Tuesday, April 21, 2015 at 7:30pm
OVERDUE: Thierry Zéno's Des morts + Stan Brakhage's The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Presented by Nick Pinkerton and Nicolas Rapold

The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes, Stan Brakhage, 1971, 16mm, 32 mins
Des morts, Thierry Zéno, 1979, digital projection, 105 mins

A 1979 documentary exploring the boundary between here and hereafter, presenting and counterpoising a variety of cross-cultural funeral rituals, the Belgian film Des morts is a major work of thanatological cinema. But despite Des morts’ highbrow pedigree—it was a co-production with Margaret Ménégoz’s Éric Rohmer-affiliated Les Films du Losange—it’s shackled to the loaded, pejorative category of “Shockumentary.” Yet in 1980 Des morts could play in a program of recent Belgian cinema at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, alongside films by Chantal Akerman.

Writing in the Village Voice, J. Hoberman called the film “better than shock therapy for snapping an acute depression. More than any musical you’d care to name, Des morts makes you want to live, live, live and keep on living.” Like Hoberman, Amos Vogel, writing in Film Comment, compared Des morts to Stan Brakhage’s 1971 The Act of Seeing with One’s Own Eyes, describing the Belgian film as an “austere masterpiece [which] compels us to stare into the face of death, our unacknowledged deity and implacable enemy,” and lauded its director, Thierry Zéno, as one who “must be celebrated as a pioneer and is in danger of being written out of ‘official’ film history.”

Altogether Des morts visits six countries and three continents. We see funeral processions in Zéno’s native Wallonia and the theatrical ululation at a South Korean wake. In the Mexican countryside, tolling church bells summon back the souls of the departed on Día de los Muertos. Time and again, intimate traditional cleansing ceremonies are contrasted with impersonal, efficient modern methods of processing, public Buddhist cremations with the industrial disposal of a corpse in a cardboard coffin.

By exposing its backstage workings, Des morts violates the sanitizing conspiracy of the mortuary industry. But if the filmmaker’s initial schematic plan was to establish a binary dichotomy reiterating the Jessica Mitford / Evelyn Waugh line of deploring the American Way of Death, it was complicated by the material they’ve gathered, and their evident empathy. Outside of the mortuary business, American interviewees, including elderly trailer park residents and muscular dystrophy sufferers, are seen discussing death clear-eyed and pragmatically.

There is a great difference between the shock of the naughty exhibitionist and the shock that results from striking straight at the heart of a subject. If the works of Austrians Michael Glawogger and Ulrich Seidl, globe-trotting films taking in humanity in all of its startling permutations, or Frederick Wiseman’s in extremis 1989 Near Death, can be rightly regarded as art, it is not enough to dismiss out of hand the ’70s output of the Castiglioni brothers, Jacopetti and Prosperi, and (especially) Zéno as the work of mere Shockumentarians. Des morts seriously, serenely addresses a subject that concerns us all... whether we’d care to admit it or not.

- Nick Pinkerton, adapted from Sight & Sound

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.