- Deathwatch: American Film, Technology, and the End of Life by C. Scott Combs
Death is a subject we are all fascinated by, whether we want to admit it or not. This fact is recognizable in the amount of filmed or photographed images of death we see daily in conventional fictional Hollywood cinema, network television programs, newsfeeds, YouTube videos, and random Google searches. Plane crashes, terrorist attacks, mass shootings, natural disasters, random acts of violence in the street; we are exposed to these horrific images for a variety of reasons, one of which is that they are marketable and, in some way, it is our natural inclination to want to see what is eventually going to happen to us, sometime in the future (whether violently or naturally). When I first chose to review Deathwatch: American Film, Technology, and the End of Life, I very much assumed that C. Scott Combs's book would study death in this way, investigating the psychology behind how and why we watch these horrific and compelling images. Rather, Combs goes in a much more inventive direction by connecting the action of dying with the process of filmmaking both in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, claiming that there is a clear "overlap between dying and moving images" (4). This makes for an original and academically sound work, tightly written and focused.
Deathwatch proceeds chronologically, starting with Combs's intricate discussion of early edited execution scenes (reenactments primarily) and the invention of the electric chair, specifically delving into Thomas Edison's contributions to the subject, including his most infamous film, the 1903 short Electrocuting an Elephant. Combs makes the rightful claim that with electrocution as a form of killing (as well as death by bullet) came a more seamless way of filming to gain a sense of realism that was not really there before, with the edited reenactments of decapitation (1895's The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots) and hanging (1898's An Execution by Hanging). He writes, "Form followed content: as the pictured execution technique was modernized, the picture itself became less edited, that is, less fishy as actual footage…As the pictured execution method changed the ways the camera could enframe the act of dying, it also altered the behavior of the camera set-up, and the registrant more completely marked the spectator's own relation to the dying body onscreen" (42). Thus, it became easier to film what Combs calls "the moment of death," which is something we as viewers are never made a privy to, even though we believe we are. As registrants, the people who witness the death, we only see the visual of the elephant (in this case) falling to the ground and convulsing into stillness; but, film "and electricity multiply the observable death moment: there is the theoretically instantaneous change from alive to dead; there is the act of registration that organizes and recuperates time not lived by the body; and there are the multiple posthumous shocks of replay" (57). In essence, as much as we believe we are seeing the moment of death with the staging of these morbid scenes, we honestly cannot because we are not the one dying, we are not the elephant, which now can die over and over and over again owing to the power of cinema.
Soon after, American filmmakers began creating full-length silent narratives; Combs's chapter entitled "Posthumous Motion" speaks of D.W. Griffith's The Country Doctor (1909), and how films such as Griffith's, like any of the early Biograph films, were able to express death in more cinematic ways. Combs writes, "This chapter is about that new expression, especially the inclination that an object, a pan, or a natural vista translates death more powerfully than watching it happen, or watching it be seen" (66–67). Once again, at first, the filming of the death was quite static and was dependent on the one dying (the elephant) or the one enacting death (theatrical actors performing exaggerated movement and then stillness to show death was taking place...