[Note: This movie is actually the inspiration for the entire column - it just took me longer than I expected to run a copy down. I discuss the ending - highlighted in bold - near the end. If you don't want to know, don't read that part.]
Real life: Documentary filmmaker Rob Spence (Let’s All Hate Toronto) has a bionic eye. Calling himself “Eyborg” (http://eyeborgproject.com), he intends to use a miniaturized camera, imbedded in the socket of an eye he’d lost as a child, to shoot a movie about privacy. Subjects of the documentary won’t be aware that he’s filming them, making the point that we’re constantly surrounded by surveillance, that we’ve given up all rights to be alone and unobserved.
But with the popularity of reality TV, the very idea of anonymity seems a foreign concept, begetting the home movie monster that is YouTube. Millions of people “acting” for camera eyes every day, scarcely caring if there is a human being on the other end, hoping to record every aspect of their lives. But what about the person who wants to be anonymous? How can a human being live in our modern society without observation, without leaving footprints wherever he or she goes, electronically, virtually, otherwise? We’re becoming a civilization of 1s and 0s; the only proof of our existence is the recordings we leave behind.
Privacy has become a chief concern these days, or at least a hot-button talking point. But at the same time we’re inspired by pundits to riot against Facebook, many of us can barely work up the energy to be irritated. In our numbed disenfranchised states, the best we can manage is the demand for a “Dislike” button.
Our current society was, almost point-for-point, prophesized by novelist D. G. Compton in his 1974 book The Unsleeping Eye, also known as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe. Adapted for the screen as Death Watch by David Rayfiel, famed French filmmaker Bertrand Travernier brought the story to life as La mort en direct, a startlingly quiet little movie about the death of one person amidst the dying of a culture.
Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) writes admittedly trite best-selling romances by feeding scenarios into a computer which then spits out the novels whole. She lives in a world where dying of “natural causes” has been all but cured by science. Barring the exception of fatal accidents, humans can choose to live for as long as they want, just choose the way to be preserved. Extreme old age is treated with a gradual increase of drugs that allow the elderly to bypass dementia. The drugs simulate natural death, but in reality, they’re merely slow poison. Katherine’s world turns when she is diagnosed with something rare, incurable and fatal. The idea makes her feel abandoned; the disease makes her into a celebrity.
Almost immediately, she’s approached by Vincent Ferriman, a producer for the new show “Death Watch”, a documentary television program that follows people during their last days on Earth. It gives the viewers rare catharsis, allowing them to experience emotion. “I watch it because it makes me cry,” says a young shop girl while working her tedious job. In the background, the televisions blare. But something is wrong—the images and audio are out of synch, revealing the subliminal images and messages hidden between the commercials: “Don’t steal, you’ll feel better. Watch television and escape.”
At first, Katharine refuses, finding the show despicable and Vincent even worse. But her soon-to-be-widower husband could use the money. So she negotiates with Vincent: her last days for $600,000. He tells her to take $500K. Life is cheap; so should be death.
After signing contracts, Katharine manages to elude the producers by buying a wig at a gypsy market and vanishing into the crowds. Ill and scared, the medicine she takes seems only to make things worse. At a hostel, she meets an amiable man named Roddy, a former protester-for-hire—he travels the world and expounds against whatever he’s paid to: war, progress, taxes, etc. He helps her during one particularly painful night and she develops a bond with him, especially after he reveals that he knows who she is, coaxing her out of hiding. What she doesn’t know is that Roddy works for Vincent. He’s a human videographer, with a camera implanted in his eyes, and everything he sees, the world sees. He becomes Katharine Mortenhoe’s secret biographer, showing the world her final moments.
Unable to tolerate darkness for more than a few minutes, or else risk the cameras going dead, Roddy must carry a flashlight with him at all times, to shine directly into his eyes and charge the internal sensors. He cannot sleep, taking pills to prevent this. As a result, he can only daydream, but it’s a small price to pay for the “toy to end all toys”.
Accompanying her to the quiet seaside home of her first husband, the mercenary Roddy begins to have pangs of conscience only when he watches footage he shot, of Katharine, broadcast over one of the omnipresent television sets. Even though he experienced her grief and fear and bravery first-hand, he doesn’t process it until its played back for him. As he says early on, it’s only real if it’s recorded. From Katharine’s point of view, however, “If everything is interesting, then nothing is important.”
Filmed in Scotland, utilizing some breathtaking scenery of the coast as well as gorgeous tracking and crane shots through graveyards, Death Watch is an amazing little movie. Deemed too slow for American audiences, however, it was cut by nearly twenty minutes for the Embassy Home Video VHS release (a fact I was utterly unaware of until I watched it again recently—more on that in a minute). Virtually unknown in the U.S., the movie also stars Harvey Keitel, Max Von Sydow, Harry Dean Stanton and, making his film debut in a small role, Robbie Coltrane, and there isn’t a poor performance to be had. This odd future is also handled subtly, utilizing background billboards alerting citizens to recycle their water and giving options to “Die the Poseidon Way” at sea. Nothing is flashed in your face, screaming “FUTURE!” like so many recent films. The “later” of the setting is only presented in glimpses—the best and longest (courtesy of cinematographer Pierre-William Glenn) is Katharine’s flight through the gypsy market, delivered in a single unbroken four-minute shot that takes us around and through the various vendor tents.
Of course, Travernier plays with point of view throughout the film, as when, in the hostel, the camera comes up over Roddy’s shoulder and immediately assumes his POV, scanning the room for signs of Katharine. Voyeurism is the foremost theme of the film, and we are made into bigger spies than even the “Death Watch” audience or Roddy himself. We are viewing the voyeurs, experiencing everything vicariously through the eyes of someone else. When Katharine wanders alone, unhindered by intrusive crowds of reporters, we’re meant to feel our most guilty. Even without Roddy’s eye-cameras, Katharine is never allowed to be alone.
The sub-theme of corporate exploitation, greed-motivated invasion, is downplayed in the American version of the film. It’s no spoiler to reveal that Katharine dies in both cuts of the film, but the reason behind the means is utterly changed in the longer European cut. In the shorter American-friendly version, with its almost inconsequential pace, Katharine’s only wish is to die alone, on her own terms. When Roddy takes himself out of commission, Vincent and a crew race to Mortenhoe’s seaside home to, it seems, ensure they catch her final moments.
In the European version, La morte en direct, it is revealed that after Vincent’s first subject dies unexpectedly, he cooks up a scheme with Katharine’s doctor. Buying the physician out, they manufacture an illness for her, and it’s the medicine making—harmlessly—sick. Manipulating her in this way will allow for even greater ratings if she’s miraculously cured on camera for all to watch. When Katharine learns of this, she goes forward with her plan to take her own life, and in this context, her motivations are defiance and revenge. The result is the same, but the delivery couldn’t be more different. In either case, it’s triumphant and haunting. Neither version lets Vincent or his corporate greed off the hook. In the European version, he’s just slightly more selfish, slightly more corrupt. In the U.S. version, Death Watch, the lack of manipulation makes him merely a scumbag. And for some reason, this was determined to be easier for Americans to swallow. Hollow inconsideration rather than calculated ambition. The versions of the films say more about the differing attitudes of UK and US cultures than does the actual movie.
Whichever version you manage to run down, do your best to see this movie. Quiet and deliberate, it does require patience to sit through. Any viewer whose sole familiarity with Keitel is via his angry and violent crime films are in for an enormous surprise here, as his portrayal of Roddy is never less than gentle, even while being threatening.
While the parallels between the Death Watch world and our own modern day obsession with technology are more than obvious, and more damning than the prophecy was in 1980, the movie never comes out and states the obvious. Unlike today’s entertainment, insisting on spoon feeding you every bit of information rather than you risk experiencing an original thought, Death Watch treats the viewer like an adult. The movie does the audience a favor by asking it to think.
Hopefully, what Rob Spence discovers on the other side of his camera will bring him more peace than it did to Roddy.