Rebellion and Freedom from Living Hell

By David Gilmour
[originally posted on June 23, 2008; replaced with updated version on July 18, 2008]

Films Reviewed:

The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (Julian Schnabel, 2007), The Sea Inside (Alejandro Amenábar, 2004), and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (John Badham, 1981).

April, the cruelest month?

Choosing three films about the plights of three severely paralyzed individuals, the Producers Committee of Tacoma Film Club might have been testing the psychic stamina of TFC members and friends. Death-With-Dignity movies –for April, I ask you! — What gives? Unless one is Mel Gibson, it’s not easy to attract people to suffer viewing (or is it to view suffering?) film experiences that draw on one’s deepest compassion and stir the mind to question one’s mortality. Most of us live frantically active work lives with periods of active leisure which absorb our thoughts. We go to bed thinking about tomorrow’s projects. From time to time we can turn our attention to the deadly serious events of world disasters and wars, but we cannot handle a steady diet of life’s misery without succumbing to sadness and depression. People do feel sorrow for the survivors of catastrophes, right? It’s not hard to imagine others’ suffering, right? Movies can invoke this empathy quite well, but they are not usually blockbusters. In general, the public shies away from performances of despair, real horror, rather than the comic, clichéd variety, and of failure or loss. Consider how nearly every serious “message film” about the Iraq war and troubled soldiers has bombed badly at the box office. It’s hard not to blot out that chaos and misery. With the fragility of job security, a troubled economy, crises in the mortgage industries, and the rising cost of gasoline, food, etc., such pressures on families to make ends meet are likely to encourage escapist pleasures—e.g. light reading, entertaining films and comic TV sitcoms. Movies about tormented quadriplegic individuals striving either for a purpose to live or for assisted suicide could only imply consideration of difficult, vexatious studies in moribund states. Intellectual horror shows about conscious choices of one’s fate are strong brew to gulp down. Of course, there is a complex duality to April as spring struggles out from winter. Films about death and dying are also about life and living.

The Club’s Mettle

Exhibiting loyalty in the face of memento mori, TFC members proved their mettle to gather together in strong audience attendances for the April films, and later to engage in discussion, in numbers exceeding those of the usual Third Wednesday Discussion Night at King’s Books. Heartwarming! It reassured me that TFC comprises a community of members with conscience and intellect, minds and hearts undaunted to consider disquieting films of serious philosophical importance for our time—and, really, for all time. We seem to enjoy extraordinary films that intend to wake up the observer. The stimulating camaraderie among our club is a joy to experience.

Le Fin or the Shallow End

The films The Sea Inside (dir. Alejandro Amenábar, 2004) and Whose Life Is It Anyway? (dir. John Badham, 1981) present dramatic propaganda supportive of assisted suicide as a form of Death With Dignity (DWD). They are both bold statements pro DWD. Nevertheless, propaganda pro or con is quite positive in purposing to raise viewers’ consciousness of states of merely being, without the capacity of doing or growing in ways most of us take for granted. Also, the question of death or suicide has as its obverse implication the choice of commitment to life. In the two films above, we contemplate extraordinary circumstances of horrifically incapacitated persons who forcefully strive to assert their will to die—and succeed in the fulfillment thereof. The idea of the films begs our consideration of bioethical principles in societies whose laws forbid the unhappy invalid the right to assisted suicide. If the issues are dealt with fairly, as two of these films for the most part do, arguments pro and con illuminate the personal and social dilemmas inherent in executing that dreadful wish. It’s the subject of grueling tragedies—examination of the meaning of being human and choosing death over life.

Johnny, Jean-Do, Ramón and Ken

Four years ago Tacoma Film Club viewed and discussed Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun (1972), about a young man (Timothy Bottoms) who got blown to pieces in the trenches of WWI and yet remained alive, a quadruple amputee with a conscious mind, trapped in his being, kept stable in hospital bed restraints. Worse than the presence of Ramón Sampedro of “Sea Inside” and Ken Harrison of “Whose Life?”, “Johnny” did not even have a face to show; he was merely a torso with a beehive cage about his bobbing, disfigured head. What future could this sad being imagine? Anti-war propaganda and death with dignity were thematically blended in Trumbo’s deeply morose film drama based on his own novel of the 1930s. Though the story was deemed improbable (and unpalatable) as filmable subject matter, Trumbo, an outsider of Hollywood’s blackballing era, persisted and, in the 1970s, made his film, and so it has stood as a rough precursor of the two mentioned above.1

In a similar moribund vein, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly (dir. Julian Schnabel, 2007), depicts the catastrophic stroke suffered by 43-year-old Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of Elle magazine. In his “Locked-in” syndrome, his autonomic systems working, though with breathing and swallowing difficulties, Jean-Do (as they called him) was a static being with a functioning conscious mind. Thus, all three films under consideration depict the hellish agony of the human mind living consciously but painfully unfree, helplessly encased within a useless fleshy cocoon of a body. Years ago reading Franz Kafka’s story “Metamorphosis, I recall how that story impressed me with the same shut-off feeling of horrific isolation and alienation. Kafka wrote a fantastic tale of a lowly traveling salesman of fabrics, who, in his thirties, still living in the apartment of his parents, awoke one morning encased in the exo-skeletal form of a monstrous cockroach or grasshopper, helplessly lying supine, legs a-flailing. How does one cope with life, finding oneself suddenly arrested in such a bizarre state? This was powerful surreal symbolism for its time, implying disorientation and alienation of the character from human engagement and meaningful existence. For the human-become-cockroach, tomorrow will never be like the past and the present is a brand new exploration of how to be.

Such imagery is at play in The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. The film depicts the oxymoronic metaphors of its title: 1) physical entrapment in a sinking iron diving chamber (the past self-identity submerged in a paralyzed body), and 2) metamorphosis from a chrysalis to flutter freely light as air (the new self-awareness emerging through creative psyche). In his psychological crisis of being, transformed from the famous, flamboyant man-about-town to an inert physical state of quadriplegia, Jean-Do—an interesting name synonymous with anonymity, like “John Doe”–chose to extend his remnant being by learning to communicate and, through dictation, to preserve accounts of his new existential life of mind. Therefore, through the published writings of the last year of his life, and now through a movie (a Cannes Film Festival winner for Julian Schnabel), the life of Jean-Do continues: He chose to live: Ars longa, vita brevis.

Philosophy of the Absurd

The individual’s right to choose life, no matter how miserable, or death, as merciful release from misery, is a universal theme of literature and drama, belonging to the classic tragic tradition: e.g. Prometheus Bound, Philoctetes, Trachinian Women, Phaedra, Hippolytus. The Philoctetes’ story includes both a person left to die and the characteristics of care-giving charity. The ethical questions about individual freedoms, especially the right to die, personal rights vs. general human rights, family responsibilities as care-givers, consciousness of life’s value as meaningful or meaningless–such existential philosophical inquiries will not be resolved quickly and easily. Most people, locked into rounds of daily routines, are constrained only by necessity to consider them. Albert Camus, early in his writing tied to an existential movement of thought, in the opening passage of his essay on absurd reasoning 2 states that only one profound philosophical question confronts conscious human beings: Hamlet’s question whether life is worth living or not. Camus insists this philosophical question has to be answered before one commits oneself to truly living, before values and morality can be established through life experiences. Pondering all other questions before the one about existence and non-being will not endow the questioner with life’s meaning. Without contemplation of being human and the commitment to being, life is a slow-going entrenchment in past experiences, the present and future lived without intensity, i.e. without creative consciousness for fulfilling one’s potential. Nowadays initiatives for euthanasia and DWD are brought before the public for vote, 3 increasingly more urgently in our transitional era since the 1970s, an era top-heavy with aged populations and ailing aged folk whose lives have been extended beyond tolerable, desirable livability. For the invalided old person, life’s potential may be seen as finished and the mind, if intact, converses with the reaper. It is usually a question of people in extreme circumstances of pain, anxiety, and insanity who, often enduring a wasting illness with no remedy, bring demands of euthanasia or suicide to society’s notice and to the courts’ attention for judgement.

Dr. Strangelove or the Kind Reaper

In past years, the Netherlands and, more recently, Belgium, have legalized medically assisted euthanasia. Oregon State voters won DWD as legal, medical practice in 1997 and fought to keep it intact against a recent attack during the Bush-Gonzales regime. In our U.S. democracy, Doctor Jack Kavorkian paid heavily for believing the individual’s death wish to be a sane release. In a collectivist democracy, it’s still a radical outsider who understands with conviction that assisted death is a freedom of choice of a person in extreme despair and distress from illness or incapacity. For many, perhaps most, Kavorkian was a criminal or, at best, mad; for others he was heroic for his bold assistance in euthanizing people who requested it. It’s dangerous to play the thread-snipping Fate, even to cut short a person’s life as an act of mercy. Taking responsibility for one’s being, and one’s not-being, is a universal theme that will not go away. As people live longer, as medicine and technology will find ways to keep the sick, aged, and maimed alive, I expect the need for Death with Dignity will become much more acceptable, though under ever stricter guidelines.

Transforming Consciousness: Re-centering

For years I have been a runner and soccer player, most of my life addicted to maintaining a high level of physical fitness. When my daughter chose to become a professional prosthetist, her stories about amputees instigated my interest in the circumstances of unfortunate people whose active, athletic life had been drastically reduced. Two years ago when I suffered a broken ankle, even though I knew I’d recover ambulation and possibly continue to run long distances again, I was severely bummed out, rather depressed at times, dreadfully impatient at my recovery. From the existential worries of that period, about not fully recovering, I realize how petty my anxiety had been when I see the filmed representations of the quadriplegic invalids at issue. Without hope of recovery, they were stuck in perpetual quadriplegic life. Recently, therefore, I have spent some time seriously contemplating a few central issues of the April films, reconsidering the films’ treatments of Sampedro’s, Harrison’s, and Jean-Do’s crises, their conditions, and their choices. I liked all three films for their daring. They challenge moviegoers to get out of the comfort zone to reconsider their existential issues. Each film and situation is different, “Sea Inside” and “Diving Bell” working better as thoughtful, artistic representations, in my evaluation, than “Whose Life?” The critical reasons I shall endeavor to explain in the following pages.

The queries that have been itching in my psyche lately are these: How much does “doing” contribute to awareness of meaningful “being”? What are the degrees or states of consciousness one encounters when all props have suddenly been pulled away from former freedoms to act and to choose life’s course? So much of our lives are lived physically through body consciousness, as well as through rational thinking and emotional feeling: so What happens when a person’s identity of the active self is erased or drastically changed, such that one must be taken care of as a helpless being, quite like an infant child, at the complete mercy of care-givers? What is necessary for one person in horribly constrained paralysis to find a life purpose or meaning? And Why does another give up the search altogether? 4

Without going into too deep philosophical or psychological treatment of what self-identity might mean, whether a person possesses a self or a personality, such as the existentialist philosophers and cognitive psychologists have long debated, I will bring into consideration some existential issues that the lives of Ramón Sampedro, Ken Harrison, and Jean-Dominique Bauby raise in the film biographies. Although Ken Harrison of “Whose Life” is the only totally fictional character, from Brian Clark’s Broadway play, which also had a long run on the London stage, the representations of real-life Samedro and Bauby are also highly fictionalized in their respective films. Whatever the facts are, in criticizing the movies, I will attempt to deal with the characters’ existential dilemmas and the artistic portrayals as they were shown to audiences.

Being and Doing

Though it might seem an unlikely place to start, I’m going to present a contemporary illustration from a favorite film of mine, My Dinner with André (dir. Louis Malle, 1981). This is a philosophical movie, which is essentially an intense dinner-table dialogue between Wally Shawn, a struggling, stay-at-home New York playwright, and André Gregory, an older, seasoned playwright and director, who has returned home from world travels. André explains his insights from those travels, recounting exotic, harrowing experiences in outdoor actors’ workshops, through which he sought to re-enchant his life, to find his authentic self, his real being. At the heart of the work are the questions Who are we? and What does it mean truly to exist? Wally Shawn expresses the crisis of imagining his life reduced to “mere being” in a passage from the latter stage of their discussion in the restaurant:

“…If I understand what you’ve [i.e. André’s] been saying, it somehow seems the whole point of the work you did in those workshops, when you get right down to it and ask what it really was about—the whole point, really, I think, was to enable people in the workshops, including yourself, to somehow sort of strip away every scrap of purposefulness from certain selected moments. And the point of it was so that you would then be able to experience somehow just pure being.

In other words, you were trying to discover what it would be like to live for certain moments without having any particular thing that you were supposed to be doing. […] I mean, I just don’t think I accept the idea that there should be moments in which you’re not trying to do anything. I think it’s our nature to do things. I think we should do things. I think purposefulness is part of our ineradicable basic human structure. And to say that we ought to be able to live without it is like saying that a tree ought to be able to live without branches and roots; but actually, without branches and roots, it wouldn’t be a tree. I mean, it would just be a log. Do you see what I’m saying? 5 [Italics in original text]

As Wally states it, “being” is a frightening proposition without active, purposeful “doing.” To imagine himself in the position of the quadriplegic Sampedro, who is essentially a conscious mind in a fleshy “log” of a body, stripped of his “roots” and “branches,” Wally would be freaked out because it would seem an absurd, static existence. However, the noun being is, after all, a verb form—implying action, a happening. The root meaning of existence, from Latin existere, is “to stand out, to emerge, to become”; likewise, being, from Indo-European “ bhu” as in Greek physis (”nature”), is essentially about “growing, becoming, and evolving.” For the existentialists Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) and Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), being or existence was a dynamic state of growing and awareness of acting and emerging. As Sampedro says variously in his will, to exist in his numb, inactive, atrophied bodily state is a form of humiliating slavery, without dignity—an absurd, static existence. 6 To use Wally’s metaphor, for him living like a thinking “log” is not a dignified human state.

Again, from “My Dinner,” in response to André’s admission that as a “work junkie” he was dead, robotic, frozen—namely, just doing things unfeelingly amidst the routines and “noise” of performance–Wally re-emphasizes his fear of inactive being:

Personally, I don’t usually like those quiet moments, you know, I really don’t. I mean, I don’t know if it’s that Freudian thing or what—I mean, a fear of unconscious impulses or my own aggression or—I mean, if things get too quiet, you know, and I find myself just sitting there, whether I’m by myself, or I’m with somebody else, well, I just have this feeling of, My God, I’m going to be revealed. I mean I’m adequate to do any sort of task, you know, but I’m not adequate just to be a human being. I mean, I’m not—you know, I mean if I’m just trapped there and I’m not allowed to do things, but I just—all I can do is just be there—I—I will fail. In other words, I can pass any other test and get an “A” if I put in the required effort, but I don’t have a clue how to pass this test. Of course this isn’t really a test, but I see it as a test, and I feel I’m going to fail it. I mean it’s really scary. I just feel totally at sea. I mean— 7 [Italics in original text]

This is a very revealing assertion by Wally (or any ordinary person, whom Wally represents) when he says, if he’s by himself, just a mind, not doing anything—“My God! I’m going to be revealed.” Revealed? Yes, to grasp being directly, he would see himself as humbled into the frightened, anxious, fragile being he is. Perhaps the life of the mind in the quadriplegic is the consciousness of Wally saying, “I am what I am in this consciousness; this is me just being. It’s frightening. I can’t really do anything but be, and yet I recognize this is who I am now and will continue to be.” Purposefulness and fulfilling new potentials seem impossible. In the quiet moments, Ramón Sampedro might have ruminated as follows: “Me, once a vital young man, I grew to such a healthy stage of self-awareness and now that has vanished. Was I pretending to be so good, so kind, so great, so powerful? Now, stuck like this, I can imagine, but who cares: this is just me, this head, imagining. Tomorrow will be the same. I can fantasize, but it’s just me fantasizing–what for? What am I but a Cartesian thinking machine? Now I know–Descartes was totally wrong! I think but I cannot do, or choose to do, in others’ sense of doing. I’m trapped. Am I adequate to be a doing, feeling, reactive human being? This kind of inert being, conscious as I am of it—poetic, philosophical, artistic, call it whatever sophisticated name you want–is not what I wish to be, and it is not recognized by those doing things the way I would wish—active, dynamic, physical– as significant existence.” Perhaps Sampedro would think over and over, “Why did I not die in the sea? Because now I am totally at sea.”

What does the title “The Sea Inside” mean? I ask myself this and try to fathom it. The sea is of the past life, and yet the life of today and tomorrow is the realm of change and new being. Perhaps—and one gets the feeling of this from the film—Ramón Sampedro would have wished to have drowned rather than to have been revived in order to live as a fish out of water. His life was enjoyable as a ship seaman on the water, on the seas, and he cannot rid himself of the sadness of lost potential. His error was a tragic misjudgment of the sea’s fickle nature—the incomprehensible changes of ebb and flow in a narrow tidal zone. He was born in the watery narrows of the birth trauma, and his traumatic death could have been complete in narrows of the inlet into which he precipitously dove before it had reached full depth. Surely, he had known this local sandy cove, but not fully, and he flung himself blade-like headlong into the shallow flow.

Why did he dive too soon? Vanity? It is implied that he was showing off his handsome physique. Thus, to impress his beachside bathing beauty, he lost himself in vanity; he forgot his practical knowledge of the changeable sea. Having survived, Sampedro suffers from a dreadful lack of fulfillment. His ontological guilt, i.e. guilt connected to being, is thus his anxiety living with the sea inside, being all at sea, as the expression goes—lost, confused, at nature’s mercy–not able any longer to fulfill his full potential being–developing, growing, acting, doing—nor able even to fulfill his non-being, his self-negation.

As Wally has explained the normative cultural mentality of the person afraid of being, I think it is somewhat easier to understand the constant anxious existence of Sampedro’s quadriplegia. Such a person, a merchant seaman, once happily looking forward to a good paying job for years to come, must now endure a new coming to self-awareness, totally changed relationships with people whom he cannot go forth to meet. Sampedro’s ability to strive for extraordinary creative conscience, like that of an ascetic, a spiritual-minded artist or thinker, is not up to the test (as Wally put it). Sampedro was locked in to his small environment, for he chose not to go out. We view him as a sad person set among the conditions and determining forces of his narrow world. Within, he is fixated by the yesterdays, unable to transcend the immediate boundaries of time and to change himself through purposes for a future of meaningful being. For him, the creep of tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow was imagined the same as today.

An Essential “No!” to Life

Ramón Sampedro (played by Javier Bardem), a Galician Spaniard, paralyzed in early manhood when Franco’s fascist regime still prevailed, endured twenty-nine years of physical passivity. Eventually he decided to pursue death by suicide, against all contrary voices of his family and many of his friends. In The Sea Inside, in Sampedro’s case, for several years the Constitutional authorities blocked his progress to test the Spanish law denying him death with dignity, the consummation he devoutly wished. In Spain, the high courts and those laws established by medical ethics and religious doctrines did not grant an individual the right to suicide. Nor did the Spanish authorities want to judge the reasonable need of someone to choose mercy-killing by suicide. Supreme Courts, following universal constitutions, are averse to passing one-person laws. Their cause was to preserve hope. Hope–judicial, spiritual and medical–mostly won out and for years to come, as long as conservative thinkers hold high positions, will win out. The willful individual, like Sampedro, is wildly romantic in seeking personal freedom for such an extreme action as legal suicide. But so long as there are liberal-minded romantics, the quest for extreme personal freedoms will continue.

The cautions are understandable: the death-wisher may possibly have a change of mind to live; the suicide wisher might be depressed, distraught, or insane; with faith comes the possibility of heaven if one chooses to die normally under God’s gaze; science offers the possibility of a cure or regeneration of nerves. So many decent, traditional hopes allow the civil authorities to sanction against euthanasia or assisted suicide. In post-Franco Spain, it was the Constitutional Court’s procrastination to give his argument a hearing that angered Sampedro: “

This is not an ethical or moral authority. This is political posturing, intolerant paternalism, and religious fanaticism.”

Alejandro Amenábar, well known for his mystical living-death fantasy films (Abre Los Ojos (1997) (English title

Open Your Eyes, the American remake, Vanilla Sky(2001)) and The Others(2001) was not averse to bring the death-with-dignity controversy to life in Spain. He did not show us Sampedro’s early recovery from his traumatic accident; instead, he chose to depict the aging Sampredo in the last year of his DWD crusade. Though Sampedro must have anxiously lived in the early years of his late twenties and thirties through periods of dreadful despair, anger, insanity, and wished even then have committed suicide, were he able by assistance, he, nevertheless, did arrive in middle age a patient and charming personality, grateful to his family and friends upon whom he was totally dependant. Nevertheless, within his limited consciousness to invent and extend freedom to grow and act, he matured into middle-age, nursing an ever greater determination, with the personal, legal, and philosophical argument to back it up, to crave assisted suicide. As Wally had deduced instinctually, for Sampedro, mere being was not a life-affirming existence. His major action was a passionate, intellectual pursuit of non-being. Ironically, the double tragedy of Ramón Sampedro was not only in the accident itself, but also in his survival. Thus I see him as an anti-heroic model: I respect him as an exemplar of heroic fortitude, but not of courageous human being.

Whose Life Was This Anyway?

In Whose Life is it Anyway? accidents happen, which are not essentially tragic in the literary or philosophical sense. The young sculptor, Ken Harrison (Richard Dreyfuss), when his automobile collided on a slick road with a semi-truck, broke his neck and severed his spinal cord. He recovered to full mental consciousness, able to see, hear, speak, and exhibit facial gestures, with normal movement from his neck upwards. Like Ramón Sampedro, Harrison found himself helplessly trapped in his limp body and, like Jean-Do, he was likely (as the film tells it) to exist incarcerated as a hospitalized intensive-care patient. The doctor (John Cassavetes) saw Harrison as a medical-success case to be kept alive at all costs. Some months after his accident, we meet Harrison early in his recovery phase when quadriplegic physical incapacity disgusted and angered him such that he was unwilling to consider a worthwhile purpose for living. In a scene of cruel self-pity, he dismissed his visiting girlfriend, his sole friend it would seem, telling her that their relationship was over and she’d best find another man now his body had been permanently totaled. Once again, this is Wally’s cultural evaluation of the body as the agent of committed action; the conscious mind is an ineffectual aspect of the purposeful being. Ken Harrison did not begin to think himself anew to a discovery of what a human being is. Emphasizing the intellectual, legal strategy for assisted suicide, the film failed to give Harrison time to ponder change. In its haste to make a point of body’s ownership, the story failed to convince me that Harrison deserves the right to be deemed fully human with consciousness of fully being.

For Ken Harrison, thirty-one years old, doing art had been imagined as his “life” and without hands-on sculptural creativity as he knew it, his quadriplegia had stripped him of viable self-identity or of even renewing his self-awareness within the possible creative media of his deterministic realities—namely, teaching, writing by dictation or other means, and encouraging others to surmount terrifying obstacles to be creative, to grow creatively. Dreyfuss played Harrison as somewhat manic, even arrogant, cockily letting
fly sexual innuendos in presence of his nurses and even towards his very sensible female doctor (Christine Lahti). By his behavior Harrison clearly exhibited his anxiety and consequently was unwilling—even unable–to let go of his former activistic, physical personal identity. Though he would have been unable to follow through on his come-ons, Harrison pretended to be the same devil-may-care fellow he had been when fully capable. It seemed as though he “came to” in dramatic moments of awareness of the real situation he had found himself in, but then only to scold his attendants or doctors, to rail at his treatment, and rage for release. Worse still, the staff, especially the young nurses and the friendly orderly, acted in ways to keep Harrison alive to the illusion that he was the handsome, cocky vital fellow he had once been. In their extreme efforts to preserve his good nature–joking, being exaggeratedly attentive and playful, and even staging an electric rock-show complete with a jumbo reefer and strobe-lights—the staff, against all sensible judgment, perpetuated the false awareness of his life’s old meaning. And this group was the primary support community Harrison had to relate with.

Another major flaw of this script is the absence of family and other friends who might have helped explain Harrison’s character. Once his girlfriend had left, no other friends or family ever came for visits. Was Ken Harrison such an outrageous egoist that everyone had given up on him? For most of us, continuing through life’s run, our relationships with friends and family help each one of us gain a greater sense of ourselves and our openness to others helps us to grow. I asked myself several times watching this film, “Why did Harrison have no real community of friends?”

The doctors (Cassavetes and Lahti) were proud of their success in keeping Harrison alive. They appeared to dislike him, regarding him as a specimen, as an object of medical treatment more than as a distressed human patient who obviously needs some sensitive psychotherapy sessions. The lively antagonism created between the doctors and their quarrelsome patient was almost beyond belief. This contention of egos, rather than a life-affirming struggle to help the patient find a new center for existence, served to feed Harrison’s distemper and soon the bitter, helpless man resolved to find a lawyer (Bob Balaban) who would help him terminate his wretched existence. By 1980, psychotherapists had come a long way to developing effective interpersonal encounters for helping depressed patients deal with environmental, relational and personal existential dilemmas and crises. Because Harrison refused to accept the blow nature had dealt him, he did not show the courage or strength to develop a new consciousness of self. He, like Sampredo, is in rebellion against the state of being.

Granted, for a young quadriplegic, it must be an enormous change to encounter the incapacitation of physical living: the battle to mature and find self-discipline, to acquire a new attitude towards freedom and actions by force of mind and conscience. Harrison’s inability to humble himself, to stop pretending he’s still the same confident egoist, implied that would not begin to enhance his being further. Without committing himself to behaviors and communicative practices with other people, Harrison would never have discovered other life-affirming values and new creative insights. His angry, rebellious nature did not subside so that he might turn inward to fill the silence and void of his helplessness with a creative conscience for the days and years to come. His choosing

death and fighting for assisted suicide seemed to me a negative statement about a person too young or too hard-headed to create a greater awareness of himself and what it is to be human. The playwright, Brian Clark, had a cause to promote death with dignity, but I feel the strain for dramatic histrionics to make Ken Harrison’s story work had blinded the writer to some essential questions about human existence and ways of expressing human dignity. For me, Richard Dreyfuss’s performance was too haughty and ebullient to be believable.

Throughout the story, set in the hospital, Harrison is so consumed by constant anxiety of existence in the early phase of his quadriplegic recovery that he never relaxed into the discovery of consciousness of being. Sampedro, not particularly the creative mind in his youth, had twenty-nine years to exhaust all possibilities of becoming and growing into vital awareness of life’s being. Harrison, the passionate sculptor and artist, gave up the ghost early in his despair and anger to forge a legal case for assisted suicide. It’s as though he was willing to lose his being before he showed any courage to acquire a sense of what human being could mean. Perhaps there are reasons for Harrison’s weak will, but his was not a strong character presented for appreciation of dignified, heroic humanity. The story, though an early fictional representation of the strife for personal legal suicide as death with dignity, as I see it, rushes to intellectual judgment without adequate human substantiation.

The World Inside Jean-Do

A positive statement of overcoming moribund anger and self-pity is offered in the study of Jean-Dominique Bauby. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly showed a mature man, who, though used to an active, sensual life, did discover a reason to live a vital mental life in spite of his inadequacies. He had friends and family, children by a former mistress. Besides the hospital staff, important people from the past helped him to find his new bearings. As a journalist, Jean-Do had had to work alone at times in intellectual pursuits, both to choose prepared pieces and to write articles for Elle magazine. Using his memory to reflect, his imagination to journey to fantasy worlds, and his conscience to consider values of life, he continued to emerge, to think his being a-new. He devoted himself to thinking. Internally he composed interesting thoughts and worked hard to express his thoughts outwardly to others, to leave a document that might inspire others to hang onto humanness when all hope seemed drowned.

In the Blink of an Eye

Emphasizing human dignity and pluck in the face of slow death in a living hell, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly details an inspirational message in the study of Jean-Do’s paralysis. Although Jean-Do (Mathieu Almaric) did express the wish to die when asked by his new speech therapist (Marie-Josée Croze) what he wanted to do, the film dwells neither on the death wish nor on pursuing assisted suicide. Instead, it depicts quite unsentimentally Jean-Do’s coming to a consciousness not unlike that he had developed during his years of living freely in a somewhat libertine, artistic life. In the last year of hospitalization, naturally daunted by his uncompromising paralysis, he accepted waking, thinking, and communicating as activities of significant purpose for each day. Through his intact hearing and the use of one moveable eye and eyelids, he practiced the remarkable speech therapy by which he strove patiently and courageously to communicate, spelling out letter by letter, accounts of his entrapped life, which he subtitled: My Life in Hell. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly was published in 1997. 9 Painstakingly, he dictated by blinking ‘yes’ and ‘no’ with the eyelids of his good eye, choosing letters uttered by his therapist from a chart listed in order of French alphabetic frequency.

Michael Moore fans might view the humanistic consideration of “Diving Bell”’s patient as further evidence of the superiority of French socialized medicine. Following his traumatic stroke, the famous Mr. Bauby was offered interesting programs of therapy by delightful nurses and therapists. The medical and care services provided Jean-Do one or two good reasons to struggle on: he had a sensualist’s experienced eye for the two beautiful maidens who gave him diligent, personable occupational and speech therapy.

Try as she did, the occupational therapist failed to get significant results. Tongue and throat operation did not improve for eating or swallowing. Breathing was difficult, even through tracheotomic technology. On the other hand, the speech therapist succeeded in helping him patiently to express himself. With the daily assistance of Claude Mandibil, yet another beautiful, young woman hired as his transcriber, Jean-Do strove to tell the story of his life experiences. Throughout the film, narrative sequences many minutes long are devoted to his word-building expression in this manner of alphabetic recitation. Understandably repetitive, even though varied and presented in digested filmic episodes, this mimetic process may have tried the patience of some viewers. Yet, this was his main freedom to experiment with; it was his significant method of action in interpersonal relationships. It was the way he “spoke,” his means of verbal and emotional engagement with others. In these scenes Jean-Do expressed his humor, wit and verbal ingenuity. Through Schnabel’s attention to such details with a variety of visual effects, the linguistic sequences are, I think, amazingly interesting and exciting. I’d imagine the statements made, i.e. thoughts spelled-out, had been carefully chosen by the script-writer for viewers’ and listeners’ scrutiny. This linguistic peculiarity can be an interesting perspective for study on another viewing. Writer Ronald Harwood proved his mastery in translating literary points of view of a most difficult psychological book into an ingenious film script through imaginative scenarios for cinematography.

It’s so serious it’s gotta be art

Considering the sober subject matter of all three stories, high artistic levels were required of the writing, of other elements of film artistry, and especially of actors’ performances in order to make the films appreciable representations of peoples’ difficult, quadriplegic lives. As I mentioned re: Johnny Got His Gun, in our age and culture of exhibitionistic body-consciousness, bodies that don’t work or move are not thought of as film-worthy. Each of the three films under consideration succeeds in different ways to hold the viewer, and each avoids a documentary-like style that might have smacked of clinical case studies of vital minds incarcerated in paralyzed bodies.

Of the three films, “Diving Bell” clearly required a greater variety of artistic effects and presented the greatest challenge to give life to a story in which the protagonist is physically passive and voiceless, an almost totally paralyzed, physically inexpressive character. It is another rare work by the painter Julian Schnabel, director of two other off-beat films about artists: one about the New York graffiti painter Basquiat, an oddball in the tribe of Andy Warhol’s artists and eccentrics (Basquiat, 1996); the other, the life of banned Cuban poet Ronaldo Arenas in Before Night Falls (2000). To make the story work, “Diving Bell” employs every possible camera point of view (POV) to allow us to know Jean-Do in his busy life before paralysis and, most importantly, to empathize with his agonizing revitalization after paralysis.

Points of View (POV)

All three films play with flashbacks to fill in some significant events of the past. Naturally, Sampedro’s fatal afternoon dive on the beach is revisited by flashback reminiscence. Harrison’s artistic creativity is illustrated in a black-and-white sequence of exhilarated sketching of his girlfriend as she dances sensually in modern jazz-dance style. In “Diving Bell” flashbacks are various in narrative effects. Many of them are fragmentary, flickering glimpses of Jean-Do’s mind and memory that the viewer fits together as mosaic pieces. Though surreal as film images of non-connecting moments, they seem to represent imaginative effects, illustrating how the human mind works realistically and empirically, merely catching a stroboscopic flash of some moment in the shadow play of a dimly remembered past. On Jean-Do’s hospital wall, a massive collage of still photographs and drawings, which, though focused on for no more than mini-seconds, do contribute to such kaleidoscopic, non-narrative flashbacks (implied narratives). One symbolic image appears regularly: a pair of boxing gloves with the prominent EVERLAST logo. In normal narrative reflections, from Jean-Do’s thoughts in third-person camera POV (which is more accurately a blended POV), we see the dashing Jean-Do visiting an Elle studio shoot, conferring with designers, photographers, and personal assistants. His had been a position of great status requiring literary and critical skills of a high order. As a sensualist and bon vivant, in flashback memory or fantasy, he records a couple of his wild flings with ravishing women. One, a wishful fantasy, is quite reminiscent of the lavish feast from Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963), in which Tom and his mother sensually slurp down oysters, lasciviously ooh-ing and eyeing one another most amorously. The other, an extended flashback, is a failed liaison with a disturbed beauty during a trip to Lourdes. Told in some length, this shows Jean-Do’s unwillingness to accept or fathom his girlfriend’s spiritual needs. He was after a “dirty weekend” (literally in the French, a “piggish” weekend). His willful girlfriend purchased at his great expense a gaudy, red-neon-lit, sitting-Madonna statuette, which blinked on and off. So annoying was this fake, blinking fetish, Jean-Do lost all erotic interest in the sexy woman he lay in bed with. Little did he know that he himself would become a seated fleshy statue and that blinking would be his total emotional connection to other human beings.

On the very serious side, another flashback reflects on his last visit to see his frail, invalid father, Papinou (Max Von Sydow), living in Paris. It reveals Jean-Do’s emotional distance from intimacy in subtle father-son antagonism. This poignant scene is fraught with presentiments of Jean-Do’s own face-to-face, eye-to-eye confrontation with reality when he is invalided. As Jean-Do leaned in close to shave the grumpy old man, Papinou was clearly not happy with his son’s irresponsible wanton ways. The father chided his son for abandoning Céline (Emanuelle Seigner), the mother of his three children, whom he never married. The father summed up this reprehensible “divorce” as an absence of decent values. Finally, Papinou remembered his positive mind as he stuttered to express his love and admiration of his successful son: “Son …ha-hmmm… I am very proud of you.” Ah, the contrarieties of father-son relationships. At this sentiment, Jean-Do dashed away, embarrassed, from his father’s presence.

Inventively, Schnabel and his cinematographer, Janusz Kaminski, exploit subjective camera perspective (first-person POV) most effectively and integrally to reveal what stroke-injured Bauby saw though his eyes, as he emerged out of a coma into vision and new awareness. These early scenes of his awakening show the agony of realizing his encapsulation, his incapacity and infantile, shut-off, locked-in situation. Later, we see him learn to communicate through his one blinking eye as through the camera lens. Likewise, subjectively through voice-over, from within his mind’s cave, we hear Jean-Do’s spontaneous internal thoughts both in frustrated responses to others’ actions, gestures or words and, at other times, in quiet personal meditations. First-person camera is used most extensively, but always with artistic purpose to make us feel Bauby’s alienation, loneliness, and locked-in state. When subjective POV is not used intrinsically to show a person’s separation, difference and psychic distance, it seldom works effectively. 10

The means devised to do this efficiently and effectively, through special film, lenses, and mirrors, and with actors working inches away from the equipment, were nothing short of artistically brilliant. This is the first film to my knowledge that successfully uses the subjective camera and first-person POV as the protagonist’s main angle of perception. One might say the 90-minute long shot of Alexsandr Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) worked quite well, but it was really an extrinsic, gimmicky trick, and economical if it went successfully in one single shoot.

Most films we view are in objective third-person point of view: limited when the protagonist must always be present in the scene and unlimited when the camera can record incidents unknown to the protagonist or beyond the range of the protagonist’s senses. Naturally, in “Diving Bell” we experience the common third-person POV much of the time, which shows us Bauby from outside his being as other characters look upon him and relate to him, and showing all characters together around him in a scene from no particular known person’s perspective. As we view him alone in his sterile hospital cell, in stillness—no voice, no music–we are made to wonder about the workings of his conscious mind in the immobile body, slumped in his chair, his eye cocked, or lying in bed staring up at the ceiling. Likewise, we contemplate his isolation on the shore, his chair perched on a stanchion platform facing the land, as the angry green tide rises, washing around him. This is hair-raising loneliness. The camera also ranged freely, i.e. omnisciently, going where Jean-Do could not be present, showing us his distant housebound father on the phone, frustrated, broken by emotion because he cannot be with his son, who had become even more physically debilitated than himself. All the points of view I’ve mentioned are used periodically and seamlessly such that none of the scenes becomes bogged down in too long a sequence of effects. It is a truly an art film for aficionados of camera techniques. Its levels of intimacy do indeed tug heavily on viewers’ heartstrings, but, for me, in a most enlightening way.

Words and Action

Ramón Sampedro, traveled around the world, working as a ship’s mechanic. Like Bauby, he was a man of action with a fine physique. He, too, loved many women. “Sea Inside” focuses on mature Sampedro, twenty-eight years after the accident, when the decision to die by assisted suicide was set firm and Ramón took his personal crusade for the right to die up to the high courts. Unlike Bauby, he refused therapies and, on principle, would not use a wheelchair, choosing to lie upstairs on a hospital bed looking out at the sea.

Sampedro did not resign himself completely from testing limits to his restricted freedom. For recording his personal thoughts, he devised a method of writing with a stylus in his mouth and, in that manner, composed

Cartas desde El Infierno or Letters from Hell, his collected works. Also, he composed poems, published as Cando Eu Caia (2007), collected and edited in a purposeful effort requiring several people’s earnest cooperation. In conjunction with Julia (Belen Rueda), an attractive attorney in ethical agreement with Ramón’s cause because of her own severe disability, he seemed to ride an enthusiastic wave of possibility. The book’s successful publication was illustrated in the film’s plot as an inspirational surge. However, the initial enthusiastic support of Julia faded as she experienced second thoughts about suicide. Her abandonment of him after the publication Ramón experienced as betrayal, throwing him back into his previous accustomed despair. In an interview, Amenábar states that many women are molded into Julia’s role, for Ramón was attended to by a community of women friends who admired, loved and helped him. Many of them sought his love in what would necessarily have been a totally Platonic relationship, safe from sexual violability. Two special women played individual roles: one was the right-to-die advocate, Gene (Claudia Segura), a thoroughly rational, socially-conscious friend who acted on his behalf through the Death-with-Dignity organization. Another was Rosa (Lola Dueňas) representing real-life Ramona Maneiro, who became his right-hand assistant to execute the suicide.

Psychologically, as I’ve suggested above, Ramón’s transformation to accept his paralyzed existence seems to have been thwarted by his inability to overcome disgust with his physical inadequacy. His writings express his hatred of feeling chained like a prisoner to a bed. Therefore, he did not discover the value of struggle to re-invent himself; his self-image was that of a puppet, an angry helpless child. Obviously, he could not make the leap from a non-intellectual, youthful body-consciousness towards a more mature spiritual or intellectual creative level, one where stages of growth and self-identity had to be newly engendered. Perhaps he was arrested in romantic vanity, like the teenager who discovers anger and rebellion as a substitute for freedom. Whatever the reason, Ramón would not acquire the stoic virtues of accepting the limitations nature had placed him in and extending himself as best he could from that predicament. Like, Ken Harrison, he never did get over doting on the terror of his helplessness. However, there is some levity in the midst of misery. The movie shows Ramón frequently putting on a good face for the sake of attracting visitors and keeping his companions comfortable. In his solitude he plotted his dark purpose.

Vitality through Rebellion

Out of anger at his restricted state of being, he found rebellion in an insatiable desire for death. The revolt gave vitality to his being; the revolt against continued existence became its own life value. As I mentioned, paradoxes are bound to appear in such ethical dilemmas. Rebellion and protest represent a normal stage of growth towards freeing oneself from dependence on others’ authority. Once free to act, the person gives up passionate rebellion to seek greater self-awareness. By living and testing limits, one experiences the values of life that result. Values, therefore, are lived, not intellectualized or rationalized qualities. In this way, rebellion to die became a purpose, an absolute value. Ironically, the value of Ramón’s act of assisted suicide is ambivalent, for the performer himself would never live through the experience to know what value might result. It could only encourage other anxious beings to seek the same rebellious freedom as an absolute value. This is pathos and pathology.

After years of lying supine and immobile, besides enjoying music, reading, and visits from loving friends, and, I would think, imagining myriad ways of escaping present consciousness of his pathetic debilitation, Sampedro returned from these distractions to the nightmare reality of his living hell. The phoenix of hope that might have taken wing in his dreams came crashing to its death at dawn. His potentiality was time bound to the past. Many others, suffering similarly, have pushed against the limitations of physical paralysis, have found a new purpose, have courageously fashioned exercises in seeking life’s meanings. For example, think of the amazing Stephen Hawking who, after his degenerative disability made him wheelchair-bound continued with his life’s work. Communicating through newly invented electronic keyboards he tapped with his foot, he could deliver lectures and record his ideas for written works. Still an Oxford professor of theoretical physics, holding the Isaac Newton Chair, he is, to the best of my knowledge, still publishing scientific treatises. The late Christopher Reeve is another who chose to force open closed gateways. He used his wealth and influence to forge new therapies for breathing, speech and movement and to fund research for neurological regeneration. Both of these men transcended the moment for a purposeful future. These were men endowed with fully developed creative consciences who surmounted the indignities of their physical helplessness to continue life positively with purpose through their spiritual wills and intellectual talents.

The example of the quadriplegic priest who criticized Sampedro’s wish to suicide is another case of finding purpose and life-affirmation. Putting the Catholic doctrine against suicide aside, the priest had learned to guide himself in a motorized wheelchair, not unlike Christopher Reeve’s device. He could change his environment, at least on level ground, as he wished. He accepted his position and chose automated mobility. His functions and duties as a priest were not greatly hampered by his paralysis because he could meet parishioners, conduct meetings, and deliver the Mass. Buoyed by his religious doctrine and faith, the priest, though he needed assistance in almost every other way—washing, cleaning, changing colostomy and bladder containers, feeding,

and lifting of chair, removal from chair, and being put into bed, etc.—his abilities and powers to perform effectively, as clergy does, urged him to choose continued life. He had a reason to awake tomorrow and his parishioners, he felt sure, depended on him. In “Sea Inside,” the priest, because he carried a measure of dogmatic superiority in his manners, was made a figure of ridicule. Nevertheless, he stood for a quadriplegic who had actualized his being.

Compared with the examples of the priest, Hawking, Reeve, and Bauby, Ramón Sampedro’s being as action towards suicide is a darkly negative approach to human freedom and too strange to be considered a heroic model. Nevertheless, one cannot deny the fortitude necessary for seeking success in this endeavor. The futility of approaching the courts in Catholic Spain to grant such a civil right to die was expected by Ramón, but because of his stamina and fortitude he gave his crusade the full Don Quixote charge at windmills.

Viva Don Quixote!

Allusions to the Don Quixote icon are not something I look for in all Spanish movies, but there are times when that classic figure of the delusional, alienated Knight-errant of La Mancha makes his modern appearance. The fact that Ramón has come to the absurd reality of smiling sweetly when he really feels crying is appropriate shows his upside-side value system of gestures. Without complete body-consciousness, facial gestures and speaking became his necessary charms. The scene where Ramón feels his quixotic roots is the episode when the social world of family and friends pulls together to help him travel to Barcelona, him—a paralyzed invalid–to go, to move, to make strides to the high courts of the nation to ask for something he knows the authorities will never grant. A futile, romantic adventure with a radically profound purpose, why not? The non-automated wheelchair Ramón never used needed tinkering with and gets remodeled to make it serviceable: this is the equipping of Don Quixote’s sway-back nag Rosinante. His sister-in-law forces upon him an incredibly dumb hat with ear flaps: Don Quixote’s brass shaving-basin for a knight’s helmet. A Sancho Panza drives the van carrying Ramón in the wheelchair; he’s a chubby-faced ordinary chap, pleased as Punch to serve as driver for brave Seňor Ramón Sampedro. En route, the montage of countryside scenes shows all manner of human and animal life in flux: a nun monitoring some kids in a playground; some dogs mindlessly humping. Ramón smiles at the dogs, for he too was an erotic young man. Passing a phalanx of modern, giant, energy-generating windmills in the nearby fields, Ramon smiles, knowing he now must tilt against powers he is bound to lose to. This montage is cinema at its best, powerful moments of classic allusion at work in pictures and symbols that continue to keep a long tradition of ideas alive. The quixotic hero is not a winner, but the vanquished. Bucking the system requires fortitude, courageous determination, and virtue. Outsiders make difficult heroes, but perfect anti-heroes.

Ramón Sampedro was taken for an avatar of the crack-brained Knight of La Mancha. Suicide? What could he possibly want to die for? His family did everything for him; everybody, even strangers who had heard of him, loved him for his outspokenness and, when they met him, for his good nature and kind manners. However, no one around

him truly understood his consciousness, his resolve to escape the ritualistic, repetitious torpor of a helpless invalid’s existence. Even his nephew, Javi (Tava Novas), whom Ramón had mentored for all his seventeen years, could be a pain. When the boy was helping with typing Ramón’s manuscripts of poems for possible publication, Javi was reluctant to amend the punctuation of lines as Ramón wished them to be. The boy said, “It won’t matter. Hey, it’s O.K. as it is.” He had to be brow-beaten into changing the punctuation, even though Ramón proved the line needed correction. To get his manuscript print-perfect required careful action. For Ramon rules for punctuation helped his words make better sense. It was a tough sell to persuade his loving nephew to make a minute’s revision to poetic text that would represent for posterity his uncle’s artistry and philosophy. If one cannot get that compliance, what power and influence does one have to assert one’s being, one’s freedom to act? The nephew did eventually follow Ramón’s wish for the revision, and it was on a computer, mere seconds of activity for the boy’s agile fingers. In order to word-process for himself, Ramón would have had to punch keys with a stylus gripped in his mouth and on an adapted vertical keyboard—quite an ordeal for someone to set this up for him to accomplish. Scenes such as this encounter between mentor and pupil, uncle and nephew, helped to make this film a dramatic, cinematic success. For subtleties such as these, The Sea Inside qualifies as an artistic film of considerable value.

Artistic illusion is again employed through operatic singing, emotionally uplifting and moving. Ramón enjoyed classical music; it freed his mind to imagine untold flights of fancy. The scene that gives light to ecstatic fantasy of the virtual life of Ramón is a ghostly, out-of-body fenestration, followed by graceful, weightless swooping flight over valleys and hills to the sea where he romantically embraces Julia wandering on the strand. How magnificent this metamorphosis is! The joyous release is expressed suggestively by a beautifully sung aria, “Nessun Dorma” (“Let no one sleep tonight”) from Puccini’s Turandot. The music swells with beauty and sadness as Ramón strains to further his dark dream of escape. Anyone who reads the plot of
Turandot will find many interesting connections. Prince Calàf of Tartary commits himself to die at sunrise if the Princess Turandot can discover his name and bring it to him. Alas, Puccini left the opera unfinished, ironically unable to resolve satisfactorily the plot and characters’ dilemma based on this death wish.

On the ideational level, “Sea Inside” works hard to convince the audience that Sampedro’s rebellion against the social mores is just and dignified. His argument for personal suicide rights is righteously contested from many plausible perspectives—by his family who care for him, by the quadriplegic priest who comes to visit him, and by the friends and acquaintances who admire him and want him as a living friend. Such films can go wrong to drown an audience in tearfulness; however, potential waves of romantic sentimentality are nicely moderated to keep most viewers imbrued with sadness and longing, yet respectfully observant. Sampedro himself is the hard-headed, cynical thinker who dampens the melodrama and soft sentimentality. He puts a stop to romantic love when his friends would wish him to see life’s purpose in being “loved” by so many people. The unwed young woman, Rosa, good mother to her two children, who is attracted to Ramón as a fan to her hero, has a romantic crush on him. She feels if he had a loving person like herself to be with, he would not want to die. Ramón has an easy time telling this simple woman to wake up and consider what she wants from this infatuation with him. Having seen this pathetic situation many times before, he is emotionally rough with Rosa. He needs an assistant, not an emotional, starry-eyed girlfriend. From frequent visits, Julia the attorney really comes to admire Ramón, as a poet, as a brave, rational philosopher of ethics, and as an attractive man, handsome still in face, and seductive in his kind manner of speech. Cigarettes are shared between them on his bedside. When Julia moves close in an amorous gesture to kiss Ramón, the man of purpose again realizes the futility of romantic infatuation that will carry them, at best, on a short wave of blissful hope. He tells her not to kiss him; she’s married; no reasonable life presents itself for them as lovers. Was it not youthful romantic posing that caused Ramón’s accident, when his good sense failed him, distracted by emotional, body consciousness? Ramón’s consciousness of self and his final purpose must remain on track. This hero has smelled the fragrance of life’s finitude and to die is his life’s affirmation as an act of freedom.

Neil Bergeson posed the question (on TFC website for The Sea Inside discussions) about Ramón’s manipulation of Rosa when the protagonist stated: “If you love me, you will do what I want and help me die.” This ploy is a bullying, fallacious proposal and doesn’t pass muster as an ethical imperative. Too often he had been visited by those who confessed their love to him, but he came to see that they actually wanted his love for their kindness and charity. Good-hearted but frustrated Ramona Maneiro, the real life Rosa, who helped Sampedro to drink the cyanide draught, stated, “I did it for love.” Love as manipulation is well known and Ramón was no purist of virtues.

Susan Gilmour in the King’s Books discussion commented that The Sea Inside was interesting for its study of the ways of loving. There is, no doubt, room to consider how different “loving” relationships were represented both towards Ramón and by him. The embittered older brother had sacrificed his seaman career to stay on the farm to help Ramón exist comfortably; his sister-in-law was his nurse, feeder, and constant comforter around the clock for 28 years; his nephew was a normal teenager, struggling to acquire his sense of self and learning much from his sometimes antagonistic uncle, whom he admired very much. Good humored give-and-take existed between the uncle and the boy. Nevertheless, Ramón’s wish to die was taken as ingratitude, a stabbing insult, by each of them. Their life’s purpose had been the love and care of mature, helpless Ramón Sampedro, and now he was saying their efforts and devotion weren’t enough to make him want to live.

In another illustration of denigration of the Sampedro family’s goodness, the Catholic priest who intervened in the Sampredo Case had wrongly assumed Ramón wanted to die because his family was unsupportive and not loving enough. The insult –and threat –he felt was that Ramón had the gall to deny belief even as he claimed black nothingness followed death. For the church’s survival, this idea cannot stand as influential dogma. Fear dictates that suicides reap a dreadful hell. For the priest, for the conventional, authorized mentality, Ramón’s mind was wandering in spiritual terra incognita and the keepers of the keys must battle the heretics, for the love of all mankind.

In the end, what’s love got to do with it? Probably everything. Ramón loved freedom and responsibility. He loved the freedom to act, i.e. the freedom to choose to act. When the Romantic protestor Patrick Henry demanded, “Give me Liberty or give me Death,” he was forwarding his idea of true being against the authorities and his commitment was one that included the reality of death—non-being. Self-affirmation includes self-negation and without Neitzsche’s “will to power,” i.e. the will to further one’s potentiality, whatever it may be, there will be no courage for more life. 11

To choose death is an action. Dying is an act. For one who is atheist, Sampedro’s choice had a sacrificial quality in it. His fortitude was not for extended living. His battle was fought for death, Shakespeare’s “consummation devoutly to be wished.” Ramón Sampedro was dead sure about one thing: he did not love life in his paralytic state. Thinking, writing, helping others, imagining purposes, dreaming dreams, meditating , as he lay, watching and waiting – they were not for him fruitful behaviors; he was not fully living through them.


1 Another use of charitable assisted suicide following traumatic paralysis occurs in Clint Eastwood’s Million Dollar Baby (Academy Award Winner, 1995). This is, however, a matter of final resolution of that film’s plot and not the major crux of the film.

2 The Myth of Sisyphus, and other Essays, translated by Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage Books, 1955), p. 3.

3 A DWD initiative, similar to that in practice since 1997 in Oregon, is presently being brought to voting potential in Washington State. See (Pro Initiative I-100). Argument against I-100 can be found at .

4 In research to satisfy my queries I have consulted the following works: Wylie Sypher, The Loss of Self in Modern Literature and Art (New York, Random House, 1964); Walter Kaufmann, Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre (New York: Meridian, 1960); Paul Tillich, The Courage to Be (New Haven, Conn.: Yale Press, 1969); Rollo May, Man’s Search for Himself (New York: New American Library, 1967); Rollo May,
The Discovery of Being: Writings in Existential Psychology (New York: W.W. Norton, 1983). Undoubtedly ideas and even key phrases have been used from these works, but mostly they are generally accepted terms that are exploited in my own contexts.

5 My Dinner with André, a Screenplay by Wallace Shawn and André Gregory (New York: Grove Press, c1981), p 104-105.

6 Various phrases from Ramón Sampedro’s Will, see

7 My Dinner with André, p 109.

8 Ramón Sampedro’s Will, last phrase of “Reason no. 1” for his action.

9 Le Scaphandre et le Papillon, tr. from the French by Jeremy Leggatt (New York: Knopf-Random House, 1997).

10 This poor choice of subjective camera angle was evident in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake, which we viewed some months ago. Nothing really required this unusual perspective; it was merely a gimmicky effect, experimenting with technology, which, when used overlong and inexpertly, becomes stiff and tedious and shows its failure to work. Chandler’s first-person narrator Philip Marlowe simply does not translate literally into film medium. At its best, most often it is used for special scenes: e.g. Dustin Hoffman’s sense of alienation, noisily breathing oxygen as he looked out from behind the foggy scuba mask in the pool scene in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1969). Other examples: in the head of the deaf Japanese girl of Babel (Paul Haggis, 2006), oblivious to the raucous techno music, moving through the gyrating dancers in the Tokyo nightclub scene; also recently, in the head of the deaf boy, H.W., looking out critically and soundlessly at his disgruntled father< Daniel Plainview, snarling his words askance of the boy in There Will Be Blood (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2007)

11 From Paul Tillich’s explanation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s “will to power,” in The Courage to Be, p 27-29.


8 thoughts on “Rebellion and Freedom from Living Hell

  1. Excellent critique; I felt like I had attended a college lecture on the subject -very informative and thought provoking! Agreed with most of it. I do think it was Patrick Henry who said, “Give me Liberty or give me death!” Later, ML

  2. Thanks, Mary, I think you’re right. I did have a few errors in my piece. Another was about Tom Jones, which was directed by Tony Richardson (1963) not by Richard Lester, the zany director of Beatles’ movies and other daft stuff. — David

  3. “I regret that I have but one life to give to my country.”
    Nathan Hale, age 21, before being hanged by the British for being an American spy; first recipient of the Congressional Medal of Honor; statue on campus of Yale University

    “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”
    Patrick Henry in a speech before the Virginia Assembly

    “He also serves who only stands and waits.”
    John Milton

    “’The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ is about the ambiguity and paradoxes of human existence, as each person teeters between lightness and weight, between dream and reality.”
    Enotes Study Guides


    My mind ruminated as I read David’s cogent critique. I thought that if I were subject to water boarding for a prolonged period, I would welcome death just as I might welcome death if I were a quadriplegic… I recognized that our bodies naturally wither. As we age we become less active. Although I am beloved, I have no burning desire to live to be 100. Perhaps, if I were a quadriplegic, I would have a shorter life span expectation… I acknowledged that members of the U.S. armed forces are as committed to this country as were Patrick Henry and Nathan Hale. (A similar observation can be made about astronauts.) They willingly would give their lives for their country. We respect and honor their service. Can we not also honor disabled people for what they have endured… And I realized that obesity and lack of exercise could result in Type 2 Diabetes. Yet diabetes is on the rise. People are unaware that it is not in their well being to become obese. Quadriplegics have a keener sense of their limitations.

    I enjoy using science to resolve life’s questions. I am a Darwinian. I believe in survival of the fittest. I have a strong survival instinct. I am in good health. I am well educated. I am not a drug addict. I don’t take unnecessary risks. I obey the law. And unlike Jean-Dominique Bauby, I don’t work overtime to leave a legacy that might inspire those for whom all hope seems drowned. I am not compulsive. I am content to stand and wait.

    My mother died of breast cancer after a final painful year of life. I felt very relieved, even happy, when I learned she had died, as I felt when I learned that Terry Schaivo had passed away.

    Films provoke; they inform; they lead to discussion. I will vote for the death with dignity referendum before the voters of Washington State this November. The movies discussed do not impel me to believe that there is good reason to resist legalizing euthanasia. There is no panacea for the unbearable lightness of life. What if the quadriplegics, in addition, had lost their cognitive ability? And what if their digestive system had later failed and they had to be fed intravenously? Finally, what if they developed incurable cancer? I can continue to stack on circumstances—water boarding to the contrary—that would make their lives unbearable. Enough is enough. Bad things happen to good people. With all the disappointments, hardships, tragedies that befall us, I remain committed to the proposition that “life is by invitation only”. Life is stochastic (i.e., dicey). Some are invited to live long lives while others are not.

    We live in a world that is restive. (Zimbabwe; Miramar, Iraq, Iran are examples.) We also live in a world that is technically incredible. (The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is now nearing completion; iPhones are now equipped with a GPS capability; medical breakthroughs amaze; the Internet provides extraordinary communication capabilities.) Can we live with such ambivalence? We are called upon to be long suffering. I believe we can live with diversity, and we can resolve global discord. We can succeed synergistically through teamwork, respect, sensitivity, deliberation, understanding, and perspicaciousness

  4. Dale, Quite a confession of personal beliefs and commitments. I hope you and Mary join us for our next film club meetings and showings.

    My thought and feeling about euthanasia is similar to yours. Whether quadriplegic, aging and ill, or sick of life, every situation is individual–what “quadriplegics” might do in despair is too much a generalization to hold water. “The quadriplegic” is also a generalization. Mostly my analysis and criticism was based on the three different cases in the films discussed.

    I can imagine in months and years to come, the many debilitated and rehabilitating vets returned from recent mid-East wars–and their families– will be expressing themselves about the qualities of life when one is physical and mentally restricted, separated from most normal freedoms and choices. The person who has been “thrown” into dire circumstances of paralysis does have to become more expert at being than doing. Perhaps we can learn much from those coping with quadiplegia about detachment and being human in extreme circumstances just as from the ascetic Buddhists or East Indian untouchables.

    Thank you for your cogent remarks. –David

  5. David,
    What a nice erudite commentary. I spent a couple (very enjoyable) hours sitting out on my deck in the warm summer sun, reading and thinking about what you had written. I especially liked the wide range of topics you integrated from the disparate realms of film and literary analysis, politics and social policy, philosophy of ideas and ethics, and existential philosophy and psychology. Great to see how film viewing, at its best, can stimulate deep thinking about a broad range of issues. Your commentary caused me to think, and also motivates me to want to go back and watch these films again, next time with a heightened awareness of several aspects that I missed on the first viewing.

  6. Ron,
    Thanks for your support of the socio-psychological and philosophical approach to commentating. It is always necessary to “study up” on deep subjects when they appear in film. As with Quills, in which I found much serious play and delight in focusing on the artistic virtues of the film rather than on the vicious, lubricious education the Marquis de Sade’s works propagated, it was this same approach of opening up new literary worlds for myself and getting a perspective that brought out some, hopefully notable, personal or social ideas. The idea of the essay is to test ideas, one’s own and others’.

    Film lovers in our club get together to discuss films through inquiry and exchanges of ideas. In doing so, many realize the various levels, layers, and perspectives that appeal or attract viewers to “see a film, differently.” Some of our Producers’ Committee choices are dazzling combinations of films, like Mongol, Priscilla, and (the Japanese) Shall We Dance? I could actually say they would be hard to compare and contrast with the same strong focus that the April films allowed. Even so, many subordinate details and aspects of production, without which the three “costume dramas” could not have been effective, are good topics to launch into comp/con essaying. I’m thinking particularly about costuming and masking, the film historians’ and designers’/artists’ spheres of expertise. I know very little about this background artistry of making a successful film. I’ll think it over a while, but I have to see the two modern-day films again, and have not yet seen Mongol for the first time. Years ago, I had to watch Kurosawa’s colorful, costumed epics a couple of times before I could figure out who was who and what was really going on. — David

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