Judge Russell Engebretson, after careful consideration, plans on booking the first available flight from death.
Fifty-four million people alive at this moment will be dead within the next 12 months.
The film title is somewhat misleading. It implies that the documentary will investigate possible stratagems for extending human life through technological techniques such as cryogenics or longevity drugs. Rather, the film is based on a psychological theory posited by the late Ernest Decker, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Denial of Death, and to a lesser extent Existential Psychotherapy by Irvin Yalom. By the end of the film, the viewer will possess at least a sketchy understanding of the synthesis of death-anxiety theories as posited by Decker and his present-day followers.
Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality—directed by Patrick Shen, written by Shen and Greg Bennick, and narrated by Gabriel Byrne—alternates between academic talking heads, elegiac scenes of old cemeteries, and archival footage of disasters, riots, and human suffering in general. There are also scenes of pedestrians in crowded American cities, African kids mugging for the camera, and other such depictions of mundane human activity. The collage approach gives the film, in some of its better visual moments, the look and feel of Koyaanisqatsi. However, the bulk of the documentary is devoted to commentary from academics, most of whom work in psychology and sociology related disciplines, and serve here as conveyers of Decker's theories.
Sheldon Solomon (Professor of Psychology, Skidmore College) is one of the more colorful commentators. His punchy lecture style, punctuated with earthy metaphors and emphatic hand gestures, has made him the darling of a multitude of college students. For one of his talks in this documentary, he appears in a tie-dye T-shirt against the distant backdrop of the Golden Gate Bridge. His mini-lecture condenses Decker's theory of death-anxiety: essentially, Ernest Decker believed human violence is a product of our awareness of personal death, and that anxiety created by the contemplation of our own demise exacerbates anger and rage that ultimately leads to all types of conflicts—everything from personal vendettas to global warfare.
Solomon is fun to watch as he delivers a layman-friendly version of Decker's thesis, but there are less flamboyant talking heads here that I found more engaging. Kirby Farrell (Professor of English, University of MA-Amherst) mixes Decker's ideas with a dose of economic social criticism; at one point he discusses a concept he calls "social death." Farrell says, "American utopianism at the moment tends to be a consumer utopia associated with money and the ability to command the wills of other people by paying them something, which in effect is magnifying your own self. The tragic flip side of this experience is that if you don't have money, you are in effect surrendering your ability to choose or to control other people. Or, to put it another way, you are radically vulnerable. The ultimate state of being without money is to be a slave." For me, that is a simple yet cogent statement. Farrell's argument, as opposed to Decker's rarefied psychological construct, is anchored in the real world of class struggle and unequal income distribution.
The death-anxiety postulations are grounded in too many psychological experiments of dubious merit. I was skeptical of the argument for the efficacy of subliminal suggestion—implemented on a computer monitor rather than a movie screen as in days gone by—to induce subconscious feelings of anxiety in the subjects. It is probably too extreme to consign subliminal suggestion to the scrap heap of pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo along with phrenology and racist bell curve theories, but the social scientists are building their structure on a shaky foundation when they resort to methods that many of their colleagues consider to be of questionable value. Experiments that required subjects to solve puzzles by using emotionally charged objects (a Christian cross used as a hammer to pound nails, or a small American flag used as a strainer) to induce anger and aggression were clever but only marginally convincing. The documentary is compelling as a meditation on human violence and death, but unsatisfying when it tries to explain human aggression and all manner of social ills with an all-encompassing, one-note psychological theory.
The sound and picture are fine for a documentary. Quality of the archival footage varies, for the most part depending on its age; and the newly filmed material is of high quality and is well edited. The extras include a decent audio commentary helmed by Shen and Bennick that oscillates between back patting and informative discussions about working conditions, locations, and how the thrust of the movie changed from medical procedures to buttressing Decker's arguments from Denial of Death. One deleted scene that illustrates where the documentary was originally headed is a clip entitled "Medical Strategies" with some medical lab shots and a brief, murky video of a body being prepared for cryogenic preservation (The director and scriptwriter said that film footage of cryogenic human internment is almost impossible to obtain, and they half-jokingly suggested that a profitable cottage industry could be started if someone had footage they would be willing to lease to filmmakers). The package of extras is unspectacular, but well rounded, and a nice adjunct to the main film.
This documentary is an intriguing look into strife and human mortality, although it stumbles as a vehicle for a niche psychological theory. The DVD is certainly worth a rental, and it will probably spark a round of lively arguments—hopefully of the restrained, non-violent variety.
Perhaps all this talk of death and dying weighs too heavily on your mind, induces negative vibrations, or simply brings you down; so please allow me to leave you with this comforting parting quote from Flight from Death: We will die eventually, and all of this will come to an end.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Go Kart Films
• Making of Flight from Death
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