Thursday, June 11, 2009

Life Imitating Art Imitating Life

It was a veritable hall of mirrors today as I scanned the headlines, doing a morning-coffee-sploshing double take at the top story: "Woman who Missed Flight 447 Dies In Car Accident". Nearly two weeks later. Yikes. The would-be passenger and her husband were reportedly spared the doomed flight by a dilly-dallying taxi driver. The poor thing bit it yesterday when an oncoming truck swerved into her lane on an Austrian highway, colliding head-on with the vehicle in which she was riding. Egads.

I shuddered as the plots of several fatalistic horror yarns of yore unspooled in my mind. Films like The Ring and Final Destination, in which protagonists are doomed to some kind of time-release mumbo-jumbo which they must thwart right quick to avert Death in whatever arbitrary form the script dictates he take. Unfortunately in real life, these things tend to come without warning. Fear the reaper, baby. No place is safe -- not even the domicile.

In Final Destination, the characters can't even seek refuge in their own kitchens and bathrooms -- they're crammed with Rube Goldberg-inspired deathtraps fashioned from household appliances, a bit of rope here , some lighter fluid there, an errant gas flame, an old record player, some electrical cord and a tub of water, e.g. Like a plane crash, these incidents are triggered by a catastrophic sequence of events, which could be set in motion at any minute (each time augured by the strains of a John Denver tune -- get it?) Each set piece is preceded by an almost excruciating sense of suspense at what gimmick the savvy, William-Castle-ish filmmakers will inflict on the audience next, which emotional levers they will pull as the fight-or-flight instinct kicks in. Unfortunately our protagonists aren't given a chance to put up much of one, as they are operating on "death's timetable", mere puppets in the cosmic scheme. And the old hooded one don't appreciate no cheatin' at life's poker game. It's a schematic approach that works in the filmmaker's favor (ka-ching!), but not the characters'.

Our heroes have "cheated" death by averting immolation with their colleagues when the flight for their class trip explodes shortly after takeoff. As the vessel prepares to roll down the runway, one of the students has a panic attack/premonition of the crash, which gets him ejected from the flight along with a few friends and a concerned faculty member. The plane then blows up in a huge conflagration, in front of their dazed and startled eyes, while the traumatized teach and teens are left to pick up the pieces. Unfortunately for them, having "cheated death" the first time, the audience need only sit back while, in one Grand Guignol tableau after the other, the survivors are dispensed of in a mechanical, baroquely gruesome fashion.

The first hour of the film is among most realistically depicted plane crashes I have seen. It uses the crash of real-life flight TWA 800, which exploded off the coast of New York in 1996, carrying a group of students (as in the film) on their senior trip to France, as a jumping off point for its convoluted plot machinations involving the invisible scythe-wielding menace. At the time FD came out, it was considered in somewhat poor taste, if not gripping entertainment, with an appealing teenybopper cast, including forgotten Canadian heartthrob Devon Sawa.

Small wonder the "coincidence" in the tale's real life counterpart in the Air France crash has gripped people so forcefully. In such cases, viewers must confront themes such as chance, fate, the luck of the draw, the road not taken. Whether or not we are really lucky, when we think we've dodged a bullet (especially when said bullet has your number on it, and comes to nab you seven days -- in the case of the video cassette in The Ring -- or a week and a half later). And indeed, the human propensity to seek causality where there is none is phenomenal. If nothing else it's a grim (no pun intended) reminder that old skull-face is coming for us all sooner or later, like it or not. In the surprisingly philosophical Final Destination, these elaborate deathtraps, fashioned out of run-of the-mill household objects -- represent the threats that surround us on a daily basis (and if I thought about it too much, I would be living in a bunker).

Though the fixation of the public on the stranger-than-fiction twist spawned from Air France flight 447 is understandable from a human interest perspective, the downside is that the religious wingnuts will seize on this as proof positive of god's will. Shortly after 9/11 I was working in social services, and one of our clients came in and rather dogmatically, without the slightest bit of irony, proceeded to inform me and everyone present that all the folks unlucky enough to have been in the WTC that day, from lackeys at JP Morgan to busboys at the Windows of the World, all of them got what they deserved, because it wasn't chance or bad luck or what have you, but divine intervention on a massive scale. Yes, the man proclaimed vociferously and with as much unchecked conviction as Bush the Conqueror would later display in his promulgation of unfettered power to send the military into misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, those people had a debt to pay, and on Sept 11, by god, it was their due date!

Jeez. All those people in the same building at the same time. Just going about their own business, living their lives, trying to bring home the bacon. Businesspeople, trying to make something of themselves, janitors swabbing the latrines before going home to their families, secretaries sharing a morning coffee with their bosses. Not to mention the firefighters who arrived on the scene, and the parish chaplain who was among the first to die. Forget the jihad, we've got sinners in the hands of a wrathful Judeo-Christian god, folks! All summoned on that sunny Tuesday to pay their debts. What a coinkindink. Just like flight 447.

See folks, this is why these religious whackjobs need to be expunged from consciousness -- preferably by knocking them unconscious. Sometimes I think their eschewing of logic -- and embrasure of that of the fuzziest kind -- would preclude them from engaging in any kind of rational dialogue. All those sinners aboard, they say, are in a "better place", or at least, the place they deserve to be. And what these fundy lunkheads are propagating is operating in the service of something not so different from the fantasy on which Final Destination is predicated. But one thing is "lost" in all this metaphysical rubbernecking, and that is that the victims were actual people with actual lives. Let's not forget that.

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