Thursday, 12 January 2012

Afterlife Proposal no. 3: The Word of God

Out of the tunnel and into the light, the soul of the departed floated down and came to rest.

He had died, he knew. A car had just pushed his ribs through his vital organs, his son left without a father; but it was OK, it was time, it felt right. His life was over, and this was what came after. All was brilliance, but it did not hurt to gaze upon it, for the body, and pain, were no more.

The light faded, and all was dark.

Finding himself sitting in what seemed curiously like a cramped and padded cinema seat, complete with armrests and drink-holder, the departed saw that an image was being projected in front of him. Of course, he’d heard about this. He must be about to be shown the story of his life, he thought, and on this be judged. Although not a follower of any organised religion, he nevertheless felt that he had led a good life, and was confident he would be able to argue his case, if needed.

The film of his life, however, did not begin as he had expected, with his birth. Instead, it began with a shot of him in a cinema, much like the one in which he now found himself, as a little boy with his mum and his dad and his older sister.

‘Age three,’ said a voiceover, booming from speakers on either side, as well as behind, above and below, ‘you are taken to see Dumbo. You do not look at the screen for much of the film.’

It was a deep voice, not unlike the type used to advertise forthcoming attractions in the action genre, he thought. Authoritative, as one would expect of the voice of what might be God, but also, seeming to possess a slight note of what could only be described as, well, petulance.

The scene changed. Now he could see himself sat at home in front of the telly, his parents behind him on the sofa along with various aunts and uncles. A few years older, he pushed a toy car backwards and forwards, making an appropriate brrm-brrm! noise.

‘Aged six, you are given the opportunity to watch The Wizard of Oz. You are not interested at all in the opening scenes in black and white, and only pay attention when the film switches to colour. The first appearance of the Wicked Witch of the West scares you however, and you refuse to watch the rest of the film, facing the other way with your hands over your eyes.’

These actions were depicted all too accurately on the screen. The departed felt a rush of emotion, reliving the terror that the Witch instilled all that time ago and had stayed with him, making a point of never watching the film again and instinctively protecting his own child from it. The scene changed yet again. He was back in the cinema, but this time his attention was rapt.

‘Aged eight, you see Return of the Jedi. You finally sit though an entire film from beginning to end. You do, however, have to make two trips to the toilet.’

The montage continued, as did the voice-over.

‘Aged ten, you watch The Muppet Movie and Jaws on television. Jaws scares you, yet you still watch it to the end. Well done. Aged twelve, you see Back to the Future at the cinema… Then aged fifteen, you take your first date to see Pretty Woman. You spend much of the film trying to look down her top and miss significant story developments… Aged seventeen, you watch Blade Runner, Brazil and The Terminator… While, aged eighteen, you come home from the pub and try to watch The Deer Hunter. You are so drunk, however, that you pass out after the first half an hour… Aged nineteen, you are offered the opportunity to watch The Tin Drum. You choose not to.’

On and on, it went, film after film. Films he had watched, films he tried to watch, and films he had declined to watch. It seemed to go on forever. He had no idea he had seen so many. As the retrospective of his viewing took him into his thirties and his decision to subscribe to a glossy movie magazine after purchasing a DVD player, the sheer number began to overwhelm him. It was as if his life consisted of nothing but films, watched back-to-back, with no intermission for real life to occur at all.

‘Aged thirty-two, you purchase Point Blank, M*A*S*H and Princess Mononoke on DVD. M*A*S*H will go unwatched during the three and a half weeks between purchase and death.’

The screen went blank. All was silent.

‘Quite frankly,’ said the voiceover finally, eerily disembodied from the film it had been narrating, ‘I’m not at all impressed.’

‘Oh, OK.’ said the departed. ‘Um, what did I do wrong?’

‘Wrong? Wrong?’ said the voice. ‘You have failed absolutely to follow that which has been laid down for your guidance in the book of the Lord.’

‘Really? Oh, right. I’m quite shocked that you would say that actually. I think I’ve lived a good life,’ said the departed. ‘I’ve tried to treat people decently, I’m a good dad, I think, and all right, I’ve never been a Christian or read the Bible properly but I’ve always thought there was something out there, some force or energy –’

‘That is not the book of which I speak!’

‘Ah. Well, I was never really encouraged to explore other religions so I haven’t looked at the Koran, I suppose I should have a little bit, but –’

‘That is also not the book of which I speak!’

The soul shrugged its ethereal shoulders, still squeezed up in the cinema seat.

‘I give up. What book is it? Some Hari Krishna thing? One of those Scientology memory tests, what?’

‘Do not mock the Word of the Lord!’ said the voice. ‘Behold!’

The departed found a book was mysteriously present in his hands. It was thick and heavy, although in paperback. Inexplicably, on the cover was a picture of Jack Nicholson in The Shining.

‘1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die?’ he said, reading the title of the coffee table book he now remembered flicking through on several occasions in WH Smiths. ‘This is it? A film guide? This is… the Word of God?’

‘Yes, of course it is,’ said the voice. ‘What else would it be?’

‘Um, OK…’

‘God made Man so that Man could make films, reflecting His glory through cinematic achievement. To experience great cinema is to be illuminated by His grace and majesty, His presence imbued within them. Some films are better than others, however, and some contain very little of His presence at all. By necessity, it had to be disseminated through many films, and no film contains more than a fraction of his brilliance, lest His awe-inspiring greatness drive the viewer mad. This book is indeed the Word of the Lord, although written by Man: specifically a team of film historians of both sexes, but all divinely inspired to deliver His message. It tells you precisely what films to watch, if one hopes to experience His divine presence in all its greatness. Through Him, and through cinema, will you receive the gift of Eternal Life.’

The departed threw the book aside.

‘You mean to say you only get into Heaven if you’ve watched all 1001 of these films before you die?’

‘Look,’ said the voice, ‘it’s no good making out like it’s some big surprise. It says very clearly in the title, 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. It is quite obviously a decree from God, and one that you have been highly negligent in observing. Of the 1001 films featured, you have seen a mere 198. Not only that, I see from the list that you have only ever seen one single silent film, Metropolis, and even that was not in the most complete version available. Also, the only two foreign language films you bothered to sit through were The Seven Samurai and Amelie. Why not give something like Mizoguchi’s Story of the Late Chrysanthemums a go? “A work of dazzling elegance and formal rigour and a powerful attack on the social structures that impose the roles of sacrificial victims upon women,” it says here. In fact, most of the films you have seen have been relatively recent and quite mainstream. We only let half of those in the book to give people a fighting chance. Quite frankly, I don’t think you were even trying.’

‘Well, no, obviously. So tell me, has anybody actually seen all 1001?’

The voice softened. ‘Sadly, no. Even the mortals who contributed to the volume have only seen, at most, three-quarters. It seems Man does not love God enough to follow his commands, even when the reward for doing so is Eternity.’

‘So Heaven is a place with no one in it.’

‘Not necessarily.’


‘You may still be granted entrance. If you were to stay here and watch the 803 films that you have failed to see, you would still stand a very reasonable chance. It would only take 1600 hours: about 66 days, if you go without a break, which you won’t need, now you have lost your physical form. ’

‘So I guess this would be, what do they call it, purgatory?’

‘I suppose you could think of it that way, although obviously that term fails to capture the sheer joy of cinema-going.’

‘And then I can enter Heaven?’

‘Well,’ said the voice, ‘not exactly.’

‘Not exactly?

‘It’s really just the first stage…’

Another book appeared before him, hovering on a pillar of fire.

He looked at the title. ‘Oh God, no…’

‘Yes, this one might take a little longer to negotiate.’

And with that, the second volume, 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, fell into the lap of the departed, its pages turning of their own accord and revealing a whole history of literature he had barely touched on during his life due to his preference for the moving image.

‘Yes,’ said the voice, ‘I’m afraid literature is very important to Him too.’

‘I have to read all these?’

‘Yes, and there are these as well of course…’

More books fell upon him with ever-greater force. 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die. 1001 Classical Recordings You Must Hear. 1001 Foods You Must Eat. 1001 Golf Holes You Must Play. 1001 Buildings You Must… And so it went on. Before long, he was surrounded by what seemed to be an infinity of books that the cinema correspondingly expanded to contain. 1001 Leaves You Must Press. 1001 Tables You Must Lie On. 1001 Mousetraps You Must Lick. 1001 Coffins You Must Smell. 1001… everything.

‘Hang on, this isn’t fair!’ he cried into the expanding vastness that was once the cinema. ‘You don’t really want anybody to get in, do you? This is just your way of keeping the place all to yourself!’

But there was no answer. Just more and more volumes, each making it’s own obscure series of demands upon him. He began to weep.

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