Thursday, October 09, 2014

Throwback Thursday! Here's what you didn't read the FIRST time I wrote it!

The Best Death (And Resurrection) In Pop Culture

On October 14, 2010 -- pretty close to four years ago today -- I still had a blog called "The Best Of Everything". The blog's idea had been originally to get everyone to say the things they thought were the best in any category but it never caught on because people are losers. Also, probably: marketing.  Anyway, it was left to me for years to say what was the Best of everything, and this was what I posted back four years ago this week:

Have you ever wonder what a doornail is and why it's version of death is so exemplary?

The expression dead as a doornail has staying power, after all. One site noted that the expression is not only more than 650 years old (making it that rare piece of human civilization not invented in the 16th century) but also went on to claim that the saying, dead as a doornail, has outlasted some other versions that were popular when it was first introduced -- back then, apparently, people were apt to compare this dead thing to almost any other dead thing, making up such expressions as dead as a stonedead as mutton, and dead as a herring.

"Jedis would prefer not to be compared to mutton."

Try that on someone today: go to a funeral, look in the casket, turn to whomever is standing next to you (probably Aunt Myrna), and say "He's dead as a herring, all right." Don't plan on attending the wake.

I'm thinking about the expression dead as a doornail (and, now, dead as a herring) because yesterday, while I got Mr F and Mr Bunches up and helped them get dressed, I was watching The Best Death (And Resurrection) In Pop Culture,

NOTE: I have no idea what it was I was watching. I assumed it was a Youtube video, but I cannot be sure.  So maybe I imagined watching it.  Maybe we are all just brains in a jar in a cave...with Cheetos.

and it got me to thinking about how, in most entertainment, characters must die -- actually die-- and then be reborn as part of their heroic (or not so heroic) journey.

It's a trope in comic books -- the superhero or supervillain or girlfriend that dies and comes back in the next issue or a little while later, a cliche so common that when Spider-Man killed off Gwen Stacy:

(um... spoiler alert? It's a pretty old story, after all...) Marvel had to go to great pains to assure readers that this wasn't a trick (or just another lazy literary gimmick)

Since then, and maybe before then, it seems that every comic book character has lived and died, sometimes multiple times. Batman (Spoiler alert!) died and came back to life in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns, killed by Superman, who would die not long after that in a ridiculous story that featured a Giant Walking Magic Crystals Killer named "Doomsday" (because apparently all the good writers had off that month) walking to Metropolis, where he hugs Superman to death or something like that.

One of these things killed Superman.

It's not just comics where people get to -- make that must -- die, and it's not just people dying that's become a must-do in American entertainment. People must die and be reborn. They have to go through the worst and come back or we simply aren't entertained, it seems, and what began as comic book trifles has spread, it seems, to every area of entertainment.

Television has lots of characters who have gone through death and returned to tell us about it. "Dead is dead," Ben Linus said on Lost (which, by the way, I finally finished watching. Even though I wasn't caught up enough to watch the finale when it aired, I managed to watch the entire series while getting caught by only one spoiler, ever [Sweetie and Middle told me [SPOILER ALERT! BECAUSE I'M NOT THE KIND OF PERSON WHO WRECKS LOST FOR OTHER PEOPLE!] that Charlie dies], and that means that I managed to achieve the Most Amazing Accomplishment Humanity Has Ever Witnessed: Avoiding anyone telling me how Lost ended. I should get a Nobel Prize plus a chance to move on to Double Jeopardy!, where the scores can really change.)


Oh, yeah: people on Lost were not dead as a herring, or even a doornail; first, Locke showed up being alive and all even though he'd been in a coffin on the plane. That turned out to be a sort of dead as a red herring because shortly after Ben said Locke was dead and dead is dead, it turned out that the new Locke was the Smoke Monster, who himself had been killed by Jacob and had come back not as, well, someone dead but as a smoke monster who could do all sorts of things, including walking around talking to people and trying to get off the island.

So dead is dead unless you're Batman, Superman, the Smoke Monster, or pretty much anyone else in the world of entertainment, where everyone is seemingly moments away from being killed and resurrected. Kenny on South Park was routinely killed off in almost every episode I've ever seen -- sometimes as part of the plot, sometimes not. In one memorable episode, Kenny was killed off and had to save Heaven using his skills on a PlayStation. Other times, Kenny goes to Hell and comes back to warn people.

TV Tropes and Idioms has collected up some examples (some extremely nerdy examples, for the most part. Try getting out of your mother's basement once in a while, Tropes writers!) of people who died and came back in pop culture -- ranging from the Mother/Car in My Mother, The Car, and, seriously, how did that show ever fly back in the 1950s or 1960s or whatever old-timey backwards unimaginative repressed era it aired in? I thought people in the 1950s were staid, Ward-Cleaver-esque types who were content to have a desk and an inkwell and milk delivered every day, but apparently they lived a miraculously imaginative inner life where people were reincarnated as cars and men lived in sin with talking horses and... well, that's all I can think of, but, really, those are two pretty revolutionary ideas, if you look at them in the right way.

From reincarnated mothers to the Bionic Woman to the characters on Lost, TV has long relied on resurrecting characters from the dead -- even going so far as to have a Power Ranger die and come back as the White Power Ranger, which is proof positive of the correctness of my long-held secret theory that the Power Rangers were just a not-so-cleverly-disguised recasting of Tolkien's The Lord Of The Rings, or maybe it's the other way around (I forget which came first), but either way, both featured a character dying and then coming back as a Whiter version of themselves, with whiter being a synonym for more powerful.

Don't call me racist. I didn't write the stuff. I'm just reminding you that Gandalf The Gray fell (MIDDLE EARTH ALERT!) to his death fighting the Balrog (which I always kind of thought was an anagram for something else; I'm terrible at anagrams, but being terrible at them doesn't stop me from thinking that everything's an anagram, especially made-up words like Balrog, which is one reason I have such a hard time reading fantasy nowadays; every word is made up and I spend all my time trying to think Well, is this an anagram of something, or did the author just decide to call this creature a "retaenam?")(Also, I'm pretty sure that Ethan Rom on Lost was, actually, an anagram for Other Man. Am I right, J.J. Abrams?)

After Gandalf the Gray fell to his death, causing much mourning and at least three chapters of really boring prose (seriously, The Lord Of The Rings books really dragged at times, am I right, J.J. Abrams?), he returned as Gandalf The White And More Powerful, although, to be honest, I can't exactly remember what Gandalf ever did that made him more powerful, or powerful at all. As I'm sitting here writing, I'm trying to remember what magic Gandalf ever performed to warrant his rap. Here's what I've got:

-- He used ventriloquism to trick the trolls in The Hobbit.
-- He blew smoke rings that changed colors and floated over his head.
-- He did a fireworks display at Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday.
-- He broke the bridge the Balrog fell off of.

And his staff glowed. That's it. That's all I've got. If Gandalf was so great -- or Saruman, for that matter, or even Sauron-- why didn't any of them ever perform any magic whatsoever?

Even that One Ring didn't do anything but make people invisible. J.R.R. Tolkien, I call shenanigans.I bet even Harry Potter could outwizard Gandalf, and Harry only knows two spells.


Yeah, I read the books, and, no, I never had much of a social life in high school. Why do you ask?

Gandalf wasn't the only character to come back from the dead in Lord of The Rings, either. Frodo, I'm pretty sure, died when he fought that giant spider in the tunnel in a scene that obviously J.R."R" Tolkien copied from J."K." Rowlings because nobody who doesn't want to get sued to death would imply it was the other way around, and after dying was revived by that Elfen Gatorade given to Sam in the forest, only to go on to be completely useless as the two of them made their way through Mordor.

And with that simple act of plagiarizing Rowlings' sixty years before she'd get around to writing her own Spider-Attack scene, Tolkien opened the floodgates for centuries of literary deaths-and-resurrections, including, I'm told, the book Candide, in which, according to this site,

most of the important characters either do not die, or, if they die, they come back to life again rather miraculously, as when Pangloss is hanged but survives, or when Cunegonde is raped and disemboweled, yet survives. Thousands die around them, but the main characters remain curiously invulnerable to the disasters they witness.

Candide was written by Voltaire, who, years later, would be revealed to be a giant sword-wielding robot made up of vehicles piloted by teenagers. (Not really, but if you'd told that to me in high school, I might have actually read Candide.)

Other famous and outstanding characters have included Tom, of Tom and Jerry, who I'm told has died six times (but one of them was a dream, so that doesn't count, right Patrick Duffy.)(Raise your hand if you thought I was going to say right, J.J. Abrams.)(Now put it down; I can't see you anyway.)

Why do such deaths-and-resurrections amaze us? Why have they become de riguer for entertainment? And what does de riguer mean, anyway? Is it some kind of anagram? Is it French for snails? The French are always trying to get Americans to eat snails, as revenge for the French-And-Indian War, which I'm pretty sure (a) happened and (b) they lost.

I think deaths-and-resurrections are so popular because they're one of two things: they're either a shortcut to success, or they're proof that this person can survive anything. Or they're both.

By shortcut to success, I mean that a person dying-and-coming-back-to-life can be seen to have won, somehow, simply by getting back to where he or she was in the first place. This same thing happens in Christmas movies (as I pointed out previously in a post I can't find right now): People, characters, have to have their lives start out at one level, and then have something bad happen to them, and then they fight back from the bad thing to get back to where they were in the first place, at which point they're happy even though technically speaking they're no better off than they were when they started.  That's the plot of every Christmas movie ever made, and practically ever movie ever made, including Jaws, in which the people on the island seem a little unhappy, then 90% of them get eaten by a shark, which is then [EXPLODING SHARK GUTS SPOILER ALERT!] blown up, after which everyone's happy again. But their lives are the same lives they had before they blew up the shark (which I think came back to life in Jaws 2, and which will definitely be making a cameo appearance in the screenplay I'm writing, Nightmare On Elm Beach: Jaws Meets Saw's Final Destination, in which the shark sets a series of diabolical traps to kill a bunch of teenagers in their dreams, only to find his plans thwarted by that Saw guy, who it turns out isn't dead, either, but is working as the Rube Goldberg of the Underworld, responsible for setting up all those traps that keep killing people in the Final Destination movies. Saw becomes enraged that Jaws is messing with his plans, and so they...

... well, I'm not going to give the ending away. Suffice to say everyone lives and dies several times, and that it'll also feature my new 5-D Superstring Technology for films, a way of projecting the movie in several alternate dimensions at the same time, so that every possible outcome can take place simultaneously, leaving you, the audience, totally satisfied because you'll never have to collapse that wave form and find out if the cat is dead or alive; with 5-D technology, the cat is both. Take that, Schrodinger!

I think I left a Dangling Parentheses there, so let me take care of that: )


The death-and-resurrection is the ultimate Get Back To Where You Once Belonged moment: a character who dies and comes back to life ought to be grateful for just being here, and it allows a writer (of a comic book or movie or old-fashioned radio play) to have a character realize Important Things About Life without actually finding a way to improve that character's life. Rather than have a character grow and change through conflict like Joseph Gordon-Levitt in 500 Days Of Summer, lazy writers can have a character go through nothing worse than a bad case of appendicitis and walk down the street at the end of the movie smiling and humming and appreciating the scent of a flower or something.

And, yes, I know that Joseph Gordon-Levitt didn't change all that much in 500 Days of Summer, but it was the only movie I could think of at the time except Inception, a movie in which characters die and come back to life routinely, making that movie a Candide-esque adventure in death and resurrection, but it doesn't count because it's all happening in a dream (see Tom & Jerry note, supra).

When dying and coming back is used as more than just a lazy way to a happy ending-that's-not-really, it's meant to be more Symbolic and Important-- the ultimate price to pay and the ultimate challenge a character could face. It serves as proof how tough the hero is, how villainous the villain is, and how significant all of this is. Unnamed Smoke Monster on Lost, we're told, can't be killed -- and we're proven that because he was killed and now he's come back as a Smoke Monster and if he died once how can we kill him again? He's SUPERvillainous!

But facing off against those resurrecting supervillainous people are heroes themselves who can die and come back -- heroes so brave and strong and tough that they can stare death in the eye and walk away, and thereafter aren't scared of anything anymore, or, if they are scared they can suppress it because they've died once, so how bad can dying again be? (That's why some writers have to up the ante -- once you've killed off a character and brought him or her back, you've got to find some way to make them scared again. So Constantine must worry that if he dies he's going back to Hell, which is worse than just dying, after all.)

Above all, for us regular people who don't have utility belts, a glowing staff that helps with our ventriloquism, or some such, death poses the ultimate challenge: It's the final barrier in our lives, a door that once we open it, we're not going to be the one to close it behind us and we're not coming back through it. So having our heroes and villains die and come back serves, maybe, as reassurance that death isn't final, that there's something better out there, or, if not better, at least something that's no worse than this life -- and use that knowledge to avoid our fear of that door while simultaneously admiring those who go near it or pass through it.

Death is one of the most significant moment of our lives, after all -- but it's the only moment we may not get to talk about with our friends or share with a loved one or blog about later on with snarky comments. (Firsties!) It's the only thing we'll ever go through that we fear we might have to go through entirely alone. Every other significant event involves someone waiting for us on the other side: birth, high school graduation, weddings, Sonic having two-for-one cheeseburgers... there's always a way to bring someone along or have someone there waiting for us.

But we don't know whether that's true with dying -- so while we're alive, we tell stories not just about people who died and went on, but about people who died and then came back, because we're not so sure we want to leave this all behind, anyway. Life may have its down moments, we know, but it's got it's good parts, too, and we can't be certain that the parts we liked -- Voltron cartoons, cheeseburgers, our wives and kids and parents and friends -- are going to be over there on the other side, especially if we go first.

Dying and coming back show that not only can we overcome adversity, but give us a reason to think that maybe dying will be like coming back, and we can then continue where we left off-- but in a more heroic manner, more sure of ourselves and ready to take on challenges. Which is the lesson learned from The Best Death (And Resurrection) In Pop Culture, that moment being the time [SPOILER ALERT!] Spongebob died at Shell City.

If you've seen the Spongebob movie (we all have, right?) then you know what I'm talking about: Having traveled to Shell City, a souvenir store, to rescue King Neptune's crown in order to save Mr. Krabs from being blasted by the kind as part of Plankton's evil plot (got all that?) Spongebob (and his friend Patrick) are captured by the Cyclops (a deep sea diver) and put under a heat lamp to dry out and be sold as trinkets to tourists. The lamp dries them out, but as they're dying, Patrick and Spongebob bravely fight, singing the chorus to The Goofy Goober Song.

I hope you watched that. I get goosebumps. It's an amazingly effective scene, the most traumatic and touching death of a pants-wearing sea creature I've ever witnessed.

And it's all the sadder because SpongeBob does die -- he's dead as a herring, almost literally, and deader even than a doornail, his little pants flopping spongelessly...

... until a final bead of sweat he gave off runs down the table and down a cord and shorts out an electrical outlet, starting a small fire that sets off the sprinkler system, which then wets down our heroes and brings them back to life, so that they can ride David Hasselhoff back to the Krusty Krab just in time to face Plankton down by dressing as a guitar playing wizard.

That might be the single most ridiculous sentence I've ever written. And also the single best ending to a movie ever written.

When SpongeBob dies, he represents every part of the dying-and-coming-back themes. He's the hero who must face the greatest danger of all on his quest -- worse than monsters in a gorge or toughs in a bar or a fish that has an ice-cream vending Granny in its mouth -- and overcome it. But he's also us, a guy who just wanted to live his life but got caught up in events beyond his control, events that ended up killing him, but even that didn't stop him. He was able to return to his old life and pick up where he'd left off, and if he wasn't better in material things (although I think he did get that promotion to manager) he was better for the experience.

That's the final lesson of dying-and-resurrection, I think, the final thing we as writers and readers and talkers hope to take out of telling these stories. Spongebob, after he died, went back to being a fry cook. Those people on Lost (by now you know there's spoilers, right?) found themselves in their old lives, only a little moreso. Gandalf died and came back to help the others win the war so that the magic could leave Middle Earth. In each of these, and maybe in Candide, the person who dies comes back to a life that's maybe about the same as it was, but that person values it more. And in telling those stories, not only do we learn to value the lives we have now (hopefully) but we give ourselves a glimpse of what's next -- and we can believe that even if it's not better than this life, it'll be no worse, and we'll appreciate it more.

Not a bad lesson to learn from a sponge.

No comments: