Other ways to die: a study of the depiction of dying protagonists in contemporary feature film

Michelle Spragg

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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[Truncated] This dissertation is a consideration of how dying is expressed and made legible in the cinematic medium. Specifically, the focus of this study is the nature and function of dying protagonists in film, where the central character is aware of his or her impending death. In the films discussed, the protagonist bears knowledge of their death as imminent, be it in the sentence of degenerative illness, as the result of some supernatural intervention, or as the consequence of a tragically unalterable event. The ways in which these films interpret, treat and portray the anxiety brought about by death-awareness is manifold, yet united by the common goal of translating the dying into a mode of being-with-death. I examine this mode of being-with-death as shaped by a uniquely cinematic kind of intelligence, where images themselves articulate the poignant ontological predicament of accounting for the place of mortality in life. The thesis tested is thus whether these films invent an avatar of death to act as a substitute for actual death, or whether the very materiality of cinema suggests its own philosophical, artistic and ethical relation toward the end of existence.

The protagonists under observation here challenge and exemplify the nuances of each of these propositions. Examples are drawn from the work of Spanish director, Alejandro Amenabar, American auteur, Gus Van Sant, as well as a specific reading of William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), and a selection of contemporary film comedies. The choice of films has been based, firstly, upon the presence of this dying protagonist, and secondly, on the particularity with which their visual economies encompass the limitations and imaginative possibilities of representing this condition. My reading of these texts puts forward the argument that the depiction of the experience of the dying protagonist is, to borrow from Roland Barthes, never an effect but always instead a protocol of   the representational medium. In short, with its characteristics of duration and performance, dying is a process to be relished on screen. This thanatological study, however, does not adopt a survey approach, nor does it assert that each subset of films, taken as a whole, presents a definitive overview of how contemporary cinema represents dying. Neither does it assess the centrality of death awareness to culture at large. Rather, the aim of this thesis is to bring into relief as clearly as possible the representation of dying and death awareness as it is construed from the data of the cinematic texts in question. The extraction of stills from these works is thus included to aid this project. In the films considered, the stills offer a providential glimpse into the aesthetic subject-hood of the dying protagonist, and stand as evidence of the acute fascination they work to evoke from spectators.
Original languageEnglish
QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
Publication statusUnpublished - 2011


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