The end is nearer than you think—and incredibly unsettling—in this amazing documentary that Judge Bill Gibron says is one of the best of the year.
What happens to the unmourned?
What happens to us after we die? No, this is not the start of some philosophical or theological discussion. The minute we leave our Earth-bound corpus, all bets are off and the proposed hereafter is really nothing more than a confusing and complex crapshoot. The real question is actually one of pragmatics: If we pass away, and no one is around to claim us as friend, family member, father, mother, brother, sister, son, daughter, significant other or long-lost relative, what exactly happens to us? What procedural steps do authorities take to identify and connect us to the rest of the living world? And what specifically are the rules and regulations that have to be followed for our disposal? What hurdles of humanity, unconcerned by heartache or thoughts of Heaven and Hell, have to be passed over when we pass away?
For those without a survivor to vouch for their corporeal validity, there is the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office and its staff of trained professionals. They will make sure the body is collected, the remains are treated in accordance with the law, and the personal possessions of the deceased are gathered and catalogued. Then the arduous search for any conceivable next of kin can begin. After a length of time, from months to years, the unclaimed body is eventually interred—either in a prearranged grave or a literal fiery furnace. The lasting material goods are gathered and auctioned off, the funds used—in conjunction with any leftover bank accounts and other estate goodies—to pay off administrative costs.
Without a claimant or a final resting place, a corpse travels to the L.A. Morgue, where the body is turned to ashes and bone. A giant blender pulverizes the leftovers into powder, and the dust of the dead is stored in simple metal boxes, tagged and stacked up, one on top of the other. Every few years, those who still can't find a living remainder as a reminder of their time on the planet get tossed into a large, mass grave—box after box of residue opened and poured in like memories into a cosmic rubbish bin. When the dirt is finally settled on top, a small, insignificant marker indicates the year of finality: "1997," for example. This is the story of what really happens after we die, or what will happen to us, if we are unlucky enough to suffer A Certain Kind of Death.
In what has to be one of the most amazing, moving, disquieting and effective documentaries ever made, first-time filmmakers Blue Hadaegh and Grover Babcock have created an unflinching portrait of an aspect of life that many of us will never be privy to—especially not after the fact. It is grotesque and unsettling, as much for its graphic images of real dead bodies as for its in-depth look at the unsympathetic, highly systematic investigation and burial bureaucracy. While it does focus solely on those instances where a next of kin cannot be located or easily discernible—known here as unclaimed or unidentifiable cases—A Certain Kind of Death offers a broader, much more sobering look at how the government treats the end of human life. Unlike the glorified images in movies or on television, death is a low-down, dirty and disgusting job. It's not a matter of someone having to do it—individuals are required by legislative mandate to clean up these soulless messes.
This is shocking, sensational stuff, a real jolt to the notion of mortality and our passing role within it. Using a unique, snapshot-like style (the directors employ frequent blackouts to keep the images resonating in our memory, like the best photographs do) and a whodunit-like delivery, we begin to understand how tenuous our attachment to this world really is. Indeed, after the Reaper has finished his grim business, those without relatives become identifiable solely on the most minor of ancillary objects—random correspondence, accumulated material possessions, the particular manner of death or the freshness of the furnishings found at the scene. A Certain Kind of Death does a brilliant job of mimicking the coroner's circumstances for the audience. As we sit and watch from the comfort of our living room, we also learn along with officials as they wander into these dismal domestic death scenes and investigate the cases.
A perfect example is one involving Ronald Tanner. When we first meet the man, he is a stiff, bloated corpse lying on the carpet of his apartment. His bed is covered in grue and he's already begun to discolor and bloat from the collection of rot-produced gases within his body. His seems like a simple enough story: a 60-plus-year-old bachelor, single man living alone; a life revolving around parents long deceased; an untidy residence with piles of personal papers in disarray. Slowly, certain facts come to light. Ronald had already purchased a burial plot, but for some reason, he gave it to a friend. Ronald was also the beneficiary of his associate's life insurance, and we soon discover that the two were roommates before illness severed their partnership. When we read that his buddy died of AIDS, certain social connections are made. Ronald ceases being a non-specific corpse, and starts being a proud gay man. When his loving life partner died, he sacrificed his place at Forest Lawn so that he could rest in peace. It's amazing how well we get to know these people just by the facts gathered during the routine investigation. It's one of the reasons A Certain Kind of Death is so special.
Of course, not every case is as clear-cut as Ronald's. Some people die as transients, already removed—in practice—from the real world. Others are sociable, if still solitary individuals, keeping to themselves just enough that, upon death, those considered close acquaintances really recall very little about this person they supposedly knew. A Certain Kind of Death does an exemplary job of illustrating these difficult and divergent situations, offering up small amounts of gallows humor to cut through the continual gloom and despair. But where this amazing movie really succeeds is in how it depicts the process, in all its step-by-step, intricately explained detail. While the coroner's office may seem cold, impersonal and near industrial in its manufactured mannerisms, there are still caring people behind the routine, individuals doing that "danged if you do" job that others would never dream of delving into.
But unlike Gates of Heaven, where the "characters" were the center of concern, A Certain Kind of Death is all nasty nuts and creepy, eerie bolts. The death scenes are far more disturbing than anything you've seen in horror or exploitation films, and not just because of the blood, guts and decomposition. No, it's the similarity to one's own life that makes them so uncomfortable—the couch that looks similar, the way in which one keeps their house, or the recognizability of aspects from our own daily grind. Those minor elements are amplified when fatality is in the sphere of influence, and they cause us to confront our own fleeting transience. Who would claim us when we die? And if there is no one around, what will those required to rummage through my left behind belongings actually find?
It is hard to verbalize how staggering this film is. In its plain and simple, workaday delivery of the L.A. County coroner's office and morgue, we suddenly experience a kind of out-of-body knowledge. We see the shadows of life's end suddenly loom in the horizon, and we begin to search inside ourselves for answers. Are we right with death? Do we care what happens to us after we're gone? Is everything in order? Can it ever be? As quickly as those sentiments send us flying off into fits of unfettered concern, A Certain Kind of Death slams us back down into our reality and ourselves. Unquestionably, it satisfies a certain morbid curiosity, giving us glimpses into areas of atrocity we'd never have access to otherwise. But it also illuminates one of the biggest questions facing a harried human being, an issue that sends many to church while others trust science to strengthen their hold on existence. It is the most universal quandary facing all of mankind…and it is kind of reassuring that the answer appears about the same for most people—kind of reassuring.
As they did with the recent, resplendent Tarnation, Wellspring does yet another documentary proud by serving up a technically terrific DVD package. The 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image is atmospheric, moody and extraordinarily disturbing. With the camcorder ideally used for a "caught as it happened" sensation, we occasionally feel like we're watching some incredibly well filmed, but still quite foul crime scene footage. The infrequent interviews are framed for maximum effect, and the outdoor scenes seem bathed in a kind of ethereal, washed-out light that really accentuates the troubling tone. Naturally, this comes from the equipment used, but like all happy accidents, it makes A Certain Kind of Death that much more memorable.
As a movie that trusts in the power of silence to solidify a point, the Dolby Digital Stereo mix is mind blowing. The voices are clear and distinct, but for the most part, we are left with the aching stillness of life ended. We can still hear the sounds of feet shuffling through debris and casual conversation between the workers, but the overall ambience is hush heightened by inevitability. As troubling as the visuals can be, this incredibly cold calm is equally unnerving.
From a bonus perspective, Wellspring offers up a nice collection of context. The best consists of several Frequently Asked Questions. More or less a written commentary on how the film was made, and why certain aesthetic choices were made, we get several text screens of inquiries and responses. All offer insight into the process, and allow us to understand the problems involved in taking on a subject as forbidden as this one. The five deleted scenes add nothing to the overall film, merely repeating things we've already seen, or giving us information that is unnecessary to the point of the narrative. Add in trailers and some DVD-ROM weblinks and you've got a nice, if not necessarily overloaded, digital presentation.
Some closure on a few of the cases would be nice, or just a remembrance for the people we've seen, peaceful and passed on, during the course of this amazing film would have completed this amazing movie perfectly. Instantly taking its place in the canon of stirring, seminal documentaries, A Certain Kind of Death is destined to be remembered—not just for what it dares to show, but for what it asks us to think about the images we see. Far from a freak show, or some manner of Faces of Death test of tolerance, this is reality, plain, painful and simple. This is life—before and after. This is also one of the best DVDs of the year.
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