Life pivots on our uncertainty. Death comes in many forms, pirouetting in a practice that has outlived our existence. The cosmic condition of knowledge, power, passion and pain come together in one final performance, bowed as we are to the inevitable.
Hinging on the turn of death, art turns to our turmoil, our torrents and our illnesses as a means to comfort both ourselves and others. In this list, we have selected a corpus of cinema, each an elegy, a prayer and a mantra to the end. We have elected two conditions equally universal and evil in their nature. The 1980s and 1990s were concerned with the Aids epidemic, concerned as they were by a disease that spread from body. Aids of course is not longer a terminal disease, with HIV being considered an entirely manageable chronic condition instead. Those on that list that do not concern Aids are related to cancer, the reprobate that has made its way into families all over the world. Though none of these films would classify themselves the easiest of watch, each has a power that merits them as an essential viewing. This piece is to all the millions who died at the hands of the illnesses and a tribute to the bravery of the filmmakers in showcasing the honesty of their conditions. In times of great healing, films prove great companions and in times of great illness, great comforts when we need them most.
1. Love Story (Arthurd Hiller, 1970):
It’s nearly 50 years since Love Story, a bona fide box office smash and cultural conversation-starter, opened up on the unknowing public. Deeply romantic in tone and nature, the immense love and chemistry Jenny Cavilleri (Ali MacGraw) and Oliver Barrett (Ryan O’Neal) held overcame numerous class barriers, dismissive parents and extreme poverty. What it couldn’t defeat was cancer, the terminal illness that drove Jenny to an untimely grave. Eager to follow his chivalric code, Oliver opts not to tell her when he hears the news, allowing her to discover the news after confronting her doctor in a gut-punching scene. Yet cancer isn’t enough to kill their love, a love stronger than words, Oliver comforting himself in her memory that “love means never having to say you’re sorry”. Saturated in the most wonderfully romantic rhetoric, the film opened to extraordinary box office results, heralding the modern day tragic ‘chick flick’ template that were felt in Titanic‘s (James Cameron, 1998) beats, The Fault In Our Stars‘s (Josh Boone, 2014) story. What Love Story holds over both those stories is a heartfelt romance that makes the moments where Jenny organises her own burial that bit more gut-wrenching to watch.
2. Cries and Whispers (Ingmar Bergman, 1972):
Heedful of the experiences which formed his creative muse, director Ingmar Bergman was terribly moved by his memories of a mortuary at Sophiahemmet Hospital. His autobiography The Magic Lantern demonstrated an unstaunched, funereal horror no boy should ever witness:”The young girl who had just been treated lay on a wooden table in the middle of the floor” Bergman writes. “I pulled back the sheet and exposed her. She was quite naked apart from a plaster that ran from throat to pugenda. I lifted a hand and touched her shoulder. I had heard about the chill of death, but the girl’s skin was not cold but hot. I moved my hand to her breast, which was small and slack with an erect black nipple. There was dark down on her abdomen. She was breathing.”
Gaped with the terminal image lodged firmly in his skull, Bergman sought to capture the response in a triumvirate of psychological dramas. Persona (1966) and Hour of the Wolf (1968) captured the essence of terror, but Cries and Whispers (1972) satisfied the director’s thirst in its purest, most final form. Bed-bound in her domiciliary abode, Agnes (Harriet Andersson) waits on sisters Maria and Karin (Liv Ullmann and Ingrid Thulin) for her comforts. Dying from uterine cancer, Agnes finds the compassion missing from her siblings in the arms of servant and friend Anna (Kari Sylwan). Liturgical in form, the film defies genre convention, exploring the Marxist, feminist and hereditary permutations celebrated in all of Bergman’s works.Yet there’s something achingly beautiful as the film ends on Anna, Agnes’ closest compatriot, delving into her Lady’s diary, exploring the life and thoughts of a spirited girl untouched by illness.
3. An Early Frost (John Erman, 1985):
An Early Frost expertly captures the fears of Aids people sincerely felt in the 1980s. Irish actor Aidan Quinn stars as Chicago attorney Michael Pierson, doubling the burden of attending a family get together by exposing himself as an Aids victim to them. In typical 1980s lad-led bravado, Pierson refuses to tell his parents until the spluttering, the nausea and the coughing becomes too great. An impasto of its timely ilk, An Early Frost shows the everyday stigmas people associated with the disease, Michael castigated for greeting his mother with a familial kiss. As with every family, forgiveness is reached, a parent’s love for their stronger than any syndrome‘s hold on their child’s body.The film’s characters are ignorant, but it did project the widespread ignorance the decade held back on its viewers. “It was one of the more rewarding, or most rewarding, jobs I ever had because of the effect it had on elevating the education about the Aids epidemic,” Quinn remembered in 2015. “I get stopped on the street to this day, like an old woman will grab my hand and say it really helped her understand her son.”
4. Hawks (Robert Ellis Miller, 1988):
Barry Gibb of the Bee Gees, who penned the coruscating song Stayin’ Alive, found himself in his very own moral compass as he discussed the precariousness of life with David English. Conceiving their own solutions to delightful non-permanence, Gibb and English asked writer Roy Clarke to compose his own percipient elegy, one lead star Timothy Dalton boasted was the greatest script he’d ever read. It was a cancer comedy, an odd collocation of terms in 1988, yet holds up nicely in an age where a millennial indie comedy is often more spear-like than slapstick. Much like the book-ending Bond films that coincided with this expose, Dalton’s performance in the sombre Hawks would prove decades ahead of its time. There is life to Dalton’s bed-ridden Bancroft, verged as he is for one last adventure. Talking Anthony Edwards’ Deckermensky into parting with him, the pair escape the poisonous hospital for the cycle paths and lasses of Amsterdam. Flirtations with romances masks the pair’s flirtation with death, sharing the absurdity with a roguish red nose for comfort.
It starred James Bond, it was soundtracked by a Bee Gee, yet Hawks only made reasonable business in box office receipts. The film struck a chord with many real life patients though, their appreciation a great comfort to Dalton in later years; “at the time I was overwhelmed with letters by cancer victims and the husbands, wives, and children of cancer victims who were just saying, “Thank you so much.”
5. Longtime Companion (Bruce Davison, 1989):
Although history would dictate that the earliest signs of Aids were found in chimpanzees and simian immunodeficiency virus (SIV) from the 1920s, the epidemic as recognised in the modern day medical idiom stems from the 1980s. Concerned with the piercing, poisonous contagion, cinema acted with caution to an illness it knew little about, had little to espouse. John Hurt’s mellifluous voice cautioned television watchers of a death by ignorance, populating the British airwaves with a harrowing impasto of images over tolling graves, while the irascible James Bond kept his clothes on whenever the mirthful Maryam d’Abo fell into his arms. Dracula, Francis Ford Coppola’s delicate monster, emerged more pitiable than ever as audience members questioned the blood that passed his lips.
The sprawling Longtime Companion proffered an explanation to the impetus of a disease that robbed many of their sexual liberties, sexual adherences and, often, sexual partners. A New York Times moniker, the ‘longtime companion’ coin described the surviving same-sex partner of someone who had died of AIDS as a delicate way of honoring the deceased in a homo-suspicious society. The film chronicles the impact the harrowing disease held on a series of men, serialising the contagion from 1981 to 1989. What starts as a group of care-free men sours as violently as the illness they hold. A section which finds the deceased David (Bruce Davison) eulogised for his choice of red dress is one of the more genuinely affecting moments. Then there are the hospital clutters which finds the virile Sean (Mark Lamos) withering in bed bound vegetation. Throughout the movie, men discuss the implications of death at a time when they should be enjoying the thrill of life. It’s a harrowing watch that matches the importance of the subject, a subject very close to the hearts of the creative crew; director Norman René succumbed to the deadly virus himself in 1996.
6. Philadelphia (Jonathan Deme, 1993):
Philadelphia has dated in the last 27 years, but for many Jonathan Demme’s raw character piece was their first dealings of an openly gay man struggling with more than just the “gay disease”. Inspired by the real life Geoffrey Bowers’ case, Philadelphia delves into the wrongful termination of an upstanding lawyer. Determined to fight for his name, Andrew Beckett (Tom Hanks) haunts his librarians with tenacious fervour, before the cynical Joe Miller (Denzil Washington) agrees to act on Beckett’s behalf. Aids provides the backdrop, but this is a film about a different type of survival. Surviving through bigotry, imprudence and public humiliation, Beckett stands with partner Miguel Álvarez (Antonio Banderas) in valedictory guise at the film’s close. A film of the early nineties, there is no happy fate for Beckett, the treatments that would save millions still an impossibility by 1993. Hanks is outstanding, his first Oscar his more deserved of the pair, yet Washington is the real stand-out, prying and preening through his own prescient condition; homophobia.
7. Majorettes in Space (David Fourier, 1996):
Asked for his own opinion on contraception, Pope Francis was cryptic in 2015. “Yes, it is one of the methods; I think that the morality of the Church finds itself on this point before a perplexity: is it the fifth or the sixth Commandment? To defend life, or that the sexual relation be open to life? But this isn’t the problem. The problem is greater. ” His predecessor, Pope Benedict, was even blunter; “It is of great concern that the fabric of African life, its very source of hope and stability, is threatened by divorce, abortion, prostitution, human trafficking and a contraception mentality”.
The 1990s saw Pope John Paul II reigning over the Catholic Church, his mulish views over condoms felt in every corner of his church. Director David Fourier took this mentality into his own hands, conjuring a six-minute short film critiquing the ridiculous nature of this protest on a planet that saw whole families dying from Aids. Focused with surrealism, two cosmonauts float in space without contraception, a young couple make love in outdoors, a brilliant young man contemplates his Aids diagnosis, all the while showcasing a scholarly pope parading from one airport to another. In pristine French narration, the film’s voice cuts through the assemblage of images, critiquing humanity’s need for sexual pleasure, chasing the madness of intergalactic space travel and wagging a well earned finger at the establishment that discouraged any association with safer forms of intercourse.
8 Y Tu Mama Tambien (Alfonso Cuaron, 2001):
Alfonso Cuarón stands as a five time Academy Award winning giant, a titan proudly following his excellent Harry Potter And The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) adaptation with statuettes for directing a doublet of cosmic epics. How very different the director stood in 2001, unveiling a road movie as rustic in advertising itself as it advertised the director’s native Mexico. Hand held cameras capture the crashing, clattering engine lead characters Luisa, Julio and Tenoch must drive together. “This all goes back to our original idea of 15 years ago,” Cuarón admitted, ” in which we would do a low-budget road movie that would allow us to go with some young actors and semi-improvise scenes and have a bare storyline but not be afraid of adding things as we went.”
Cuarón’s naturalistic approach carries added weight when Luisa, the object of two boy’s companionship, mentor and carnal desire, comes to terms with her terminal decline. Determined to keep this from the boys whose hips she airily shares with on the dance-floor, Luisa’s steely resilience and joy for life leaves an imprints on her passengers. So much so, her imprint, vigour and rectitude breaks up the duo on two heart-wrenching occasions. The first comes in her lifetime, when an agitated Julio catches her in Tenoch’s arms, the second through her death, as a despondent Tenoch promises to catch up with Julio for a passage that never comes to pass.
9. 50/50 (Will Reiser 2011):
It was near impossible to avoid Seth Rogen in 2011, the perennial star of entertaining, if lightweight, populist buddy-comedies. They were punchy, polished works that tellingly said little about the human condition. That all changed with 50/50, a genuinely affecting look at life chasing through chemotherapy, based on a script written by cancer survivor Will Reiser. It was an unvarnished look at his own demons and dealings with the illness, but bravely the script was warmly received, one encouraged and accommodated by Rogen,
Reiser’s real life friend since Da Ali G Show. Rogen stars as Kyle Hirons, the ear piece to the ailing Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Together, they walk through the terrible disease with punch lines pluckier than the courage Lerner needs to face the illness. The film is pointed, but never flippant, posing over Lerner’s shaven head with placid, courtly observance. Illustrated all over the film’s promotional materials, the head-shaving scene was one its cast did not take lightly. “We only had one take because you can’t shave your head twice.” Gordon Levitt admitted. “It was the first day of filming” Rogen corroborated at the film’s awaited premiere. We improvised the whole thing, which is not wise when it’s something you have one take for, but it turned out funny.”
Humans live in a cycle of periods, passages, philosophies and stages. The stages we live in our life come together in a collective condition. Death and grief work in their peerless property as a reminder of the love we’ve held for ourselves, our lives and our loved ones. Accomplished writer Billi Wang (Awkwafina) walks into that particular potent pool as she celebrates her Grandmother’s life in her final weeks on earth.An American film about Chinese communities, Lulu Wang’s self-penned handiwork illustrates the different ways each of us responds to death. Western ideologies place the act of dying solely on the individual, while Wang shows a community that puts the action of leaving as a collective feat.
Through her ailing grandmother (Nai Nai), Billi learns a perspective none of the books she hopes to study provide her, giving both her and Nai Nai a purpose for life. In it’s own way it provides one of the greatest voices on death, as a family lie provides one of cinema’s more devastating truths. It’s too early to tell if this adventure proves one of the more important cancer films; but it’s not too early to say that it more effectively shows communal grieving than any other on this list.
The Farewell is also pictured at the top of this article.