithole, but his apartment is full of receipts; he doesn’t seem to have a steady job, but he’s been donating $200 a month to a local church. As a person, you’ve got to be desperate to know the answers, to try and find some kind of truth and meaning in the mess. But as a worker, you’ve just have to accept that most of this stuff is beyond our ability to know, but somebody is still going to have to clean up all this rat shit. And, sadly, no one will ever ask again.
|The great equalizer.|
This would be a stunning look into a world most of us will never see (while alive) regardless of its artistic merits; to my knowledge, there’s nothing else even remotely this exhaustive and full of detail ever put to celluloid on this subject. But unlike DREAMS OF A LIFE, which got bogged down in reenactments and shmaltzy editing, A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH employs an impressive artistry worthy of its weighty subject matter. Directors Babcock and Hadaegh apparently spent all their money and more than a year hanging around the scene to find footage they could use, and they are confident enough in that footage to let it speak for itself. There’s no music except for a brief rendition of “Greensleeves” over the credits. No talking heads. Neither Slash nor Neil Gaiman appear at all, obviously a rarity for documentaries. It’s very Maysles-inspired, no narration and no cutesy editing to tell you how to feel. They favor long, static shots, often employing an almost Kubrickian symmetrical framing technique that subtly transforms their grim subjects into coldly beautiful --even iconic-- portraits. Sometimes, they’ll simply let the screen fade to black, just to leave the last image lingering in your mind. It works. Their careful craftsmanship makes this the rare documentary which features both a fascinating subject matter and a genuine sense of cinematic artistry.
The end result is that his is an absolutely riveting documentary both about the people involved in and, in a subterranean way, about the very subject of death itself. And it’s made with the care and cinematic eye of truly masterful craftsmen. That puts me in a difficult situation, because this is probably the best movie I’ve ever seen which I can’t in good conscience really recommend to anybody. Should you see this film? No, you shouldn’t. I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. But if you are in the market to have your night (and maybe your whole week) ruined by a truly great work of cinema, this is the one. You’re unlikely to see another film this or any year as searing and wrenching as this one, and especially unlikely to see one which cuts so deep while still maintaining an unwavering honesty and avoiding the usual manipulations of artists less confident that the world as it is has plenty of its own ability to change you. Babcock and Hadaegh actually have a new movie out now, their first in nearly a decade after A CERTAIN KIND OF DEATH: it’s called SCENES OF A CRIME and it focuses on the 10-hour interrogation of a man accused of murdering his infant son. The New York Times called it a “disturbing picture of courtroom justice.” If it’s anywhere near as brilliant as this one, it’ll be required viewing for a guy like me, but, uh, maybe don’t judge me if I take a little time to recover from this one first, OK?*** Turns out real life is a lot more upsetting than the movies, even for a guy who assumed he’d seen it all.
*Then THE ACT OF KILLING came along. And out of the blue, for the first time in a long time, I remembered what it was like to be scared of movies. To really watch a trailer and think, “Jesus, I don’t know if I need that in my life. That looks like it might just show me some things that I genuinely do not want to see, and will honestly be happier remaining ignorant about.” I was genuinely nervous going in, and --it turned out-- rightly so. That movie is absolutely harrowing, bristling with a raw pain about the horrors humans are capable of on a level that I have never experienced in the cinema. I walked out thoroughly shaken to my core, profoundly disquieted by what I’d seen. But, I also walked out with something else, small at first but gradually growing: that sense of giddy joy you can only get having taken in a genuine work of artistic brilliance. I called THE ACT OF KILLING one of the best films in years, and I stand by that; if anything, its esteem has only grown in my mind as I’ve had time to mull it over and parse through the complex emotions it stirs. It was a very difficult film to watch, but not only am I glad I watched it, I’m almost excited to revisit it. This one, I don’t know if I’d be able to come back to, even as much as I admire it.
**Memo to TV people: this lady needs her own show.
***Worth noting: The DVD has an excellent FAQ section which addresses a lot of the questions you may have about how in the hell this was accomplished. Required reading to get the full story.