This week’s question comes from commenter XIO666:
“Which pop culture do you want to be the last pop culture you consume before going to the great beyond? For me the answer is simple: The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons. It combines everything one needs to face death: the most poignant love story of all time, awesome science fiction, the mother of all plot twists that only gets better with age, and last but not least, the most profound meditation on why death, horrible as it may be, is ultimately deeply important and necessary. It is the one piece of pop culture that will encourage me to pass away with my heart filled with love and true gratitude for being given the chance to exist, even if for such a short time on the cosmic scale.”
As I lay on my deathbed, gray and respected, surrounded by my wife, my 13 children, and however many cats I will then be stewarding, I will look to the blue skies just outside my window, sense the specter of death approaching, beckon my most beloved child to my bedside, and whisper into their freckly, youthful ear, “Bring the motherfucking ruckus.” With my final breaths, plus a reserve of energy that nobody expected to come from a 98-year-old man, I will rap the entirety of the Wu-Tang Clan’s 1993 debut album to my assembled audience, including surprisingly faithful beatboxed interludes. We’ll grow wistful during “Can It Be All So Simple”; triumphant for “Method Man”; weirdly angry during “Tearz”; and following the GZA’s album-closing verse, we will listen to the RZA’s fuzzy bass line and neck-snapping drums ride out. I will then perform the album’s entire closing audio montage—a radio interview, some scratches, kung-fu samples, I’ll do it all—and then I will go to heaven, where I will finally hear Inspectah Deck’s lost solo debut, which definitely would’ve been a classic.
At such a point as my frail (maybe bullet-riddled?) body is about to give out on me, I want to be rolled into an otherwise empty IMAX theater cued up to play John Boorman’s 1981 glam rock Arthurian retelling, Excalibur. Specifically, the movie’s climactic ride through a blossoming cherry orchard set to Carmina Burana’s “O Fortuna.” It’s a beautiful scene showing Arthur reinvigorated by power of the holy grail going forth to do final battle against his enemies. And I guess if I’m trying to tie it into a larger sense of spirituality and mortality, it represents the rebirth and eternal life granted by all those who accept the blood of Christ. But I’m not a religious man. I am, though, a man who likes seeing people in really shiny armor wheeling through a storm of flower petals accompanied by super dramatic cantata. And if I happen to misjudge the exact moment of my demise and the intensity of the scene wears off after a few rewatches, go ahead and let the rest of the movie play. Watching Mordred and Arthur impale each other in battle will be a perfectly acceptable way to leave this world as well.
Before I shuffle off into the nothingness beyond death, I think I’d like to end things with a reviewing of Charlie Kaufman’s existential puzzle box Synecdoche, New York. I’ve only seen the film once, when I was 10 years dumber than I am today, but it still resonated with me with its stage-based view of the meaningful meaninglessness of our shared search for meaning. (Also, that sort of pretentiousness is certain to annoy me to some extent, and I really don’t want to die without one more good burst of righteous annoyance under my belt.) Even at 24, though, I remember sitting in awe of the movie’s final scene, in which Dianne Wiest, playing the director of the world-sized soundstage that Philip Seymour Hoffman has constructed for himself, whispers cues in his ear, directing his final moments and eventually giving him his final command: “Die.” There’s a comfort in the calm certainty of Wiest’s voice, in the knowledge that we all come to that same blank and empty place. Also, the film runs a solid 124 minutes, which seems like just the right amount of time for a proper deathbed experience (bathroom breaks excluded).
Despite an utter lack of religion, or even religious upbringing, I’d like to go out to Judee Sill’s “The Donor.” But it’s going to have to be edited slightly: I want the song to end about 30 seconds early, before the piano starts, when Sill brings the intense harmonizing to a finish. “Kyrie eleison” may mean something specifically Christian (“Lord, have mercy”), but it’s Greek and therefore easy enough to ignore the religious subtexts and get lost in the transcendental beauty of the phrase as Sill repeats it. Ideally I’d use a mild drug to put my mind in a heightened receptive state to a song such as “The Donor,” but even without those enhancers the overwhelming loveliness of Sill’s voice, thick with layers of harmony, is a good note to go out on.
While I inherently like the idea of something purely joyful and fun, such as watching an old Clayton yell, “Bring the motherfucking ruckus,” or glam rock King Arthur, I know myself too well, and I’m far too much of a sap to let anything as light-heartedly enjoyable as that be the swan song to my tenure on this mortal coil. So before I disappear from existence, I’d appreciate the chance to reflect back on my life to the strains of Philip Glass’ Solo Piano. I’ve written before about how this piece of music stopped me cold the first time I heard it, and with more than a decade of subsequent memories and encounters with it, my appreciation for the album has only deepened, combined with an increasing sentimentality based on its presence during meaningful moments of my life. All of which is to say, I don’t see myself going out with much dignity. I’ll probably be blubbering like it’s the end of a damn Pixar movie.
I don’t pretend to understand all of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but one thing I took away from those perplexing two and half hours of classical music, apparently significant upright rectangles, and steely voiced insurgent AI was the meaning it attributes to human life as an entity. Death, it claims, is not an end but part of an ongoing movement toward a greater human potential. It’s part of a sort of evolutionary flow, a transition into something better, even if that something is beyond our understanding. It implies that even if you, like the bone-clubbing pre-human hominids, are forgotten on Earth, or even if you find yourself lost in space, drifting alone through a cold and endless void, your death is important. I’m not sure I actually buy that, but it’s a remarkably positive, uplifting outlook on the significance of human life and death that would, I’m sure, be comforting to assume in my final moments.
This will probably be unpleasant for all involved, but I’d like to die laughing, carried to the grave by a custom-made compilation of favored comedy scenes, sketches, and routines. “He hates these cans” and “Steamed Hams,” drunken orders from Dr. Bob Hartley (“Durr Bob Hartley. Durr. D R period”) and Leslie Knope (“Go get me another snork juice”)—the works. See how long we can stretch it out: Why settle for Animal and Rita Moreno tussling over “Fever” when I can have Moreno’s entire Muppet Show? Or The Great Muppet Caper in its entirety? “Ever get the feeling you’re being cheated?” I ask the Grim Reaper after John Mulaney’s seventh “What’s New Pussycat?” Assuming my frail, failing ears can hear the riffs over the rapping of the Reaper’s bony fingers, we’ll get through every last Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in my personal collection (even the duplicates), and I’ll expire as tears stream down my face during the final chorus of “Clown In The Sky.” At that point, as stipulated in my will, everyone—including the dread specter of grief and lamentation—will stick around for a screening of “Chuckles Bites The Dust,” so all the mourners can laugh in the face of that scythe-carrying, shroud-wearing motherfucker.
If the last thing I hear is composed by Ennio Morricone, that would be wonderful. If it’s “L’Arena,” the stirring theme music Morricone composed for the 1968 Sergio Corbucci Western The Mercenary, that would be perfect. It’s not that I have any special affection for the film itself—although it does have a great duel scene, the origin of this particular piece of music—but there’s always been something about “L’Arena” that’s stirred my soul, from the lonesome whistling that opens the song to the martial heartbeat of the snare drum to the fullness of the orchestra mixed with the choir and poignant trumpet solo. (Aren’t angels supposed to play trumpets?) Anyway, I can think of no more appropriate soundtrack to which to go toward the light, heart swelling with emotion as Italian angels sing me my triumphant farewell.