Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Certain Kind of Death

Every so often, I stop watching trash and start watching documentaries. Usually it's when I forget to check my Netflix queue and am ambushed at home by something I stuck in the queue while pretending to be someone who watches documentaries.

As opposed to, say, someone who watches endless remakes of Jane Eyre.

I never want the documentaries when they come. I watch them anyway. I know from experience that documentaries are like practicing: you never want to start, but once you do, you never regret it. I've seen some great stuff. I've seen some galvanizing stuff. I've seen some gross stuff. A Certain Kind of Death, a documentary film by Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, falls into all three of these categories.

The great: The film, which follows the progress of unclaimed bodies through various City of Los Angeles departments, is spare, silent, and graceful, a ballet of bureaucracy.

The galvanizing: Through grudging accretion of detail, the bureaucratic machine actually manages to humanize these most dehumanizing deaths. Slowly -painfully- a life takes shape: a stepmother's will, drill bits, roaches, receipts from a homeless shelter thanking the deceased for his weekly contributions. Everything sold at auction for $300. The $300 goes unclaimed.

The gross: dead people. Decaying on the toilet, spread-eagled in the shower, passed out from rectal bleeding on the bed. Death is uncouth.

Uncouth, yet commonplace. A crime scene investigator takes a call from her husband with one hand while dragging a corspe on a sheet with the other. An assets investigator, bent over a cache of the dead man's papers, tells her coworker that no, sorry, she can't go to lunch; she brought a frozen meal. A sign above the morgue's drinking fountain admonishes workers against washing out their food containers there. It's unsanitary!!! the sign screeches. 30 feet away, a pathologist scrapes the maggots from someone's shins.

I recognize this disjunction, the slow collapse of the extraordinary into the ordinary. I know it intimately, as do most of the other inner-city-school folk I know.

Somebody's homeless!


Somebody's abused and neglected and has no food!


Somebody's drug-addled baby justifies supplemental social security income which is spent not on the child but on more drugs!

Same old, same old.

It's alarming, how quickly you adapt. Wondrous and awful and terrifying all at once.

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