Monday 4 June 2018
The concept of suicide has hit me hard in the last 24-hours because of watching Sunset Boulevard (1950), The Apartment (1960) and Shoah (1985). Each motivator is terribly awful and the situation of each person is vastly different.
The common motivator is not-wanting-to-be-alive-anymore. But the weight for the thinking, or of the reason, is surprisingly different. Surprisingly diverse.
With Sunset Boulevard (1950) and The Apartment (1960), suicide is trivialized by the reality of the reason for suicide by Jews in Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Although it might seem like the first two films have more commonality than the first and third, it’s not true, because suicidal thoughts can be harboured for a long time (Norma Desmond), or come out of an emotional response to something that is more immediate (the second).
In Sunset Boulevard, Max, the butler, tells Joe (William Holden) that Norma has moments of melancholy which have led her to make attempts on her own life. That’s why there are no locks on any doors. Her depression is deeply set and that is why the hope that the writer, a handsome man who can improve upon her screenplay, gives her something solid to cling to. When people commit suicide it is because they believe no one truly cares if they live or die, that they don’t matter anymore, or that they have no – conceivable – way out of their current situation. In between those extremes are so many shades of black and white that it makes each person’s reason uniquely their own. No one has ever lived another person’s life and no one knows what another person can bear. It’s always sad. Sometimes it is a desparate plea. Sometimes it is so wildly emotional that the desire obscures the ability to think clearly. Sometimes it is an ingrained belief about a person’s lack of value. Sometimes it is a reasonable decision given the circumstances which, although it can be understood, is not the right decision given the potential for their future to improve.
Yesterday, I saw Part 1 of a 4-part film, Shoah, which changed my mind about the last of those statements.
Suicide is an emotional reaction to events in most cases. Sometimes, however, it is a reasoned response to a situation from which it is impossible to see a hope of extrication. In most situations it is because a person has come to believe they are devalued, irredeemably, to a point from which there is no return. I’m guessing that it is almost always a mixture of those emotions, thoughts and beliefs. Sometimes it is just the second and third factor and I heard about it in Shoah, yesterday afternoon.
In Shoah, one person interviewed recalls, “There were Jewish women who slashed their daughters’ wrists at night, then cut their own. Others poisoned themselves. They heard the engine feeding the gas chamber.”
In Sunset Boulevard, Norma Desmond, was once a great star, with tens of thousands of fan mail each week. Twenty years later she hopes for a comback (a word she hates – she prefers ‘return’), enabled through a screenplay she is writing about Salome. Deep within her, she knows that she can never reclaim those golden years. Even after a successful visit to a set on the Paramount lot where Cecil B. DeMille is directing a movie, and she is recognised and given adulation, a brief period of self-belief gives way to the knowledge that she is fabulously wealthy and equally fabulously forgotten. Her butler, Max, tries to keep the illusion – that she is still loved by people who don’t know her, and never will – alive. Her episodes of melancholy make her a walking-suicide-waiting-to-happen.
In The Apartment, a lively, happy, one-of-a-kind, elevator operator, is more removed from thoughts of suicide than most people in the world. But, like, alcohlics and gamblers, dreamers who believe there is someone out there who will unconditionally love them and be faithful to them, are a lot closer to killing themselves than most people will ever realise.
It is such a disquieting subject that to even write about it in an article that hopes to be scholarly, rather than emotional, raises a subject that most people still think is better off left alone when there are Jews in Shoah, ten minutes away from being shot or gassed, or people who can’t accept their current situation and can’t find a realistic way to turn it around.