At the end of the 1994 film “Legends of the Fall”, Brad Pitt’s tragically heroic character “Tristan” confronts his fate with a massive grizzly bear leading the narrator (“Stab”) to conclude circumspectly: “It was a good death”.
In watching the various reports on the untimely death of Heath Ledger today I noticed a couple interesting facts:
(1) Ledger reported that in preparation for his role as The Joker in the upcoming Batman movie he spent over a month getting the mind-set of the character which Ledger described as a “psychopath, schizophrenic” with a “lack of empathy”–though notably the director reprised his variation of the iconic role as “anarchic”. In any case, the role was (reportedly, apparently) physically and psychologically demanding.
(2) Ledger was reputedly (according to 2 different sources) having trouble sleeping for more than “a few hours a night” after his work on the film and even after “taking Ambien” on one particular occasion was only able to sleep “for an hour” before waking again to a mind “racing with thoughts”. That this was directly correlated with the performance of the role in the upcoming film was implicitly and explicitly alluded to.
(3) Immediately prior to Ledger’s death, he was reportedly ill with pneumonia
Without knowing anything else of the circumstances surrounding his death, it appears plausible that an argument could be made that Ledger’s potentially (we’ll know when the film is released) masterful performance of a potentially seminal movie antagonist is directly correlated with his untimely death (it doesn’t take a stretch to conclude that chronic lack of sleep can easily lead to immune deficiency and resulting illness–which may or may not have directly caused his untimely death)…..
Now that’s what I would call a “good death”. I find it unfortunate that the ancient Greek term for a “good death” (euthanasia) has developed a contemporary referential meaning which is quite far from the one I propose here. Which is not to say that I object to the contemporary practice dubbed “euthanasia”–on the contrary I find it unproblematic (if not downright uninteresting and/or irrelevant). I just think we need to greatly broaden our discussions on the idea of a “good death”–especially in light of all the bemoaning of a particular type of death (i.e. of young, “interesting” people who “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars” –Keroauc) in the media that is bound to occur following Ledger’s death. As if living a long (80 years) “healthy” life produces an alternative final result or a superior net sum result–my observation of which is not a polemic on the inferiority of the long life, just a rejection of the orthodoxy which reduces the value (relative to the long) of the short life.
Until the film comes out, I can only wonder at this latest reprisal of a character which embodies the most colorful comic-book expression of my hopes for aesthetically amenable post-Enlightenment normative progress.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rzHnxkLcQ_w&feature=related (Crimson and Clover is such a lovely song)