The last stages in the cycle of life and death have finally attracted film and movie producers. I am talking about the formerly taboo twin topics of aging and death. Perhaps as we baby boomers and our children, the “echo boomers”, see that the inevitability of death needs to be part of our cultural conscience, movies that sympathetically but unflinchingly portray aging and death have been increasingly gaining mainstream audiences and awards. To name a few: “Departures”, “Away From Her”, “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” “Hope Springs”, “Quartet”, “Amour” as well as books such as “The Year of Magical Thinking”. Is this is a societal flashpoint which marks a cultural change only beginning to take place? The subjects of aging, the changing of the landscape of relationships and friendships, the glibness of those who are trying to offer comfort have never been portrayed in such starkness.
And now the award-winning Showtime television series, “The Big C”,–“C” is for cancer– just finished its four-part special finale to close its four-season run. The story is Cathy’s (the remarkable Laura Linney): a middle-aged high school teacher with terminal cancer who wants to be happier with her husband (the subtle actor Oliver Platt), more involved with her teenage-son (newcomer Gabriel Basso, a mentor to her college-aged friend (Gabourey Sidibe of “Precious” fame,) and a moral support to her brother (the unforgettable John Benjamin Hickey). She wants to enjoy her last days with those around her –with a powerful energy to embrace what life she has left. The first three seasons celebrate the joy of fulfilling one’s bucket list and preparing for death with acceptance and positive control over how one chooses to die.
Fearless in its honesty about cancer, people who have to deal with a loved one’s cancer, and the broader topics of death and dying, the final four episodes of “The Big C” are riveting. The viewer cannot look away–even if the uncomfortable connections between life and death seem unbearable. “The Big C” portrays the balancing of living and dying, since death is the most uncertain certainty we know. Cathy decides to die alone: for her a death with integrity and with respect for her family.
Cancer is perhaps the most frightening medical diagnosis one can receive. It is also, metaphorically, a mutiny of one’s self in which the death of the body is an attack on itself. Life is savagely unfair at times, and Cathy faces this with triumph, dignity, and uncommon grace. The horror is not minimized, although I could quibble about the ending not being as bold as it could have been. Nonetheless her journey in the face of death assumes mythic significance. Dissertations could be written on the beauty with which this unforgettable program deals with the ineffable.