Humanist Perspectives: issue 152: Euthanasia Through the Lens

Euthanasia Through the Lens
by Shirley Goldberg

Clint Eastwood directing Million Dollar Baby (photograph courtesy AMPAS)

At the heart of our complex cultural taboo about euthanasia is our denial of death itself. The nuclear family and the ability of medical science to prolong life far beyond the quality stage have contributed to the process of disconnecting us from the natural life cycle.

In After Many a Summer Dies the Swan, Aldous Huxley captures a pathological version of this fear in the character of a Hollywood film producer who raises carp in the lower depths of his Beverly Hills mansion in the hope of prolonging life indefinitely. The Hollywood connection is relevant: films reveal as much about a culture in the subjects they avoid as the ones they obsess on. Despite the fact that euthanasia and assisted suicide have been covertly practised over the years (almost everyone can cite personal family instances), the subject has remained relatively untouched in the celluloid repertoire. One can find examples, like Whose Life Is It Anyway (1981), but such exceptions are relatively rare.

Now, however, interest is stirring. Several recent award-winning films tackle euthanasia and assisted suicide. From Spain comes The Sea Inside (2004), based on the true story of Ramon Sampedro who spent almost thirty years campaigning for the legal right to die by assisted suicide. From festivals across Europe to Bankok to the Golden Globes in Hollywood, it has swept up awards and won the Best Foreign Film Oscar in March.

Released in the same week, Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby starts out as a boxing genre film but takes a dark turn to assisted suicide about three quarters of the way through. It won several Oscars, including Best Picture. In 2003 Canada produced two more examples — Thom Fitzgerald’s under-appreciated The Event and Denys Arcand’s superb Barbarian Invasions, which also won the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Not yet available is Simon, a comedy/drama about euthanasia from Holland, directed by Eddy Terstall and hailed by internet users as one of the best Dutch films ever. Since Holland legalized euthanasia in 2001, Simon should offer a unique perspective.

Why this sudden interest? Ramon Sampedro in his final televised appearance before drinking cyanide speaks of the “evolution of human conscience.” Such an evolution does appear to be unfolding. The state of Oregon has legalized assisted suicide, and similar legislation is under consideration in other states and in Canada. High-profile trials, like those of Evelyn Marten and Robert Latimer, have caught public attention. Early this year — in a scenario similar to three of the films cited above — severely ailing, 78-year-old Marcel Tremblay of Ottawa announced to the press his plan to surround himself with family and friends on a specific date and to conclude the evening by killing himself and having the act recorded on video. His stated purpose was to dramatize the fact that suicide is legal and that a person who wants to kill himself should be able to do so with family and friends in the room.

The subject has proved curiously touchy — cutting erratically across the usual ideological divide. In a number of cases the response of reviewers, torn between professional standards and gut instincts, has been bizarre. Roger Ebert, who gives high marks to The Sea Inside, spends over half his review identifying quadriplegics he has known who have lived rewarding lives — totally missing the movie’s point that this is the story of one person’s right to choose, a person who found his life so unacceptable he titled his writings Letters From Hell.

Historically film and television have played an enormous role in normalizing social change by calling attention to problem issues, arousing dialogue, and stimulating the power of empathy. In the dark of the theatre we come as close as possible to walking in someone else’s shoes.

We are living in a time when social consciousness has been evolving rapidly. The tribal conditions that underlie so many contentious religious doctrines no longer make sense in an overcrowded, multicultural world. Historically film and television have played an enormous role in normalizing social change by calling attention to problem issues, arousing dialogue, and stimulating the power of empathy. In the dark of the theatre we come as close as possible to walking in someone else’s shoes.

The Sea Inside began when director Alejandro Amenabar first read Ramon Sampedro’s writings. The 32-year-old Amenabar had made three highly successful films — two in Spanish: Thesis and Open your Eyes, and one in English: The Others, starring Nicole Kidman. Very different from each other, they all deal, in haunting ways, with alternate realities. Although he had the opportunity to go on to another big budget English language film, he chose instead to tell Sampedro’s story because it needed to be told.

To play the lead role he chose the great Spanish actor Javier Bardem. Despite portraying a man twenty years his senior and having to restrict his magnetic physical presence to facial gestures, Bardem gives a mesmerizing performance. As a young seaman Sampedro had dived off of a high cliff into a bay in his native Galicia before realizing that the tide was running out. The resulting injury to his spinal cord left him paralyzed from the neck down and confined to a bed for the remaining thirty years of his life, cared for tenderly both by his mother until her death and then by his brother’s family.

Through all those years he sought the right to die legally and with dignity. Having traveled around the world when he was only twenty and having taken great joy in the physical pleasures of life, he never became reconciled to his drastically limited existence. He never used a wheelchair because it reminded him too much of what he had lost.

However, his mind was active and witty, and his charismatic personality had a positive effect upon everyone who knew him. When asked about his easy smile, he explained: “When you can’t escape and you depend entirely upon others, you learn to cry with a smile.”Aside from the fact that some of the characters in the film are composites, every detail has been taken closely from his writing, from those who knew him, and from his television appearances.

The people who share his life and those who come into it are richly three-dimensional. Gene, who works for the Death With Dignity organization, seeks changes in the law. She trains him to use meditation to deal with his demons. When he finally gives up on the law and has his intricate plan in place for assisted suicide, she offers to help. However, he declines for fear of compromising her work.

Julia, his beautiful pro bono lawyer, is particularly sympathetic because she suffers from a degenerative disease that can at any time leave her completely disabled. Although she is married, she falls in love with Ramon, helps him organize his writing for publication, and even — when she is at a low point herself — proposes a suicide pact to take place the day the first copy of his book rolls off the press. She, however, has inner reservations. She debates joining the Death With Dignity movement, which — like the Living Will — would instruct doctors not to go to extraordinary measures to keep her alive in a terminal condition. However, she hesitates until it is too late: a stroke robs her of mental competence.

The third woman who comes into his life and loves him is Rosa, a well-meaning, neurotic single mother who works in a factory by day and spins disks on the radio two nights a week. After seeing Sampedro make his plea on television, she rides her bicycle to his home to cheer him up and make him want to live. Although her inability to understand his needs angers him so deeply that he calls her a frustrated woman and orders her out, that is actually the beginning of an unlikely relationship which becomes valuable to both of them. When he first tells her that the person who really loves him will help him end his life, she doesn’t comprehend. In the end she does.

The other strong woman is Manuela, his sister-in-law and caregiver. She loves him like a mother, but — despite her husband’s opposition and her own Catholic roots — she has no doubt about Ramon’s right to choose. Ramon is of sound mind, and he has never wavered in his desire for death.

Despite the sombreness of the subject matter, The Sea Inside is absorbing and essentially uplifting. In a particularly comic scene, a quadriplegic priest arrives to argue with Sampedro. When his wheelchair can’t be manoeuvred up the stairs, a nervous young acolyte is given the job of carrying messages back and forth. But Sampedro’s responses to what he considers meaningless church rhetoric are anything but polite. Soon he is challenging the priest about the contradiction between the sanctity of life and the sanctioning of the death penalty. By this time they have abandoned the use of the horrified intermediary and are shouting up and down the stairs.

In a subtle way Amenabar has also enriched our understanding of Sampedro by suggestions of an alternate reality. Most obviously we see it in a few sequences in which Sampedro moves mentally — either to cross the room and caress Julia or to fly out the window and careen dizzily over the mountain range to the sea he loves. All of the outdoor scenes are vividly alive — whether they involve Rosa racing through the woods on her bicycle or Ramon in the van rushing across the countryside on the way to court. The wind is blowing, the dogs are copulating, people are working and running, everything is vital and moving. It’s the world Sampedro has lost.

When he goes to court, he knows he will lose, but he must do it for those who come after him. Once that last hope for legal sanction is gone, he proceeds with the plan he had already put together, involving eleven friends, each of whom performs such a small detail in the process that he or she can not be held responsible. Moreover, the event is taped and broadcast over Spanish television.

In contrast to The Sea Inside, Million Dollar Baby does not spend time exploring the issue of euthanasia, but calls attention to it in a huge way. Whatever his intentions may have been, the image of Clint Eastwood completely and unequivocally endorsing assisted suicide is a powerful political statement. Million Dollar Baby, which many delirious critics have hailed as “a perfect film,” is distinguished by Eastwood’s tight, tense, minimalist style and winning performances by Hillary Swank, Clint Eastwood and Morgan Freeman. Swank, as a girl from the Ozarks with nothing going for her but her essential decency and her single-minded determination to become a boxer, rises to the championship challenge only to be struck down by an illegally thrown punch that leaves her completely paralysed.

Eastwood, her manager, is a man with a past. He has gone to mass every day for 23 years and suffers from unspecified religious and personal hang-ups — including a huge load of guilt toward a completely estranged daughter. What makes the film so appealing is the delicacy of the father/daughter relationship that is developed between Swank and Eastwood. When he follows her wishes and disconnects her breathing tube in the hospital, it is an act of love.

Amenabar offers a liberal view of people and society, a construct within which it makes sense to work for positive social evolution. By contrast, Eastwood takes a dark, fatalistic, conservative view of the universe. Aside from the three main characters, all the others are basically unpleasant if not downright evil. Swank’s family members are caricatures of backwood depravity. The opponent who throws the fatal punch is not just known for her dirty fighting, she is black, a former East German, and a former prostitute. Once Eastwood has dealt internally with his own trauma, he ignores the legal issues, slips into the hospital like the Pale Rider himself, does what needs to be done, and disappears forever over the horizon.

Eastwood’s character, however, is not without surprises. He spends much of his free time studying Gaelic and reading the poems of Yeats. After Swank is injured, he reads The Lake Isle of Innisfree to her in the hospital, essentially conferring upon it a rare, alternate interpretation: that the desire “to arise and go now, and go to Innisfree” expresses a longing for death “where peace comes dropping slow.”

In Barbarian Invasions writer/director Denys Arcand deals rationally and refreshingly with a whole smorgasbord of complex social issues including drug use and government health care as well as assisted suicide. The story picks up the characters from Arcand’s Decline of the American Empire seventeen years later. Remy, the irrepressible womanizer, is terminally ill with cancer, and his estranged, conservative, capitalist son is rounding up his old circle of faculty friends for a last reunion. When the time comes, they gather at the cottage by the lake Remy loved, eat a gourmet meal, drink a toast and say goodbye as he drifts off painlessly from a drug overdose in his drip machine. His friends — all intellectual, socialist baby boomers — have no qualms whatsoever about the procurement of heroin to ease his pain during his last days or about his assisted suicide. Even the Catholic sister from the hospital plays a covert part. Remy’s death is a ceremony of love and dignity.

In Thom Fitzgerald’s The Event, a young cellist is dying of AIDS. He has been on the drug cocktail program for seven years, but it is no longer working. The event itself was his last party, which he shared with his Jewish family and his gay, transvestite, and artistic friends. Once again, the responsibility for procuring and administering the drugs has been divided to lessen legal risk. However, someone panicked, called 911, and inadvertently alerted the law. The story is told in retrospect with a lawyer from the district attorney’s office interviewing the participants. Although this film lacks the unerring master hand of the other three, it explores many aspects of the euthanasia issue and captures a deeply moving relationship between mother and son (Olympia Dukakis and Don McKellar).

The appearance of these major films within a period of two years can’t be dismissed as accidental. They appear to signal the change in human conscience that Ramon Sampedro speaks for. They all depict the act of assisted suicide in a positive light. Carrying out the wishes of the victim is presented as an act of love, an acceptance of the individual’s personal choice, a willingness to let the loved one go in peace and dignity. All four films unequivocally endorse euthanasia as a morally valid choice. Two of them — The Sea Inside and The Event — go on to argue for legalization.

It is interesting to note also that in none of these films does anyone express a belief in an afterlife. When Rosa asks Ramon to send her a sign if possible, he replies gently that he doesn’t believe there is anything out there beyond death.

Shirley Goldberg is a free-lance writer, film critic and film programmer. She is retired from teaching English and Film Studies at Malaspina University-College.