DVD Review Of A Certain Kind Of Death

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 9/26/07


  Where would contemporary documentaries be without the Michael Moore style of self-promotional agitprop, or without PBS’s Burns Brothers’ solemnly historical talking heads and recitations form of docudrama? Well, back to straightforward journalistic techniques, of the sort employed in the outstanding 70 minute long 2003 documentary from directors Grover Babcock and Blue Hadaegh, A Certain Kind Of Death. And no, this is not the exploitative pseudo-documentary style that was pioneered in camp classics like Faces Of Death nor Mondo Cane. Instead, the directors hew to the early style of Errol Morris, albeit even more starkly. Their technique- of emotional distancing, by having employees of the Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office simply tell how they do their jobs when dealing with kinless decedents, rather than telling how they feel, gives the audience an unbiased ‘in’ to the rather rote way municipalities deal with the hundreds of annual unclaimed dead- what used to be referred to as ‘going to potter’s field.’

  The film follows the deaths of three single white middle-aged men in 2001. One is a 63 year old homosexual, Ronald Eugene Tanner, who seems to have died of complications from AIDS; another an obese drifter, Donald Wright, found in a motel, who either accidentally injured and killed himself, or was killed; and the third, Tommy Albertson, is a man who lived in a small roach-infested apartment and died on his bed. The inurement and occasional humor displayed by the people who clean up after the dead bodies, sift through their belongings, research their lives, and try to find next of kin, is to be expected in government work (as I was once a civil servant), where the roteness of civil servitude even less interesting than this often holds sway, but especially when one has to deal with about 2000 such cases a year. And when we see the bodies- naked, emotionless, with welts, bruises, or partly rotted and decomposed portions of their forms (these stiffs are called ‘decomps’ in the parlance), inurement seems a wholly reasonable approach one should take to such tasks, such as slinging the dead by their four limbs, like a shot deer (something I recall watching my own dead dad’s body enduring).

  The film follows the three or four month process the county has to go through. We see that the first man, Tanner, ends up having oddly prepared his own death in detail, as well as those of his dead (from AIDS) lover and mother. His lover he even buried in a plot he bought for himself. We find out of his older brother’s suicide nearly forty years earlier, and of his inheriting some money from a relative and business associate, and then watch as a county drayage crew wraps up and notes his belongings, which are then sold at a county auction, with the money used to defray county costs. The sight of the cleanliness of his apartment walls, where once hung his paintings is very moving, especially when the aging, likely from cigaret smoke, just beyond where the pictures hung is visible. It is a potent symbol of the dead man’s life. It, like the clean portions of the walls, is just an empty space, and soon the dirt of the rest of the wall (or society) will fill it in, as if it always never was anything else. There’s little wonder that the filmmakers chose to focus the bulk of the film on his death’s tale. He simply recorded far more of his existence as a budding actor, and far more of his plans or death. We get to know more of him, and even come to like him for the care he displayed toward others, as revealed by the legal ramifications of his actions and the letters of kindness he stored, when others reciprocated his good will.

  Wright and Albertson, by contrast, are much more enigmatic in their relatively ciphered deaths, and thus need the county strangers to decide their fates more, whereas Tanner’s preparations obviate others’ intercessions. Yet, oddly, the two enigmas have property that fetches more at auction than Tanner’s things do, even if Tanner had worth more money than they did. Both of those men, along with seven other unconnected corpses, end up cremated and ground into a powder. We learn that their remains are put into small metal boxes, and that after a few years, all the hundreds of such cases in a given year, end up having their ashes tossed into an open grave, marked only by their year of death. The film shows us where the L.A. dead from 1997 end up. The dust of the dead flutters by the employees in their face masks, and it’s odd to think of such men going home and showering the dead off of themselves, and having them circle and wash down a plughole.

  The utter lack of staginess and pretense makes this film invaluable, as both a research tool and a warning to those who have disconnected from life. The soundlessness as people do their jobs simply listing the contents of a life that is done is sad, yet not depressing. The only intervention of music in the film comes in a brief moment as an ice cream truck passes by during filming, and at the credit sequence that ends the film. Greensleeves is played, and its musical singularity only multiplies its emotional impact, especially since the film ends near Christmas, signifying it connects to the Resurrection of Christ sung of in the Greensleeves inspired song What Child Is This?

  One of the workers states that, to them, death is merely the loss of control over what to do with one’s existence, and this is amply shown. Yet, we also see one deputy refuse to leave a message about a decedent on a possible next of kin’s telephone, claiming that especially on holidays that’s not the sort of message folk want to hear, and wonder at how he came to such a job. Then, at the Wright scene of death, a female investigator marvels at the death scene: ‘Have you seen bridging like this before? It’s beautiful. Textbook blunt-force trauma.’ Then, later getting a cell phone call, she snaps into jollity, and says, ‘Hi, oh, I’m just wrapping up a body, what are you doing?’ in a tone so at odds with the graveness most would feel at that moment that it moves beyond disgust or anger, and straight into humor. You just have to giggle at the moment. That a single work of art can detail such divergent moments in human nature is proof of this film’s worth.
  Yet, A Certain Kind Of Death’s value and filmic greatness comes also from restraint- in not going on too long, in not manipulating reality nor the viewer’s emotions, and by letting images sink in. Often something interesting or shocking is followed by a several second long ‘black screen.’ For all the countless deaths shown on film in the century plus the medium has existed, none have ever been this realistic, for these deaths are real. Real people die, and are forgotten. The end. Or not, due to this film.

  In the special features for the DVD the directors have a written Q&A feature where they explain that they filmed many deaths, but many had relatives claim them, and others- such as a female death, merely recapitulated what the three dead men’s tales told. They also detail some other aspects of interest. A making of featurette or a directors’ interview option would have been a nice bonus, though. The DVD, by Wellspring, shows the film in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio. Other special features are some deleted scenes which, while interesting, are rather dry, and some theatrical trailers for other Wellspring features.

  This film is an invaluable document of not only a certain time in American history, but these certain people’s lives and deaths, as well as those of the county workers who bandy about terms like dispo, decomp, drayage, and harvesting. That it also comments mightily on the living- such as the fact that all the most menial tasks of destroying and burying remains falls to black and Latino workers, makes this film even more valuable. It’s no wonder this film won a Special Jury Prize at the 2003 Sundance Film Festival. It is gritty yet poetic, and reinforced by its blackout moments, it forces cogitation upon the viewer, then, upon resumption, shuttles them along. The irony implicit in the film is that the very thing that made these three dead men perfect subjects for the film- their utter disconnect from the rest of humanity, and the genericness of their lives and deaths, is the very thing that assures that they will always be known, at least by documentary film buffs. That this says more of the living than the dead is precisely why A Certain Kind Of Death, with its Joe Friday ‘Just the facts!’ approach is a great documentary, and should be viewed and appreciated for many years to come.


[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on The Moderate Voice website.]


Return to Bylines

Bookmark and Share