Hereafter

As mentioned previously, here is my post from the “mediation” blog about the movie “Hereafter.” I am putting it here mostly because I keep thinking of this movie, especially as I’ve been reading Rob Bell’s new book about heaven and hell as well as Pavel Florensky’s “Iconostasis” which deals with the relationship of dreams to heaven. Also, I was finally able to find an image of the iconic (and unfinished!) painting which figures so prominently in the film.

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Life, Afterlife and Rob Bell in Clint Eastwood’s “Hereafter”

At a crucial point in the film “Hereafter” (2010), a reluctant psychic (played by Matt Damon) visits the home of Victorian novelist Charles Dickens in London. On the wall is a famous painting: “Dickens’ Dream,” where the famous writer is pictured asleep, encircled by the spectral figures of the characters he brought to life in his many novels. Although the film does not explicitly make this connection, the scene depicted in “Dickens’ Dream” is precisely the same as the visions the psychic has of the “hereafter”: when he penetrates the threshold that separates the world of the living from that of the dead, he sees a mysterious crowd of figures immersed in light, from which individual faces emerge in order to communicate with him. In this way of looking at it, death is like a dream, where all the characters you knew in life – and perhaps, in a non-solipsistic way, wrote into your earthly story – surround you as you pass into the next world, just like Dickens asleep in his authorial chair. The faces and stories of those we love do not end at the moment of death, but continue imperceptibly “beyond the veil.”

A second metaphor of the “hereafter” in  the film comes during a scene of a cooking class. The participants in the class are blindfolded and have to identify foods from taste and smell alone. For the psychic and his assigned partner, a young woman alone in a new city, this simple activity takes on a graceful, sensual character; they describe the taste of different foods, unable to express the names of the dishes (or their growing feelings for each other) using words but still caught up in the rapturous, intimate moment. This is how we experience the world beyond our own, the world we enter into at death; we the living are blindfolded, conscious of exotic, otherworldly tastes and fragrances that are real and intimate but ultimately unnameable, inexpressible, hidden.

The afterlife is in the spotlight these days, thanks in no small part to the appearance of Rob Bell’s new book about “heaven, hell, and the fate of every person who ever lived.” Everyone (especially in Christian circles) seems to have a strong opinion about where we are going and who is going where. The divisive, often overly speculative question of what happens after we die takes on a particular edge, however, in light of the massive earthquake and tsunami which recently devastated Japan. Suffering and death on an unimaginable scale serve to reinforce the stark reality of human mortality and make whatever comes after earthly life a horizon worth considering rather than an abstract debate. (Bell has done his best to avoid making the controversy surrounding his book into an opportunity for sterile logic-chopping.)

“Hereafter,” newly available on DVD, has something to offer this highly polarized discussion. The film has been removed from theatres in Tokyo because it opens with a graphic depiction of the tsunami which afflicted Thailand in 2004, an understandable move considering the visceral immediacy it brings in recreating a disaster so reminiscent of the more recent catastrophe. A French journalist (Cecile de France) is caught in the powerful waves and crosses over to the other side, only to be resuscitated and left to wonder at her “near-death” experience. One might be tempted to say that her story becomes intertwined with that of the Dickens-loving psychic and a young boy mourning the loss of his twin brother, but in reality the three otherwise unrelated characters simply happen to meet each other at a book fair. However, their common experience of what awaits us on the other side of the threshold of death binds them together in a strange way. The story of the little boy, who has lost his best friend and protector, is particularly compelling in its portrayal of grief and absence; the ghostly presence of his brother, only perceptible to him as a providential gust of wind, is not enough to ease the ache of losing someone you love.

I had a feeling watching this film that there were layers of intertextual meaning waiting to be excavated, particularly in the importance of Charles Dickens, although according to the screenwriter his inclusion was somewhat arbitrary. The film already ties together historical elements, from the tsunami in Thailand to the London subway bombings, into a hazy, dreamlike narrative that I found somewhat unsatisfying as a narrative but well worth re-watching to pick up loose connections. Damon’s character is especially intriguing – the psychic who feels that communion with the dead is a “curse,” and so tries to isolate himself from everyone else (living and dead) to avoid the complications of relational entanglement.

At two fairly mundane (and unrelated) points in the narrative, Damon’s character says “That’s great. But what does it have to do with me?” Those throwaway lines, spoken in differing contexts, perhaps reveal the underlying message of the film. Life, death and whatever it is that is ‘after-life’ will come to each one of us; we too must consider what will await us when we take off the blindfold.

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