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Goodbye to all

Say what you will about Jack Kevorkian, but the cadaverous old bird's got moxie. No less than "60 Minutes" -- admittedly during sweeps month-- gave Black Jack a solid quarter hour to showcase his singular talent for inducing the Big Sleep. Rendered in that washed-out camcorder look we associate with "America's Funniest Home Videos" were the final moments of the life of one Thomas Yout.

As the patient nodded off and out, Kevorkian worked the IV, pumping in various draughts. It all looked rather serene. Yout was clearly ready to go. The distance between whom he had been -- a robust sportsman -- and what he had become -- a burned-out fuse box of nerves and flesh -- was tragically obscene. He literally badgered Kevorkian into the deed, even though Jack wanted him to chill out for at least a week.

What I suspect shocked most viewers was not really Kevorkian's handiwork -- soon to be available, no doubt, on Faces of Death, Pt. 2. Rather it was how frighteningly smaller-than-life Yout's exit seemed. No Brahms "Requiem" playing in the background as a teary-eyed son reads Dylan Thomas in a quiet bedroom bathed with sunset colors. No I love yous or I'll be waiting in heaven.

The romantic notion of a dignified death is symptomatic of the fact that, for the vast majority of people, there is very little dignity in life. Visit a packed emergency room on a Saturday night and soak up the desperate vibrations as people are forced to confront the fact that their lives are fucked up and they don't have a clue what to do about it, except not die.

Hollywood knows people go to the cinema to escape, but invariably there are going to be stories with death scenes. The challenge is to either make a happy ending out of a sad goodbye or damn the heartstring torpedoes and dampen as many hankies as possible. Terms of Endearment (1983), Love Story (1970), Phenomenon (1996), the list of weepies goes on and on. Far more interesting, however, are the films that work in aesthetically creative and spiritually challenging exits stage right.

In The Godfather, Part 2 (1974), one of Don Corleone's old comrades prepares to testify in court. But when it comes time to sing like a bird, he takes to the bathtub and slits his wrists in the classic tradition favored by the Greeks. Coppola films the scene impeccably. One is reminded of Marat lying lifeless in his tub, slain in a moment of quiet.

The tragic tub motif can also be found in an exquisite segment in the very spotty Aria (1988). Bridget Fonda and a young buck race across the desert to arrive in Las Vegas at dusk, cruise the strip, make love and then die together in the bath, all to the strains of the Liebestod from Wagner's Tristan and Isolde.

In some film genres, death is supposed to come easy. Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992), perhaps the ultimate revisionist western, refuses to adhere to the generic gunfight in which the participants fall fast and furious, guns ablazin'. During one excruciating sequence, Clint and his two partners (Morgan Freeman, Jaimz Woolvett) ambush a gang of ranchers. The problem is that none of the shooters are any good and one of the ranchers, barely out of his teens, is hit but not killed. As he drags himself behind some rocks to die slowly, Clint squabbles with Woolvett, who's so myopic he can't even see what's going on. "Is he dead? Did ya get 'im?" Here is gunslinging at its dysfunctional worst.

Roman Polanski, who lost both his parents to Adolf's ovens and a wife to the Manson family massacre, was in no mood for a happy ending when it came time to finish Chinatown (1974). Screenwriter Robert Towne wanted Evelyn Mulray (Faye Dunaway) to escape safely to Mexico with her daughter, the result of a rape by her dodgy father (John Huston). Polanski argued that this would destroy the integrity of the whole film and that the audience would just have to live with the fact that life sucks. He prevailed and the final five minutes, in which Evelyn dies at the wheel of her getaway car and Grandpa gets the girl, are spellbinding in their gloom.

Equally disturbing is the final scene of Reservoir Dogs (1992). After an hour and a half of lifts from Hong Kong films, and a lot of macho posturing and film-school wanking, one doesn't expect much. But it's hard not to be moved as Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) cradles a blood-soaked Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) in his arms. Throughout the whole narrative, he's been his protector. Then he discovers his charge is a cop. The police arrive. Mr. White can save himself and perhaps even Mr. Orange if only he will put down his gun. Bawling like a baby, he chooses instead to kill Mr. Orange, which of course brings on his own death. It seems fitting that a director who has noted the homosexual subtext in Top Gun (1986) should be commended for his own gay underpinnings in this marvelous ode to the nobility of love in death.

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