L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e ~ D o s t o ï e v s k i

L a - b e a u t é - s a u v e r a - l e - m o n d e  ~  D o s t o ï e v s k i

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Arguing death and respect and the Titanic

How long should we wait before we get to use tragedy as a basis for our entertainment?

If it's on the news, we don't wait at all. I believe we deceive ourselves that that isn't really entertainment; it's something we're supposed to know, have a right to know if it's on the news. Just like we have a right to slow down to see that accident on the freeway. Or hear about the personal tragedy of a celebrity. Or even see the video of Gaddafi, beaten and bloodied and on his way to an ugly death. But maybe we think that's OK, because he was a really bad guy, and it's history? I suppose we've always been that way; public executions always had excellent attendance. We have a right to gawk, don't we? It's not hurting anyone. Everybody else does it. It's just human nature, isn't it? Are we able to convince ourselves that it's natural and harmless to carelessly witness and disrespect the tragedy of others? We do. All the time. Without giving it a moment's thought. There's something in us that tells us look, but isn't there something, too, that says look away?

And when it's you and your life? When it's your loved one who had a heart attack at the mall, or the one being pulled from the crushed car? When the news camera is pointed at the people you love - your husband, your mom, you child - when they are most vulnerable?


I've never really been afraid of death. I know many - most? - people are. And I'm not terribly concerned, personally, about what happens to what's left of me afterwards. My body or my soul, should I have one. So it's really peculiar that I feel so strongly about how the dead are treated, the lack of respect we show them. We drag celebrities out of their graves, over and over - Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse, so many others - pouring over the details of their sad lives. And true crime writing is really disturbing to me. I feel that people like Ann Rule and her ilk make their living off of the horrendous misfortunes of other people. I have to say that I have no respect for that genre or for the people who crave that kind of thing; before they were tortured and murdered - children, old people, prostitutes - those were real people. Why can't we leave them some dignity? Why can't we let them rest?

I'm also very disturbed by how people's real lives are portrayed in entertainment. A documentary is one thing; I'm generally alright with that. But when it comes to "recreation" or "portrayal" of someone's life, when actors are involved, I get very squeamish. Boys Don't Cry, as an example, was a very respected film, a very well made film. It told the true story of Brandon Teena, a young trans man, who was beaten, raped and - with two other people - murdered. I feel confident that everyone involved in the project had great respect and reverence for their subject matter and the lives of those portrayed. I'm also sure that those who think so highly of the film feel that it made a huge statement for tolerance and understanding. Even knowing that, I think it was wrong. Mainly because, in spite of all the noble intentions, in telling this story the whole point of Teena and the others' lives is that they were victims. That became the sum of their lives. What we are left with is a very ugly visualization of how they were beaten and killed. We don't really get to know the humanity of them, just the ugliness they endured as they left this life. I understand that my take on this is unusual, but I feel that the replaying of their awful tragedies, no matter the intention of the filmmakers, further victimized them.

I know that one of the most offensive aspects of that film for me is that it was made only six years after the event. So, how long after the fact is long enough? And when is it alright to start (intentionally) fictionalizing events that were traumatizing to the nation, to the world? To (knowingly) use them for entertainment purposes? When I think about the film Titanic, I often wonder how long it will be before some poorly-written and silly love story will be set in the collapse of the World Trade Towers. Is it too soon?

I really don't know how long is long enough for me. Sometimes I'm sad that tomb-robbers/archaeologists didn't leave King Tut and the other ancients alone; they had prepared their deaths so well and so beautifully. Though I suppose I do see digging up ancient graves as a desecration, I guess I don't get too worked up over it. I'm not offended by the dramatized deaths of Borgias or Tudors or the like. And even though I'm fairly steeped in the personal tragedies of Marie Antoinette or various Romanovs, it would be hard for me to take offense by some bungled telling of their demise, though I'd be disappointed by the bungling. (Again.) The more I think about it, it's the use of the "little people" - people not much or at all remembered by history - in some sloppy retelling, some re-invention of historical trauma that I find most distressing.

And I guess that's the reason I detest Titanic. It's a very stupid film. Clichéd and - save the historical fact - implausible. I will give that much of the design is well-done, much better than most American films. But what pains me most is the way that the real-life victims of the tragedy are used. Not the famous people; they have a record of their actions, and history acknowledges them and can defend them. But the "nobodies", the hundreds - most of them poor - who drowned and left no trace? At the end of the film, when bodies become nothing more than props, sliding down the angled deck, dangling and falling into the sea, I find it painful. To me it feels like the actual people who died that night have been stripped of their humanity in order to become a dramatic tool.

We all - most of us, anyway - have very small lives. Nothing much happens to us; we accomplish little of importance, from birth to death. Nothing that anyone will record, nothing that anyone will remember long. But it's our life. Full of love and pain and loss. Anonymous and often difficult. We know our own hardships and the hardships of those in our lives, but the lives and tragedies of strangers aren't for us to laugh at and disregard. Everyone is trying, struggling. And I feel we should respect that. In life and in death.


One small detail of Titanic bothered me more than anything else. I've only seen the movie once, and I don't expect to see it again, so I'll admit that I can't fully corroborate my memory of the detail I'm speaking of. It concerns the band that so famously played while the ship sank, the men losing their lives. It was just a moment in the film - honestly, I can't remember the content - some communication among members of the band that was played for humor. I remember that, whatever it was, it offended me.

But it's the band on the Titanic that is always the sorest, most affecting part of the tragedy for me; really, I'm never able to speak about them at all, without starting to cry. (Even just writing, like now, starts me off....) Wallace Hartley was the young leader of the eight musicians who formed the band that night. When tragedy struck they stayed on deck and played, trying to help keep people calm while those who were able to, scrambled into life boats. And kept playing afterward for those who remained, when it was impossible to escape. Until the ship sank. And they died.

I think to myself, you know, they probably weren't the greatest musicians; they probably considered themselves quite lucky to get such an excellent gig. I'm guessing they had very average lives, doing the same things we all do; Hartley had just gotten engaged. And then, in this horrible moment, with all that they must have been feeling - knowing that they would die - they transcended whatever small talent they might have had, trying to give some peace to the other doomed passengers. They gave the only thing they had to give. And it was a noble thing. And it was honorable and a blessing. I can't even really grasp why it is that this touches me so profoundly. But I salute those men and the way they chose - under horrible circumstances - to end their lives. To those eight men, and all the other hundreds of people - man, woman, and child - who lost their lives that cold night, peace. Rest in peace.


More information on Hartley and the other musicians here and here.


  1. A brilliant & thought provoking piece. So glad you took the time to write & more importantly share.

    1. Thank you so much for saying this, Debra Anne. I so appreciate it.

  2. I got to this blog by accident, but reading your comments about Titanic, I have to say that my opinion on the portrayal of the musicians was pretty much the same as yours. I've always thought of the well known story of the musicians playing until the end as a beautiful gesture, very romantic, but I felt it was ridiculed in the film. Glad to see i'm not the only one who felt that.

  3. Thank you, Aleopardo. I sometimes feel that my opinions can be be obscure and perhaps too extreme, so I appreciate hearing that your response was similar.

    All the best to you,