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Saturday, November 3, 2007

The Reaper (originally published 11/97)

Of all the narrative techniques modern storytellers have learned from ancient mythology, the personification of the objects of our awe is quite possibly the most profoundly useful. How can we even begin to contemplate the enormity of our relationship with death, for example, without putting a face on it? That's just what the producers of "Meet Joe Black" have done. In fact, they've gone so far as to give the Grim Reaper one of Hollywood's most appealing faces, that of Brad Pitt. Naturally, they aren't the first filmmakers to make use of this ancient conceit. If you're curious to see how earlier movies have personified death, look for these titles on home video.

"Death Takes a Holiday" (1934). "Meet Joe Black" is actually a loose remake of this fantasy classic in which Death (Fredric March), curious about human lives and puzzled about why they fear him so, takes on human form for three days to find out what it is that humans cling to so desperately. Appropriately, he appears as royalty, going by the name Prince Sirki. During his brief sojourn among the living, he falls in love, thereby gaining a valuable insight into why life is precious. He must not linger, however, because while he has been away from his work all deaths have ceased. If life is valuable, so is death, and his absence has begun to be felt.

"On Borrowed Time" (1939). Lionel Barrymore plays a crusty old man named Julian Northrup. Better known to the grandson he's trying to raise as "Gramps," Northrup is all too intimately acquainted with death. He's had to take his grandson in because the boy's parents are both dead, as is his own wife. Having lost so many loved ones to the Reaper, Gramps easily recognizes him when he returns, in the person of Mr. Brink (Cedric Hardwicke) to claim the old man's life as well. But the wily Gramps knows a trick or two, and manages to trap Mr. Brink in a charmed tree from which he may not depart unless invited to. Even so, Gramps realizes that his victory is necessarily temporary. As in "Death Takes a Holiday," it soon becomes evident that the absence of death in the world is more a curse than a blessing.

"Here Comes Mr. Jordan" (1941). When his single engine plane crashes, it looks as if boxer Joe Pendleton (Robert Montgomery) is a goner. Indeed, a heavenly emissary (Edward Everett Horton) jumps to that conclusion, snatching Joe's soul from his body seconds before the crash as an act of mercy. It turns out, however, that Joe was destined to survive the crash and go on to be the world heavyweight champ. It is up to the man in charge of processing the souls of the deceased, Mr. Jordan (Claude Rains), to sort out the mess by acquiring another body in which Joe can live out the remainder of his appointed time on Earth. This was a whole new way of presenting the personification of death: as a harried bureaucrat.

"Orpheus" (1949). Poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau took the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice and retold it with a modern setting. His Orpheus is a poet living in Paris who pursues his deceased wife into the land of the dead. Cocteau personifies death as an elegant woman (Maria Casares). Further, he suggests that she is infatuated with Orpheus and may have taken Eurydice from him out of jealousy, not because it was Eurydice's time to die.

"The Seventh Seal" (1957). In one of the most revered classics of world cinema, Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman imagines a man's confrontation with death as a chess game. Max von Sydow plays Antonius Block, a knight returning from the medieval Crusades. Footsore and soul-weary, he has seen the horrors humanity is capable of and has come away with his faith in tatters. He is confronted by Death (Bengt Ekerot), an imposing figure robed in black. Block persuades Death to stake Block's life on a chess game. The contest buys Block some time, but he is facing an opponent who never loses.

Because it never loses, and because it will ultimately claim us all, it is only natural to fear death. That's why we need our storytellers to keep us reminded that death has other faces besides that of destroyer - cosmic bureaucrat, ferryman to the afterlife, and, yes, even lover.

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