It is a fact that all people die. That is why there are so many films in which directors turn to the topic of terminally ill people. Though the end is always the same, the reaction of heroes, the way they spend their last minutes, days, or months are very much different. This makes it interesting to compare such movies and trace the intent of each of them. The first film under analysis is the motion picture of German production Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door (1997) directed by Thomas Jahn. The second movie is the work of the US director Bruce Joel Rubin My Life (1993). In these films, the presentation of the same idea is different, but both movies have a similar intent that comes down to the main thought that every life is precious and the way the directors describe it is of great interest.
On the one hand, the films under analysis urge to value and relish life; on the other hand, they do it in a much different fashion, bearing no resemblance to one another concerning genre, plot, and the nature of the main characters. Although both movies are regarded as drama, the first one is a comedy as well, whereas the nearest My Life came to the comedy genre is a protagonists’ sense of humor. It is imbued with grief and pity from the beginning to the very last shot. In the center of the movie, there is a man named Bob Jones, who learns from the doctor that despite all his efforts to overcome illness, he has only some months to live. Therefore, he makes all his best to prepare for the birth of his first-born child taping himself, his surroundings, the memories of the childhood and some pieces of advice for the future baby boy; he asks God to elongate his life so as he could see the child. During the film, the protagonist harmonizes the uneasy relationship with his family and wife Gail, who stands by him and pulls herself together until the very end of her husband’s life. My Life is a domestic drama, which appeals to family values and the importance of having a loving person to support you on the deathbed. It presents a contrast to the road-movie Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, where there are two protagonists, Martin and Rubi both of whom seem rather lonely at the end of their lives. Apart from that, in this film they appeared to have much less time than Bob Jones did – only several days. The characters meet each other in the hospital and decide whatever it takes to get to the sea because “In heaven, all they talk about is the ocean. How gorgeously beautiful it is” (Jahn, 1997). Such a simple but overwhelming desire leads to an adventurous trip with the dangers, which they overcome with a humorous undertone and the fulfillment of the dearest wishes. Although there are a lot of comic scenes in the movie, unwillingness to die is implied in every episode while Martin and Rubi are fighting with circumstances in order to fulfill their last desire. One of the main points of this film is that “It is stupid to be afraid” (Jahn, 1997) because it prevents a person from the best things in life; it is a pity that people understand this only when they face death. Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door shows how much one can do if he will treat each day as the last one. If we judge these films merely by their stories, it will become evident that they have nothing in common, whereas they both show that the accomplishment of desires and embracing peace is what matters most at the ebb of life.
In these two movies where the main characters are terminally ill, one of the cornerstone episodes are those in which they learn about how much time they have. These episodes are in the special focus of the producer because, firstly, they allow the viewers to get the first impression of the characters in the face of adversity. Secondly, they show what story will revolve around. In both movies, the locations and characters are the same – doctor’s cabinet, a doctor, and a patient. Therefore, the character of My Life movie is told about the results of treatment in his doctor’s cabinet. It turns out that the chemotherapy he resorted to had no effect, and his tumor continues to grow. The indifferent and, to some extent, cynical doctor’s answer “Four months at most” and “This is your last spring” (Rubin, 1993) to his question how much time he has sounds for Bob Jones as a death sentence. The following shot with zoom on the Michael Keaton’s character shows him and his wife to be shocked and somehow lost. This is one of the main episodes for understanding the nature of the protagonist and human nature at large. Bob Jones knows about his illness from the very beginning of the movie. However, he does not look upset or crushed; on the contrary, he continues to keep his chin up and enjoy life trying to make an efficient use of the time he has that proves him to be a really strong person. However, the producer’s intent of this very scene is to show that whatever strong or prepared the person can look like, he will never be ready to face his fate, especially such terrible as the fate of Michael Keaton’s character. That is why the absence of sound and zoom effect on the hero in this episode is a deliberate and thought-provoking move. On the one hand, it is made to touch the feelings of even the coolest people; on the other hand, it gives the viewers little time to think about what Bob Jones feels at this particular moment. The episodes from Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door where characters learn about how much time they have are very similar to the episode from My Life and bear the similar idea. Both characters, Martin and Rudi, are unique. The episode with Til Schweiger’s character shows him as a man who has just lost hope and who obediently accepts his fate. In this situation, the producer uses zoom out. To my mind, the choice of this effect was made to emphasize the very process of how the hope of the character for recovery snuffs out of him. No dramatic sound is used during their conversation and the following episodes with character Rudi Wurlitzer. The purpose of such decision is the same – not to disturb the reader from comprehending the seriousness of the situation the protagonists find themselves in. The episode with Rudi is almost the same. However, the medium shot of Rudi and dark shadows behind him are used to stamp him not while understanding the tragic inevitability of the future, but after it. Rudi, as well as Martin, accepts this news and starts a heart-to-heart talk with a doctor who answers him in kind manner (in contrast to the doctors from previously mentioned episodes) and tries to give him a measure of hope. Rudi is very similar to Bob Jones as his father died because of cancer, and deeply in his mind, he was aware that the same could happen to him. This episode shows us him as a sensitive and open man. Again, one can clearly see that two different producers suggest and develop in their movies the same idea – whatever strong or ready person can seem, no one will be completely ready to face the fate prepared for them. All in all, it is quite a philosophical topic and in my opinion, the directors wanted to emphasize that sooner or later there will be time in the life of every human being when we will have to think about it more deeply.
There are lots of movies where the main characters with terminal illnesses die regardless of our big desire for them to live is. Unfortunately, the movies chosen for this analysis are not the exception. The moment of death and the moments that precede it are other cornerstones the movies with ill protagonists are based on. Though it might sound contradictory, these are the highlights that serve as conclusions of the main character’s lives. It is the moment when one understands what the purpose of life is. The director Bruce Joel Rubin expresses the same idea in the words of Bob Jones, who says to his sleeping newborn child “Only at the point of death you understand why you have been living” (Rubin, 1993). While watching the episodes where the protagonists die, one can get the impression that another message the directors try to say is that the worst thing than dying is dying and realizing that you have not achieved your dreams. All characters, whether they are from My Life or Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door, have their dreams. For example, the first dream of Bob was to see the circus in his backyard. His second and last dream was to see his newborn child. The most interesting is that when he was asking God about it; he did not ask for recovering, he asked to allow him to live a little bit longer only to see his child whom he and his wife have been cherishing during all the movie.
Rudi and Martin also have their own dreams that are different – the first one dreams about the night with two girls, and the second one wants to buy a pink Cadillac to present to his mother. Moreover, both of them dream about the day when they see the sea, and this dream invigorates them as well as the desire to see his son invigorates Bob. In the end, the heroes achieve fulfill dreams and die with a safe conscience. From the point of view of cinematography, one could like the final episode of death in the Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door movie more, as it is visually more pleasing – the viewers finally see the characters sitting on the beach and looking at the sea that is achieved by using a long shot and a high angle. Strange but true, people who did not know each other at the beginning turned out to be significant for one another in the end. In contrast to this movie, the protagonist of My Life is shown in close up with his wife staying nearby. From the very beginning, it was understandable that there was no treatment for the protagonists. However, what comforts is the fact that they achieved their dreams, and this lets them die with peace in mind.
It becomes evident that both films teach not to be afraid of death, but to fear unaccomplished deeds, unsatisfied desires, and loneliness. They do this with the help of different means: Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door can be called a tearjerker by no means; on the contrary, My Life is packed with sentimental moments. This way or another, there is no doubt that both these movies speak to the heart ,and the questions raised in them cannot leave anyone indifferent.
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