Videos of the Dead
copyright Richard Schwartz, 1993

Bob has spent most of his life in Los Angeles, but moved away, in 1993, to take a better job in Phoenix. That was fifteen years ago. He is back in town for a funeral.

The moving panorama of street signs and store fronts fails to make an impression on him as he drives to the cemetery through his old neighborhood. Not much has changed in fifteen years, and things look the same as they do in Phoenix.

Many people attend the funeral, but few show interest. Men and women glance at their watches and children hunch over hand held video games, concealing them from parents who couldn't care one way or the other. Disorganized chatter permeates the back of the funeral hall. A few people are completely turned around in their seats, talking to friends sitting behind them. Bob talks to the woman sitting next to him. He tells her that he is an old friend of Steve, son of the deceased Agnes.

Steve is surrounded by relatives at the funeral. A tall man in his early sixties, Steve looks like an athlete who has let himself go, a baseball player in an off season. He would be handsome-his hair is silver and his skin is youthful and tan-but his natural good looks labor to make their impression under thirty pounds of excess weight. His blue eyes are lively, but they sparkle out from a slack and inexpressive face, and struggle to animate him.

Having returned from the funeral, the two old friends-Bob and Steve- stand on Steve's doorstep and shake hands. They slap each other on the back. They laugh a bit, momentarily grow serious and offer regrets, then laugh again. They enter the house together and drift off into the living room to join the company.

Twenty people sit on a semicircular couch which extends from one end of the dimly lit room to the other. Slim metallic appendages fold down from the wall, high behind the couch. They bring plates of hors d'oeuvres into the laps of the silent and reclining guests. The guests periodically move their hands from the plates to their mouths. A huge video screen fills the wall opposite the couch, and holds the attention of everyone in the room. Bob and Steve take two places on the couch, several yards apart. They settle down to watch a compilation of home videos featuring the deceased and her family, the showing of which has become a tradition in America. It is a modern wake.

The vignette currently showing dates from Agnes' youth. The picture flickers unnaturally and the sound is muddled. Sunlight floods in from the screen. A panting dog drops a ball at the feet of a young and beautiful Agnes, who stands barefoot in the grass. Agnes laughs and throws the ball skyward. The dog runs and leaps. Legs three or four feet off the ground, hair streaming in the wind, teeth and eyes flashing, he snaps the ball out of the air. He falls to the ground, the ball in his mouth. The dog circles back to a delighted Agnes.

Next we see white sailboats draw gentle curves on the broad surface of a lake. Trees rustle in the background as Agnes and her young family sail. Her husband Harold (also deceased) presses his leg against the side of the boat and clasps a rope, the end of which coils tightly around his forearm. He is tan and muscular and taut. Agnes leans back at the other end of the boat, reading. She looks up at the camera, squints into the sun and smiles. Her youngest two children, one of whom is Steve, hang their arms over the side of the boat, their fingers tracing wavelike patterns in the dark water.

We see a lake at night. It is probably the same lake, but the film is from a later period; the picture is sharper and the sound is cleaner. Lights from a lakeside hotel reflect in the black water which extends to the horizon. The camera pans across a moonlit and deserted beach until it reaches Agnes. She stands in the sand. She is still beautiful, but the frown on her face distorts her features somewhat. Harold says ``Smile for the camera, honey.'' She says ``Oh, Harold, put that thing away, you're spoiling it.

Silverware and porcelain plates surround a wine bottle placed at the center of a small table. The table has been set up in a hotel room. Agnes, not quite young, sits at the table, talking with another couple. The children in the room lie pell mell on a king sized bed, watching a television movie. The raucous interaction of children and television overwhelms the after-dinner conversation. The conversation is eventually abandoned, and the diners swing their chairs around to watch the movie with the children...

Bob misses the continuation of the hotel room scene, because he has nodded off to sleep.

Bob wakes to the sound of scattered conversation. The living room is brighter now and the guests are more animated. Someone elbows him in the side and says, ``Hey, Bob, there you are, old buddy.'' Bob laughs in recognition as he sees a younger version of himself fill the giant screen. This younger version of himself sports dark sunglasses and a V-necked tennis shirt, reclines in a lawn chair, and holds a can of soda in his hand. He sips from the can as he listens to the ball game playing on a small radio by his side. A young voice yells, ``Smile for the camera, Bob,'' and Bob smiles for the camera.

The camera turns and pans, revealing a lazy sunday afternoon barbeque. Steve stands at the grill, cooking a round of burgers. A cluster of children watch him in fascination. Friends and family lounge in lawn chairs which circumscribe the grill. A dog languishes by the fence, chewing on a steak bone which has been tossed into its bowl.

Agnes sits with several other middle aged women at a card table set up on the patio. The women drink coffee from styrofoam cups, their eyes glued to a red plastic television set. Walking in her direction, the young cameraperson almost trips on the extension cord connecting the television set to the house. ``What'cha watching, Grandma?'' the young voice asks. ``It's one of those nature specials, sweetie, about the jungles of Africa,'' Agnes replies, ``they're talking about all the different kinds of-'' We miss the end of the sentence, the camera having spun around. Images come and go chaotically before the screen goes black, the result of the young cinematographer running with the camera.

Evening comes. Some of the guests have nodded off to sleep, and others look distractedly at their watches. Those still awake and concentrating watch a reunion from the turn of the century: The screen shows spectators lining the back wall of a living room, slightly younger versions of Bob and Steve among them. Agnes, now an old woman, is shown sitting in the corner of the room. At the center, Bob's son Dave and Steve's son Stuart are shown engaged in a kind of panel discussion. Dave asks Stuart, in a scholarly tone, ``What is your analysis, Stuart, of the dearth of adventure movies in Hollywood?'' Stuart replies, in the same tone, ``It seems to me, Roger, that people just can't connect with adventure movies anymore. Nobody ever goes on adventures...''

We watch the discussion on the screen-the young men deadpan and their audience, captured peripherally by the camera, laughing riotously. Finally, the camera widens its focus to reveal the entire living room, including a large television screen directly behind the two young men. We see the same panel discussion taking place, gesture for gesture, on this television screen. The two separate discussions take place simultaneously. We see that the small liberties Dave and Stuart have been taking in the imitation of the original panel discussion are the cause of their spectators' laughter.

``Jeez, those were the good old days,'' Steve chuckles. He takes a pretzel from the food plate in his lap. ``Wait'll you see this one. It's my Stuart's take on that old number of Michael McNeil's. You know, the one with the tuxedo.'' The guests murmur in recognition. McNeil is considered a genius, one of the first great filmmakers of the new century.

The lights in the living room slowly grow dim as organ music is piped in from an auxilliary sound system. The giant screen shows Agnes watching a movie on a large television set, which shows an old woman watching a movie on a small television set, which shows an old woman watching a movie on a tiny television set. As that third woman watches her movie, a spectral man in a black tuxedo materializes behind that tiniest television set. He touches it with a pale hand, and the tiny set shuts off. As soon as this happens, a spectral man in a black tuxedo materializes behind the small television set, touches it with a pale hand, and the small set shuts off. This is McNeil's take-watched by Agnes- but now there is more: Pale and spectral, tuxedo clad Stuart materializes behind the large television set. He repeats the gesture.

Steve presses the remote control and the scene cuts. ``See, what Stuart did was add one more layer to McNeil's idea,'' he explains to the guests.

Following this, the guests see, on that giant video screen, the installation in 2003 of the giant semicircular couch, and even the installation in 2005 of the screen itself. They see videos featuring Steve, friends, and family sitting on the giant couch watching television shows and movies, which are mainly about other people sitting on other couches, watching other television shows and movies. Sometimes Agnes is in the picture and sometimes she is not.

The finale arrives late in the evening, when people are bored and restless, their attention spans stretched unnaturally. The living room is dark and the screen is split in two. The left half of the screen shows Agnes' great-grandchildren holding a video camera peppered with buttons. Their voices high pitched and frenetic, the children exult in their solo encounter with the machine. They aim the camera at a housefly poised on the quartz doorknob, but miss slightly.

The right half of the screen shows a scratch in the quartz expand and resolve, as if under a microscope, until it looks like a canyon. Small fingers push buttons in rapid succession, and sinews of light leap from the camera, connecting housefly to lens. The faceted eye of the insect expands and resolves, overlaying the crystalline canyon. Moving colors bathe the magnified eye, delineating structure after structure.

``Enough dallying ,'' a voice admonishes them, ``we need to get a picture of great-grandma.'' The children reluctantly pull the camera away and push open the door. A final image of Agnes overlays the glimmering eye. Withered and skeletal, she sits on the couch and watches videos of her own life, her hand moving to and from the food plates balanced on the thin metallic appendages folding down from the wall.

The lights come on in the living room. The guests stretch as they get up from the couch.

Before leaving, people shake hands with each other on the doorstep. They laugh a bit, momentarily grow serious and offer regrets, then laugh again. Many slap each other on the back.

Walking away from the house, Bob looks as if he could be Steve's brother. A tall man, he looks like an athlete who has let himself go, a baseball player in an off season. His eyes are lively, but they sparkle out from a slack and inexpressive face.