There’s a meme going around this week, where users re-post and re-contextualize the “epic” sequence from the maligned 90s film Meet Joe Black, where Brad Pitt gets nailed by two cars within a second or two of each other, but not before staring at a woman from afar – over multiple times and multiple redos. It’s an insane scene to be sure, but somehow and for some reason I find myself thinking not just on its sudden popularity, but the intent behind making something so wild. Meet Joe Black involved the being known as Death (Brad Pitt) coming to Earth and discovering the sensations of love and life, or some such thing. Schmaltzy of course, but maybe profound in the premise. For us as humans to wrestle with such finality is one thing, but for the embodiment of the concept/reality itself to do so? It’s a bit comforting, actually.
I brought up the above as it kind of coincided with my viewing of Tomorrow Never Knows. Both films face down the inevitable end, but only one does so with sincerity and grace – I leave it you dear readers to determine which I mean – despite the almost insurmountable possibility of exploitation that is thankfully avoided. Everything about this documentation is mature, patient, respectful, and ever so moving. Director Adam Sekuler is named often by the participants but never seen, operating the camera with the eye of a loving observer but without the pretense or gimmick of being “invisible”. He’s there, he’s known, and he’s seeing everything. What he captures is stunning and revelatory in both composition and honesty. What he then chooses for us to see, in the non-linear fashion he constructs, moves along like immediate memories, one after another. It may be a quiet film, but the camera finds action in the tedium, in the waiting, in the anticipation.
Knows tells the end times for one Shar Jones who has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Not wanting to go through the suffering of losing one’s memory and awareness (and wanting to spare his wife of going through it with him), Shar chooses to prepare and move on with a “conscious death” plan. He will deny himself water and food, choosing to lose his life voluntarily and as naturally as possible, while doing so as peacefully as one can. As his body essentially eats itself down to nothing, his partner Cynthia shows absolute support for his choice – even as she wishes none of it were happening. It’s an uncomfortable watch in these moments, where hindsight, regret, fond reminiscing, painful remembering, and becoming lost in the music of a silent minute come about to the couple. We watch their eyes make sense of it all, we hear their voices weaken on occasion, and we see their bodies under the weight and gravity of the looming void to come.
Tomorrow Never Knows is at its finest in these scenes. When Shar gets a call from his brother-in-law, it’s heartbreaking to hear the tears on the other line that aren’t being shed but you know are being held back. When we see a closeup of Shar’s lips, barely singing along to a song as he sucks moisture from a napkin, fragility and even a bit of wonder come to mind. When Cynthia falls to the ground in a park, chuckling that it happened to her when she’s looking out for Shar, it’s tender and sweet. This is a movie about the living and for the living.
The way Sekuler observes and lays out this couple’s story is certainly done with care, but perhaps too much flare for something so sensitive. Perhaps too much daring. Not exploitative, but maybe overly cinematic? At Shar’s moment of last breath and death, we’re there. It’s important to see and feel such a thing, but it’s timed almost like filmmaking clockwork, edited so precisely that it comes off as more surgical than soulful. Still, it needed to be recorded. It needed to be seen. How else do we expect our demise if not in cinematic terms? It’s a confounding idea, one that I suspect I’ll be arguing with myself for some time.
And as of this writing, the Meet Joe Black meme continues. It kind of came out of nowhere, probably culled from a goofy person’s memory and uploaded for all to see through his or her mind. That’s Tomorrow Never Knows too, only it’s second-hand speculative memory. Without memory and consciousness, there’s just breathing. The deep breathing on the soundtrack will haunt and heal me for years, as I see friends and family slip from this coil to the next.
RATING: 4 / 5
Tomorrow Never Knows screens at Zeitgeist starting this weekend (April 12th)
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.