Deathwatch presents a sweeping history of on-screen death, from the silent film era to recent Hollywood blockbusters. Historically, American film has accompanied depictions of death with some kind of mark of registration, either from characters, machines, or stylistic cues, because, unlike photography’s stillness, cinema gives us a moving image. C. Scott Combs’ idiosyncratic thesis that death in cinema has always depended on registration, either diegetic or non-diegetic, is clearly stated, and allows him to conduct rich textual analyses of a wide range of mainstream films, including Electrocuting an Elephant (Thomas Edison, 1903), The Country Doctor (D.W. Griffith, 1909), The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927), Sunset Boulevard (Billy Wilder, 1950), Steel Magnolias (Herbert Ross, 1989), and The Sixth Sense (M. Night Shyamalan, 1999). Throughout, Combs describes how certain technological advancements (the electric chair, sync sound, EKG monitors) are importantly and complexly linked to cinema’s own fascination with dying.
Since its historical origins, cinema style has adapted ways of registering death, usually through its disembodiment. Drawing on Bazin’s “Death Every Afternoon” (1949), Pasolini’s “Observations on the Sequence Shot” (1967), and Barthes’ Camera Lucida (1980), Combs explores how cinema makes death legible through its form and content. Bazin’s theory that filmic death may be repeated but that the real event is always beyond our grasp is paired with Pasolini’s thoughts on the significance of montage to offer diverse perspectives of death. This theoretical perspective insists film can only achieve a supplementary status vis-à-vis the real of death. Unlike photography’s “visible corpselike stasis” (p. 5), cinema captures the uninterrupted flow of life. That is why certain acts of registration are needed to account for movement and the medium’s iterability. Yet Barthes’ insights in Camera Lucida on the death effect of photography – which spectralises its human referents – and the sense of pity produced for the “living” subjects of film and photography are strangely absent from Combs’ discussion.
Chapter one covers the bloody history of early film. Films coming out of the Edison Company especially added to the “cinema of attractions”, with notable shorts, including those showing the reenactment of the burning of Joan of Arc, gunfire executions, and hangings. Edison’s The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots (1895) demonstrates that the performance of registration by onlookers was vital to the way cinema of the period portrayed death. Often, this act of reaction became more crucial to the film than the actual person or animal who died. Edison’s 1903 Electrocuting an Elephant has jump-cuts at least twice, and ends with a “registrant.” The break elides that time which is perceived as uneventful and thus provides further evidence that cinema stumbled into its pure mediation of death.
The observation that death is difficult to depict in film is by no means new. How filmmakers throughout the years have dealt with this problem is Combs’ main contribution. The book’s motivating thesis – that stillness is not the signifier of death in cinema – sometimes comes across as overly esoteric. But what is especially noteworthy about his analysis of the D.W. Griffith’s Biograph productions is when he makes the counterintuitive claim for the co-existence of stillness and motion, death and life. There are instances when both the actor playing the corpse and the one acting as the registrant must pose and be visibly still, as in silent film’s uncanny tableau technique. Departure of a Great Old Man (1912) and Birth of a Nation (1915) present their characters in a semi-static way while they register a person’s death, dropping to the ground or contemplating loss. In films like A Corner in Wheat (1909) and The Mothering Heart (1913) with Lillian Gish as the surviving mother, Griffith stages the tableau of grief through verisimilar reactions. The reaction shots of the registrants must process in as detailed a way as possible the moment of death. But the moment of death depends on a subtle interplay of stillness and motion.
The question of the medium’s inherent stillness comes up briefly in chapter two, only to be dropped as room is made for what the author terms “posthumous motion”. (p. 87) In Griffith’s The Country Doctor, a long pan shot starts and ends the film. The first pan over Stillwater ends on a family leaving their home. The final pan begins on the same house and ends on a view of the river. In the closing pan shot, no human characters are seen, making it difficult for the viewer’s grief to have an anchor in the form of a character that registers the missing child. Combs greatly admires the director’s style, stating, “Griffith suggests death changes the diegetic world.” (p. 95)
The fascinating shift from silent to synchronised sound is explored in chapter three. The author describes the innovative way sounds appear before, during, and after death in films like Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929), Hallelujah! (King Vidor, 1929), and Frankenstein (James Whale, 1931). Early sound films’ use of song and disembodied voice to accentuate the moment of passing equated sound with the interior of the body and the image with the exterior. In The Jazz Singer, the death of Cantor Rabinowitz (Warner Oland) is famously accompanied by shots of his son Jakie (Al Jolson) singing Kol Nidre at a Yom Kippur service. The son leaves Broadway behind in order to fulfill his father’s dying wish of singing the traditional song, which at once replaces both the body and the registrant.
In chapter four, perfectly entitled “Seconds”, Combs continues his analysis of film soundtracks, this time focusing on the circular flashback voice-over as used notably in film noir. In his most original chapter, the author convincingly shows how the moment of death noticeably expands in duration within this period and genre. Following narrative theorists, like Peter Brooks, and Freud’s description of the death drive and fort/da logic, the author locates noir as a genre best suited to examine life/death. The delay effect in D.O.A. (Rudolph Maté, 1950), Sunset Boulevard and American Beauty (Sam Mendes, 1999) offers its male protagonists an opportunity to contemplate their morality, feel catharsis, or experience denial. In each case, the male hero effectively mourns himself, sometimes in a matter of seconds. Film noir captures something of the unique relationship between narrative and death. Interestingly, whenever this device is used the entire film is configured as a deathwatch, lending weight to the Bazinian film theory that grounds the book and its articulation of “change mummified”. In Combs’ own words, “It is not just Frank Bigelow, but the cinematic signifier per se, that is dead on arrival.” (p. 169)
Isn’t all film viewing minimally a form of mourning the past and the referents that existed within it? Combs arrives at this point almost accidentally in his discussion of Sunset Boulevard, a film that understands this spectral dimension of the medium very well, and that begins and ends roughly with the same (now iconic) image: Joe’s (William Holden) corpse floating in Norma’s (Gloria Swanson) pool. If all storytelling is in some minimal way about reaching that final ending, then Sunset Boulevard tries to blur the lines between life and death as many of Joe’s decisions – slowly being entangled in Norma’s web – actually begin the process of his own death. The circular flashback narration, which happens either in a matter of seconds while Joe dies or perhaps from beyond, allows this noir to paint the world as always already imbued with death.
Chapter five turns our attention to electrocardiograph (EKG or ECG) and electroencephalograph (EEG) monitors. The flatline is the closest thing to cinematic registration of death, argues the author. Used liberally in films like Aliens (James Cameron, 1986), Strange Days (Kathryn Bigelow, 1995), and The Matrix (Andy and Larry Wachowski, 1999), the flatline visualizes what is invisible to the naked eye. Such technology makes death something no longer registered solely by humans. Combs’ main cinematic example, 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick, 1968), uses both voice-over and monitors in its multiple deathwatches that blur the line between human and technological death. The author illustrates this theme with reference to two scenes from the film. The first is the nearly silent depiction of the death of the crew-members as they lie in hibernation. HAL switches off the brain activity and we are forced to watch the characters die, with the multiple flatlines providing a fantasy of accuracy. The other is the equally haunting death of HAL, an example of disembodied death if there ever was one. With brutal detachment, the astronaut Dave (Keir Dullea) kills HAL very much the same way HAL terminated the crew: the lack of human-type registration of the death forces the viewer to complete the deathwatch.
Combs’ demonstration that monitors have had great influence on the way death is portrayed is keenly enhanced by descriptions of media coverage of real-life comatose patients, including Karen Ann Quinlan, Nancy Cruzan, and Terri Schiavo. Coverage of these patients generally put technology and experts at the foreground. Instead of focussing on the people involved, shows like Frontline (PBS) debated over and focused on the last remaining signifier of life found on the EEG, which measures, as Combs puts it, “a truly remote vital force – the electrical activity of the brain.” (p. 180) In the 2005 case of Schiavo (diagnosed with a persistent vegetative state), the flat EEG was debated over constantly by experts, politicians, and the public, making it a highly litigated death sign. In medicine and popular culture, this intermediary state that delays the moment of death, where the patient cannot communicate through any known means but is still nevertheless living, leads to deep anxiety.
Deathwatch achieves a good balance of various disciplinary concerns. Death, film language, narrative, technology, and film theory are rightly all given equal consideration. The book may be of special interest to screenwriters and filmmakers that are looking for more original ways of depicting death in their movies. As a sustained meditation on screen death, it provides both historical insight and theoretical rigor. Combs routinely reminds us that the gaze of the dying person can never be met, that it is almost impossible to look death in the face. But many films show a (dying) person’s (last) gaze, where the gaze is interiorized, in characters, in filmmakers, in us. What seems to be left out but often hinted at in Deathwatch is cinema’s relation to mourning. Indeed in the “Coda,” the author mentions a number of documentaries, including Silverlake Life: The View from Here (Peter Friedman and Tom Joslin, 1993), Thank You and Goodnight (Jan Oxenberg, 1993), and Kirby Dick’s The End (2004) – composed of segments shot by relatives or friends of terminally ill people, with footage of hospice staff anchoring all the stories – that suggest film can replace the physical dead body as the locus of registration, and thus can offer creative ways of dealing with loss.
Scott Combs, Deathwatch: American film, technology, and the end of life (New York, Columbia University Press, 2014).