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PHILOSOPHICAL REVIEW: Metaphysical Observations on the Value of a Human Body (Deceased)

In anthropology, morality, philosophy on March 19, 2012 at 9:41 pm

Price-of-Life-by-Linda-Cai

“Price of Life” by Linda Cai

This article is not one of those grossly scientific assessments of how many cents the chemicals inherent in a human body are worth — that arcane knowledge that scientists used to be fond of bragging, accidentally showing how much they didn’t know about the value of a human being. Nor is it that equally sociopathic assessment beloved of life insurance assessors that sizes a person’s ultimate worth up in dollars and cents by age and theoretical future earning potential had they lived. But I fear high-earning basketball players, for example, who might be a drain on society in every way as individuals, are valued much more by society today than, say, a poor parent who devotes his or her life to kids and other deserving.

Every now and again you catch something in the news (or on the tv crime shows) that just doesn’t sit right, in fact seems very, very wrong. So wrong that you wonder if you haven’t missed something in your upbringing, some essential moral or cultural message you failed to read between the lines. A message apparently so central to the human condition that you wonder if you’re not irretrievably divorced from the rest of humankind. One of these is the fact of how very much value the Judeo-Christian ethic places on the physical remains of deceased persons.

In christian metaphysics people are taught that the human spirit — all that which is of value in a person — flees the body at the point of death. All that is left is the worthless husk, the vessel in which a person’s being was carried. So what great lengths people will go to recover a body that is lost has always been a total mystery to me. The concept of “closure” seems inadequate to explain why a believer in afterlife should need physical remains to grieve over. Yet, serial murderers have been set virtually scot-free just for telling the locations of their victims — risking the possibility that they might destroy more actual lives. The value of a cadaver — a gruesome abomination of a remnant that carries no hint of the worth of the person when he or she was alive — to grieve over, if even that much is left of the beloved’s corporeal remains, is set higher than viable lives.

Strangely, the third apex of the original European-Arabic-Jewish religious-cultural triangle, Islam, holds comparatively very little sacred value in human remains. Indignities and atrocities are meted out by Muslim tribesmen to the remains (and live bodies) of enemies that even brutal modern Westerners might wince at. The imbalance in values has never been shown better than when, first, a few years ago, the dead bodies of two Israeli soldiers were traded by Palestinians back to the state of Israel in return for setting 300 to 400 prisoners free. Last year (2011) when 1,000 Palestinian prisoners were set free in exchange for one live Israeli soldier, this highlighted a large disparity in the value different cultures set on life. You have to wonder at the sanity of a government of an independent state — Palestine — that would place so little value on its live citizens, officially in the ratio of one thousand to one Israeli, for the whole world to see its priorities.

Admittedly in Western culture cremation is increasingly recognised as an option in which there is no mourning place where remains of the loved one “rest in peace”. This is becoming a logistical necessity where dead people in often lavishly decorated graves meant as permanent monuments are taking up vast tracts of lebensraum which could be used by the living or preferably left to revert to nature; seven billion specimens of humankind currently overpopulating the planet seems like more than plenty.

At the same time in the West, I think mere existence of our bodies in a breathing, pulsing state tends to be vastly overrated. We all die, but except in the case of people who can’t afford health care every possible resource is brought to bear in prolonging what is often a torturous clinging to vital signs that show that life still lingers, technically. Trendy people spend cumulative years of their lives ensuring that they have every chance of existing what statistically might be just a fraction of a year extra, and not even guaranteed that. Given the fragility of existence, a previously undetected condition or a thoughtless moment crossing the street or at the wheel is likely to cancel out all well laid plans for the future. Such absurdities, sometimes bordering on obscenity, as preserving as a right the existences of confessed, proven-beyond-any-doubt serial murderers, convolutes morality to the point of turning it on its head. The attention span of many humans being what it is, the mass murderer is fast switched to the poor downtrodden underdog in prison, and is wept over and proposed to by seriously irrational women awash in protective hormones. And, just as likely, convinced in their girl power to change him; at least, dress him better.

In cases where rehabilitation/born-again appeal doesn’t work the value of a human body (deceased) tends to rise beyond all reasonable expectations of inflation. As a symbol of martyrdom to the cause against unfeeling officialdom it is carried like that of a saint from one generation to the next of Dead Man Walking fans.

TV REVIEW: Invasion of the CSI Snatchers

In film, television on March 17, 2012 at 2:01 am

You never saw Clark Gable and Gary Cooper together in a movie… Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power… It was a surprise even to see two medium sized stars (as they were in 1942) John Wayne and Ray Milland together in Reap the Wild Wind. It was a waste of resources — Only a Cecil B DeMille extravaganza could afford it. Anyway, the big stars in a similar niche were normally at different studios. John Wayne and Henry Fonda got together just once (Fort Apache); John Wayne and James Stewart ditto (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance) but when the rules were relaxed in the Sixties — and suddenly you were allowed to have Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum and Richard Widmark all in the same western, The Way West). In the mid Fifties, after a decade in movies, Burt Lancaster finally had enough cred to appear with a major figure of the older generation in decline: Gary Cooper (in Vera Cruz), then Clark Gable (in Run Silent, Run Deep) — but as the junior partner in both.<p>

There’s a photo that’s always fascinated me, one taken in 1949 by Life magazine visiting the MGM studio, in slowly dimming twilight after a quarter century of unquestioned dominance in movies. All the stars had been ordered to turn up dressed in character costume and here they were lined up in rows like for a school photo — 58 star names of the time with the lovely Lassie front & center. Tracy and Hepburn are at opposite sides looking blase; Sinatra dangerous; Ricardo Montalban and Angela Lansbury to name just two much better known on tv decades later. One’s gaze is drawn to four figures at the center of the second row, directly above Lassie. Of these all-time greats, far right is Judy Garland, then Ava Gardner; next to her Clark Gable, then Errol Flynn. Broad-shouldered Gable, 48, looks his smiling self, as ever. Flynn, about to turn 40, looks dressed for Soames Forsyte, his temples greyed for the occasion and looking conflicted for the character.<p>

Or was it that? What on earth did Gable and Flynn find to say on meeting for the first (and probably only) time as they sat next to each other? — What’s your score? Flip you for a date with Ava? Or purely professional on the finer points of acting the hero on screen, or Tilt your head — your left side is your best. Flynn happened to be there on a one-off loan from Warner Bros, and was earning at least as much as Gable who traded earnings for the minders, personal care and other perks MGM afforded. Had Gable said something belittling to the younger man, turning slightly away and looking somewhat indignant? Gable had been nearly 20 years the hunk of Hollywood, only now starting to make way for Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Kirk Douglas, and still had another dozen years of popular films in him. Both were men’s men, but Flynn, for 15 years already the head Hollywood Pretty Boy along with Robert Taylor and Tyrone Power, was fading. He was apparently emotionally damaged: as a child by a cold mother, then ridiculed as a walking penis — “In like Flynn” — taking on teenagers, then for not going off to the war (he had a secret heart condition) despite what his movies said. Vastly underrated in the official popularity polls, he was one of the very few megastars through the second half of the thirties and most of the forties whose studio could spend a massive $2 million “negative cost” on his movies (and more millions on worldwide distribution and promotion), which he usually carried alone (with secondary help from Olivia De Havilland or no help from a minor leading lady) time and again and be certain of coming away with a profit. Taking to drink and drugs, he was nonetheless an icon and his name still meant something substantive on the marquee till his death 10 years later.<p>

Now it wouldn’t be a surprise to see George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Kevin Bacon, Jeff Goldblum and Al Pacino all together in a movie — combined summoning about half the star power of Gable alone on the screen. But my beef isn’t primarily with them this time.<p>

It is, in particular, with the performances of Gary Sinise and William Petersen — and those of the entire cast of Criminal Minds (except for the guy who used to be in Dharma & Greg). I’ve always wondered why actors capable of absolutely rivetting, diverse characterisations in their movies are so very, very BORING in their tv shows. It must take one hell of an effort for people so obviously talented to neuter their characters to such a degree. And for why? And now we have Laurence Fishburne, Ted Danson, Tim Roth and that blond young Canadian actor with the constant simper, somehow ‘starring’ in his own series, to add to the list. That makes how many leading actors in movies who, for my money, are absolutely wasted on television. Some of the most vapid leading men of the “Golden Age of Hollywood” — and they know who they are by reputation — John Boles, Walter Pidgeon, George Brent — couldn’t be as wooden if they tried.

Either the writer/creator has written these intelligent, scientific types as cold fish with no visible personalities. Or there is an overriding philosophy in television acting today that says only robots in action movies are allowed to display marked emotion — otherwise tone it down to non-acting, walking through a scene. This was obvious as I watched a scene in Criminal Minds last night — and don’t say, You have to watch more than one scene! Any person with taste and discernment doesn’t have to watch more than that to see what is going on. I’ve always thought the way the group scenes in this series are written is ludicrous. Each one gets one line to say, then they all leave at the same time, like the heroes in Scooby Doo, to take on their tasks. The young walking encyclopedia with the stupid hair (again, he couldn’t get it that wrong by accident — even Einstein had some clues, social nous) sometimes displays more personality than the others, which in itself is very, very scary. I guess he’s based on Shaggy from Scooby Doo just as that scatterbrained girl back at base with the funny face, hair and outlandish wardrobe (there’s one too in one of the CSIs) comes from that little roundish girl in the original cartoon. They haven’t managed a human form of Scooby himself yet in live action, but give them time.

Contrast, say, Monk. It is very well acted and choreographed, and yes, I realise they are going for a light touch and dark humor. This is almost the only genre that American tv gets absolutely right these days (though not as good since Bitty Schram left) and can be seriously ruined, as with many entries in Murder She Wrote. I make exceptions for excellent serial miniseries like The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire, Mad Men… each made with more of a feature film sensibility and production values.

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