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
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.
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
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
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,
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
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
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.
half of the screen shows a scratch in the quartz expand
and resolve, as if under a microscope, until it looks like
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.