The Importance of Great Art

Though it ended production in 2005, it was only recently that I watched the entire HBO series Six Feet Under (Thank You, Romeo Public Library).

I first watched the final episode about three days ago. I have watched the final ten minutes of the final episode probably another ten times since then. Consequently, the beautiful song “Breathe Me” plays in my head 24×7. I am drawn to that final sequence for two reasons: considering my own life and mortality and, as an aspiring screen writer/director, this sequence has some symbolism (at least *I* think it’s symbolism) that is pure genius. Let’s take the last item first.
The final sequence begins with the Claire, the talented but often confused youngest of the Fisher family heading off to New York. Barely a couple of years out of high-school, she is looking for her first job in the world of photography and hoping to make it in the art world. Claire is the central character of the entire sequence. Actress Lauren Ambrose’s acting in this scene is gut wrenching as we feel her pain at leaving home.
As she pulls her car out of the driveway, leaving the Fisher and Sons Funeral Home in the distance, we, along with Claire are moving on and leaving the past behind. The point is underscored again when while still only a block or two away from home, she glances at the car’s side-view mirror only to see the image of her dead brother Nate, jogging behind her. Nate’s image slips away as the car continues on.
What follows is a montage of the years that follow in the Fisher extended family. We see the family grow, then grow old and then die, one by one. But Alan Ball keeps bringing us back to Claire, who by now is out of L.A. and heading into the desert.
It is here that I really love what writer/director Alan Ball does. Claire’s car is filmed from a helicopter (aerial shots) and we also see the desert countryside from inside the view of the car, with Claire’s eyes visible in the rearview mirror. Whenever we see the car from the external point of view, the film runs at normal speed, looking…well.. normal. Whenever we see the desert from inside the car (Claire’s point-of-view) the film is sped up so the car appears to be traveling unnaturally fast. The switching of the film-speed, juxtaposed to the steady pace of the music which ties both views together really emphasizes the quicker pace of the internal view. Of course, all the while, we are cutting back and forth to the montage of the deaths of each of the Fishers. In my mind, this is symbolic for how fast our lives go by.. how quickly time seems to pass. Because this sequence is SO well done, it gives me a small sense of satisfaction that I have one recommendation for Alan Ball on something I would have done just a little differently. When we see Claire’s point-of-view from inside the car, I kept focusing on her eyes to see if the entire film-speed was increased or only the outside image. And… it was not really noticeable one way or the other. I could see Claire’s eyes move about, but it was not definitive one way or the other if they were sped up as well. And of course, that is my suggestion. I would have done something more noticeable, like see Claire lift a bottled water and take a drink from it, and then perhaps glance out the window, turning her head at regular speed. I would have done something to make the action inside the car definitely noticeable as being run at regular speed and the landscape passing by at quick speed. This would have really driven home the point that while the moments of our life always seem to pass at normal speed, the collection of them , the totality of them, the landscape of our life seem to pass so quickly.
And like all good film or TV, it leaves an impact on us as we consider our own ever-slipping-away lives. Are we living them as fully, as happily, as lovingly as we can? The montage of deaths, one after another, not only mark the passing of characters we have grown to love, but drums into our head that our own death is coming. And while day by day, it may be a long way off, through the windshield of our life, it is coming faster than we want to consider.
And yet.. the last death we see is Claire’s. She’s 102 years old (it’s 2085, after all). She appears to have had a very successful life as an artist. She’s at home and there’s an attendant reading a book in a chair next to her bed. The camera pulls in very tight on the veiled eyes of this incredibly old looking woman. As the screen goes white in the classic Six Feet Under announcement of death “Claire Simone Fisher 1983-2085”, the next shot is an equally tight close up of young Claire, back on the road driving her car. Everything about this shot of Claire, the youth, the freshness, the utter innocence of an earnest young adult heading out into the world and all that lay ahead for her reminds us that “yes! life is going by too fast, damn it! But you’re here, now, you’re alive!!!… LIVE while you can, live before it’s too late.” The last scene of the series is Claire’s car driving into the distance, lost in the vastness of the desert landscape. The empty desert landscape might be seen as “a clean slate” for Claire and for us.
I am certainly not an artist, but I can appreciate art, especially film and (good) television. My own test for greatness in film/television is that days later I still find myself in a melancholy, introspective mood. Six Feet Under passes with flying colors. If Alan Ball’s work can make me, and others, consider their own lives and change them to live more life in the years we have remaining, then I would say that is meaningful and important work.
And I haven’t even discussed Alan Ball’s “American Beauty” yet. Let’s just say.. “same effect”.