The Ethics of Death-Defying Media

by Thomas Britt

27 April 2015

Furious 7's path to the screen is emblematic of the ways in which film and other media defy (and define) death as images develop lives of their own.
 
cover art

Furious 7

Director: James Wan
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson

(Universal)
US theatrical: 3 Apr 2015
UK theatrical: 3 Apr 2015
2015

James Wan’s Furious 7 debuted at the North American box office on 3 April 2015 and has already become one of the ten highest grossing movies of all-time, bringing in more than $1.15 billion worldwide. The film opened to a domestic box office total of $147 million, becoming the ninth highest opening film of all time and breaking a number of other records at home and abroad. On 5 April, The Los Angeles Times’ Saba Hamedy observed that “the overall weekend box office will total roughly $218 million, beating the record of $177.6 million set on 2010’s Easter weekend.” Universal Pictures originally planned to release the film on 10 April but, according to The Hollywood Reporter, “decided that opening a week earlier allowed it to book more international playdates.”

That the film’s rollout coincided with the Easter holiday reinforced a theme that has surrounded it since star Paul Walker died in a car accident on 30 November 2013. The essence and religious significance of Easter is resurrection, that of “conquering the grave”. In the aftermath of Walker’s death, the film shut down and then resumed, a process that included rewrites, additional production, and digital effects intended to bring Walker’s character back to life on screen. Furious 7 is the seventh film in a series famous for spectacle, not philosophical inquiry. Yet its path to the screen is emblematic of the ways in which film and other media defy (and define) death as images develop lives of their own.

In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe wrote about the Daguerréotype, one of the earliest photographic processes, for Alexander’s Weekly Messenger. Comparing the new photographic instrument to traditional visual art, Poe concluded that daguerreotypy was “infinitely more accurate in its representation than any painting by human hands. If we examine a work of ordinary art, by means of a powerful microscope, all traces of resemblance to nature will disappear—but the closest scrutiny of the photogenic drawing discloses only a more absolute truth, a more perfect identity of aspect with the thing represented.” This was an eloquently stated, though not uncommon, response to early photography. Accuracy of the image was interpreted as exact representation, the closest possible analogue to the object or person itself.

Many decades since Poe’s commentary, numerous technological evolutions have brought image-capturing and -exhibiting processes to resolutions so high that they exceed the eye’s ability to perceive degrees of difference. And cameras are everywhere. To walk through a city is to assent to having one’s image captured over and over again. Satellites, drones, and other devices we choose to wield bring us ever closer to Virginia Postrel’s speculative column (published last year in USA Today): “We’ll choose an NSA life, on camera all the time” (4 September 2014). Although many contemporary celebrities contend with being under surveillance of paparazzi, the sudden death of actors problematizes the photography inherent to their careers. The question becomes, what to do with the representation, the embodiment, of an actor who no longer lives, except for on screen?

Hollywood’s ageism might be more freely discussed now than it was in a past era, but look at Sunset Boulevard (1950) and see Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson) watching herself in a 1929 reel from Queen Kelly (1929), mourning the passing of years. It’s evident that even classic films reflected the anxiety of a preserved youth. In Hollywood, it didn’t take long for the wonder of “perfect” representation to transform into an ambivalence about preservation. The individual captured image never ages, but the performer does.

The contrast between the preserved moments of the filmography and the mortality of the familiar face becomes starker as time has its way. High definition has exacerbated this problem for actors and makeup artists as they try to close the widening gap between old footage/young faces and new footage/old faces. At present, resurrection has become a legitimate option and legitimate concern for the represented selves preserved on screen. On Furious 7’s opening weekend, Animation Xpress summarized the efforts taken by WETA Digital and others to bring Walker back to life:

...the studio used four actors with similar height [and] body of Paul Walker for live-action sequences. Paul’s brothers Caleb and Cody Walker volunteered as stand-ins … Using the motion-capture technology their body-movements were used as a base layer and Paul Walker’s CG face was match-moved with proper lighting … For various live-action shooting plates, CG render passes … were used. Apart from this, the studio had to use extensive warps and effects to get the right depth and volume of his entire body.

.

The studio’s decision to move forward with the film after Walker’s death was, in one sense, a defiance of the finality of death. Walker’s life was over, but his work wasn’t finished. The option to write him out of the film entirely probably existed, though that would have likely involved more rewriting and additional production than keeping him in the story for “one last ride” (as the promotion of the film plainly states).

An additional layer of consideration comes from how closely the circumstances of his death corresponded to the content of the films. Walker was killed while riding in a friend’s speeding Porsche, which crashed and caught fire. The Fast and Furious series began as a showcase for thrilling street racing scenes. Though the plot has now moved well beyond street racing, the stunts have become more death-defying over time. In the most recent installments, cars are like projectiles, shooting from trains, planes, and buildings.

All of these conditions make it a gamble to bring the actor back to life. The narrative of the film could suffer from the dilemma of how to address the truth outside of the frame while still entertaining an audience escaping into the fiction. The action set pieces could seem inappropriate as they gleefully escalate in scale and danger, despite the fact that a moment of recklessness in real life, claimed the life of one of the figures on screen.

Remarkably, Wan and the rest of the Furious 7 team dodge all of these possible pitfalls. The action of the film is executed on a larger magnitude than ever before, though this time there’s a bit of additional attention paid to both fear (Roman doesn’t want to drop from a plane) and consequences (Hobbs is hospitalized for an injury, Han again meets his fate in Tokyo). And Walker’s “Brian” is in the middle of some of the most frenetic action, including a scene with an explosion and another in an out-of-control car with his friend at the wheel. For most of the film, Walker fulfills what viewers have come to expect from Brian from the first film onward. He holds his own in a cast of characters who have fewer hang-ups about life in the fast lane, or on the wrong side of the law.

While the technical magic involved in creating an accurate representation sounds extremely painstaking, its most obvious uses are secondary to what happens with the character within the narrative. There are moments that are clearly recycled from earlier films. Some entire scenes play without offering an unobscured view of Walker’s face. The visual compositing and dialogue are irregular in places. But none of these deficiencies detract from the story told and what that story adds up to.

In the end, Furious 7 impresses with good taste because the script (by Chris Morgan) manages to say a number of things about life and death without ever losing sight of the actor who played the character. Careful thought about Walker appears to precede the execution of action. A major character within the series does all but die and resurrect in what seems like the film’s emotional climax. But that character is not Brian, and had it been, there would have been an uneasy encroachment on Walker’s memory.

In a larger context, Brian’s arc was always one that positioned him to the group with deepening themes of identity, belongingness, and mutual responsibilities. Though the first couple of sequels didn’t do much to push those themes forward; installments five through seven have redefined the ensemble as a family. Morgan’s script brings that thread to a completely satisfying conclusion in the final minutes of the film. I won’t spoil it here, and words couldn’t do it justice anyway, but Devin Faraci of Badass Digest smartly summarizes the goodbye to Walker/Brian, noting the formal balancing act required of Wan, Morgan, and the actors: “Paul Walker’s finalé is handled with absolute perfection, and is done in a way that comes as close to breaking the fourth wall as possible while maintaining in-world consistency.” (3 April 2015)

Furious 7 works as well as it does because a great deal of thought went into how to let the character be the character and the man be the man, until that final grace note of coalescence. This action blockbuster sequel that could have gone wrong in so many ways proves to be a film of integrity. And that’s exactly what this new frontier of digital resurrection will require, according to Michelle Rodriguez, another longtime member of the Fast and Furious family.

Speaking with Variety ahead of the film’s opening, Rodriguez said, “It’s a game changer when people are capable of manipulating your face and body after you’re gone. You’re talking about a whole new conversation that needs to be had in Hollywood. A person’s brother, mother or sister is not going to have the same integrity or taste as you. There’s a serious conversation to be had with lawyers. Who is going to take your likeness when you’re gone?”

Furious 7 is an example of a film that encountered what seemed like an insurmountable tragedy during production but then rose to the occasion and succeeded critically, commercially, and ethically. Other recent posthumous releases, like Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb with Robin Williams, and A Most Wanted Man, God’s Pocket, and Mockingjay: Part One featuring Philip Seymour Hoffman, have also done no harm to their actors’ memories. None of these, however, required the sort of reconfiguration and reconstruction involved in completing Furious 7.

Yet 3D scanning of actors expands the uses and possible manipulations of actors’ likenesses, whether they’re dead or alive. It’s easy to imagine a near future in which the scanned and/or composited image is regarded as the only being that counts. Digital modifications could take care of the aging issue, as evidenced by Tron: Legacy’s creation of a younger Jeff Bridges. In this future, an actor could sell the rights to a digital likeness and then age comfortably (or live like the shut-ins of Surrogates). And when death comes, the choice to live on screen would be a commodified afterlife, subject to the tastes of the industry, audience, and likeness rights-holders.

That this possible future sounds cold and ominous suggests that the enduring power of the image should make image makers and consumers even more considerate of the fragile human, who remains the raw material. Images are becoming more death-defying, while death is a certainty for all of us who live. To better understand this power and its implications within media, it’s important to consider a final dimension of images, which is the potential to destroy.

On 7 April another entertainment news item joined coverage of Furious 7’s record-breaking opening weekend. In “‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt’ and the suicide of a celebrity dermatologist”, Michael E. Miller of The Washington Post reported on the suicide of Fredric Brandt, who “apparently recognized himself in Dr. Grant, a fictional character on the popular Netflix TV comedy show ‘Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.’” Noting that “the parody helped drive him to despair”, Miller’s article included a number of comments about Brandt’s depression and other factors that likely contributed to his suicide.

The fictional “Dr. Grant” is a character played by Martin Short, whose hair, makeup, and demeanor are certainly intended to mock Brandt. In the weeks before Brandt’s death, entertainment websites and other observers had pointed out the similarities, which were too close to be unintentional. For anyone aware of Brandt’s persona, Short’s character was a superficially identical reflection; one that had the power to humiliatingly redefine the man being reflected. It would be impetuous to claim that The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt killed Brandt. But it would be disingenuous to deny the devastating effects of seeing one’s persona and purpose in life turned into a joke for a global audience.

Unfriended, an excellent new horror film written by Nelson Greaves and directed by Leo Gabriadze, vividly conveys the ability of the image to defy death and grow in destructive force. The plot, viewed entirely from the perspective of a teen’s computer screen, involves a vengeful ghost punishing her friends for their participation in humiliating her with an online video. In this film, traditional “scares” are obligatory and secondary to the film’s greater fears. Greaves, Gabriadze, and the game cast enact multiple variations of the idea that images can be weapons. In Unfriended, pictures and videos are used to hurt, to shame, to lie, to create division, and to kill.

The destructive events surrounding The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and filling every frame of Unfriended join the positive example of Furious 7 to provoke a discussion about the ethics of preserving and representing people in visual media. These specific examples are different from one another in many ways. Furious 7 revives an actor who died during production. The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt represents a real person who killed himself after seeing the representation. The teens of Unfriended must be convicted of transgressions they don’t even fully understand, so pervasive and commonplace are the hateful acts of representation that killed their friend-turned-digital ghost.

I suggest these wide-ranging dilemmas of representation, preservation, resurrection, and destruction might be worked out by the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, who had much to say about the face and the ethical responsibilities it demands. In a dialogue with Richard Kearney, which was published in 1986, Levinas described his “analysis of the ‘face’” and its effect on the individual state of being:

The approach to the face is the most basic mode of responsibility. As such, the face of the other … spells a relation of rectitude. [T]he face is the other who asks me not to let him die alone, as if to do so were to become an accomplice in his death.

If everyone who used cameras to represent or preserve the world around them (in feature films, television shows, social media, or otherwise) approached the face of another as “the most basic mode of responsibility”, then the products would begin to reflect that sort of care. Levinas passed away in 1995, but if he were around to see Furious 7, he would see the ethical encounter he describes illustrated in the film’s final minutes.

Indeed, the conclusion of Furious 7 is an encounter that cares for Walker above and beyond the film’s need to be. His image has been carefully reconstructed for this purpose. The film frees him to drive into the distance and to fade from visibility, as the characters and audience are asked, finally, “to accept death as the impossibility of presence.”

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