Oscar contenders sound a mournful note

Films abandon frivolity to obsess over mortality

It’s as if much of Hollywood were echoing Alvy Singer, offering blithe girlfriend Annie Hall copies of “The Denial of Death” and “Death and Western Thought” with an insistent, “I think you should read them, instead of that cat book.”

From oldsters settling final accounts (“Gran Torino”) to midlifers obsessed with life winding down (“Elegy,” “Synecdoche, New York”) and younger folk abruptly confronted with human temporality (“Changeling”), an inordinate number of 2008’s award contenders have taken mortality and loss as their central concerns. The studios continue to churn out the cinematic equivalent of cat books, of course. But more and more pics are trying to raise the collective audience’s consciousness about life and death.

Even this year’s true-life stories are fueled by speculation on finality. The framing device of Dustin Lance Black’s “Milk” is the recorded last will and testament of the gay San Francisco city official who sensed he would be assassinated before he hit 50. And J. Michael Straczynski’s “Changeling” ratchets up tension through the decades-long quest of a Los Angeles mother to come to terms with the disappearance and likely murder of her only son.

Straczynski poses a generational theory for the trend.

“The baby-boom generation is now getting into their 50s, some are older, and are starting to confront the question of their own mortality. … There’s a lot of soul searching going on: People are losing parents, and there’s this zeitgeist, if you will, where a large portion of the population is suddenly becoming aware of an end — that all things are finite.”

That discovery is particularized in “Elegy,” Nicholas Meyer’s adaptation of zeitgeist-definer Philip Roth’s “The Dying Animal.” When the much younger mistress of philandering academic David Kepesh (Ben Kingsley) becomes a cancer patient, he perceives what Meyer calls “a long time of protracted adolescence, what (Milan) Kundera called ‘the unbearable lightness of being’: the notion that you can defy your mortality by never committing to another human being.”

“Elegy” epitomizes “what it takes for somebody to finally succumb in an honest way to the forces of gravity,” Meyer says.

It’s the very same process at work in Korean War vet Walt Kowalski’s adaptation to a new multicultural world in “Gran Torino,” or Harvey Milk’s choice of political activism as a means of redeeming a life of cruising and disengagement.

Straczynski further notes that his fellow baby boomers are “a generation that has largely lived to excess without looking too far down the road, trying to live the unexamined life where possible. And now we are confronted with that implacable wall of death … that’s reflecting itself in the culture.” (“I think about death every day,” admits the mysterious Ben Thomas of “Seven Pounds,” a sentiment any of these films’ principal characters might espouse.)

No character rejects the unexamined life more than boomer stage director Caden Cotard (Philip Seymour Hoffman), melancholy protagonist of Charlie Kaufman’s “Synecdoche, New York.” He’s paralyzed by uncertain identity but most of all by death, which he tries to ward off through his art (in a production of “Death of a Salesman” with 20-year-olds in the leads — talk about whistling past a graveyard). Then he turns a MacArthur “genius grant” into a meta-theatrical workshop in which actors play him and his circle, while other actors portray those actors, and so on in boxes within tinier boxes.

We (and he) suddenly realize that 50 years have passed in the virtual blink of an eye, and his demise is imminent. Where has his life disappeared to? And what if anything will he leave behind? Pic echoes Meyer’s description of life’s ultimate sadness: “A lot of times we blink, we don’t see, we breeze by certain very important moments in our lives, and later say ‘Oh God, I didn’t understand, I didn’t get it, and now it’s too late, I’ve blown it.’ ”

The epic romance “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” is similarly infused with a sense of life slipping away, and not merely in its framing device at a character’s deathbed. The principal conceit (an infant born with the body of an 84-year-old, aging in reverse as his brain develops normally) constantly inspires the audience to consider time’s passage through the prism of its passive but not reflective hero, who remarks, “I was thinking how nothing lasts, and what a shame that is.”

“Button” screenwriter Eric Roth was acutely attuned to his story’s grief strains. The bizarre accidental death of mentor Alan J. Pakula — killed on an expressway by a pipe falling off a truck — inspired a key sequence demonstrating how a tragic incident might have been forestalled had one of any number of random factors occurred differently.

To facilitate Benjamin’s journey to its predestined end, Roth invented a New Orleans old age facility as the young/old man’s foster residence and safe home port. “Where else do you have mortality become a constant, and not as frightening in a way?” he asks. “It’s a natural end to our existence — it doesn’t have to be happy or sad. It’s just what is.”

That’s a comforting thought, though most of these releases come down on the sad side to leave the spectator awash in regret. Similarly themed films from overseas often take a more balanced view.

Intense introspection on the nature of death and grieving has long been a world cinema staple, leading many foreign filmmakers to embrace a benevolent view of man’s end. Yet Straczynski feels American films may be catching up. He quotes Tennyson’s unforgettable manifesto on managing one’s last days in “Ulysses”: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

“That last bit — that ‘not to yield’ — that’s how we deal with the darkness. As American cinema grows up, and as the baby boom generation grows up, we begin to perceive the importance of not yielding. And we try and figure out, what was it all for? What did it all mean? What did we not do or say? What things were not done by us? At the end, it’s not what you did that haunts you, it’s what you didn’t do.

“We have a generation coming up, trying to confront those questions.”

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