I am an arguer.
But with death, no arguments. As some bright bulb or drunken wretch said, death is undefeated and untied.
Ingmar Bergman implanted the imagery of playing a chess match with death in our cinema-mad heads in The Seventh Seal. In 2022, I guess that would be more like a lip sync battle with Jimmy Fallon as the arbiter of life and loss.
But it is, whatever you believe about the afterlife, an obvious lie.
Even A Christmas Carol takes place before Ebenezer Scrooge’s predicted death. He escapes only his broken shell on Christmas morning, not his immediate death.
Death is so incredibly universal, yet so breathtakingly subjective.
Ondi Timoner documented her father’s passing in a Sundance entry this year, Last Flight Home. It is, like most of her work and her name, singularly Ondi. But also, not. It is her family. The film and the experience is a coming together in a beautiful way to say goodbye to an elder. So many things in it are easily identifiable in all of our experiences. And as such, Ondi’s movie offers so many things to judge, to the positive or negative… which is really not the point. Even on offer, it is not ours to judge.
As the news of Ivan Reitman’s death spread last night, sometime during the Super Bowl, the response was striking. In all the best ways. In all the worst ways.
75 is too young. But what a remarkable life. He bridged a gap in his family’s history between literally enslaved and profoundly entitled. He was born out of a love that started in 1938 and was not consummated in marriage until the war’s end. The couple were survivors of Hitler’s effort to purge Jews from the face of the earth. Ivan Reitman was born in Czechoslovakia on October 27, 1946, exactly 1 year and 9 months after the liberation of Auschwitz, where his mother had been held, on January 27, 1945. His parents celebrated in just the right way. Life.
The Reitman family history in Canada was mistold to me over the years. They had no association with Reitman’s department stores, which were founded in Canada decades before the family arrived as refuges. Ivan was in his 20s when his parents bought a car wash on King & John in Toronto, having made enough to buy such a thing (in a then industrial neighborhood), but not enough to have others run in without hands-on engagement by the owner.
But that corner has even more history that connects to the Reitmans, even before they arrived. It had been the site of the first hospital in Toronto in 1812. In 1847, immigrants, which the Reitmans would be in 1951, were quarantined with Cholera on the hospital grounds that the Reitmans would eventually own.
Ivan Reitman’s parents worked that car wash into the mid-1980s. This is the blurry part of the family history, financially. Ivan was a producer of 1974’s The Magic Show, a big hit on Broadway for 4.5 years. It had started in Toronto, under a different name (Spellbound) with a book by David Cronenberg, who Reitman would do his first film producing gigs with in 1975 (Shivers) and 1977 (Rabid).
Reitman reached out to National Lampoon publisher Matty Simmons and suggested they work together. The first production was on stage… The Lampoon Show (video), which followed the more famous Lemmings show and starred Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, John Belushi, Harold Ramis and Brian Doyle Murray just before Saturday Night Live launched. (dismissive NYT review)
Reitman and Simmons would develop a movie, using the ripe pool of National Lampoon talent. They ended up producing Animal House (1978), which aside from being an generational cinema landmark, was a massive hit by the standards of the time, $142 million domestic. Ivan was already 42. He became the dominant comedy director/producer of the 1980s into the early 1990s. Presumably, that was when he became wealthy.
Reitman’s parents converted their car wash into a parking lot for a growing Toronto entertainment district in 1987. Reitman’s father, Leslie, would pass away in 1993, at the age of 78. His mother, Clara, would pass in 2003, at 80. Just a few years later, the land that was a hospital, then a car wash, then a parking lot would become the grounds of the Bell Lightbox and the massive luxury condo above it.
A family, now entitled, that earned every bit of it. That persevered. That thrived. That 40+ years after the explosive financial spark, Animal House, made it look so much easier than it was.
And surely, a family whose history, as hard fought as it was, will find some who feel it wasn’t hard enough to be celebrated in retrospect.
Death has been a part of my life since before I was born. My life has been defined by the children who died 10 months before I was born and the desperation to heal that unhealable wound.
I have realized, in the (hopefully ongoing) fullness of time, that even with a reasonably strong intellect, I have spent much of my life in reflection of what came before me, seeking unconsciously to recreate and conquer what is unconquerable.
Is this good or bad? Have I failed my purpose as a human? Or have I embraced, even unknowingly, the nature of my species?
There are so many choices about what matters to each of us during our lives. And every choice we make can be pulled apart. What seems dynamic and powerful can seem timid and weak in a different reflection. What seems petty can prove heroic. What is safe may kill us. What is dangerous may protect us.
This is the basic human condition. Just when we think we are out, it pulls us back in.
Now in my 50s, death has taken a step closer, to me and to those I love… and those I admire from afar. It’s every week now. It used to be a couple a quarter.
I find comfort, usually, in looking closer… reaching for the intimacy that we rarely have with others. With our families, we have little choice. But how well do we really know all but a handful of people? People who will die. People who will live beyond us.
I live now for my 12-year-old and for how my death might limit his journey. I wish him freedom. I wish not to be a burden to his heart. So he might do better.
That is my argument with death. Best I can do. Today.