Tuesday, May 05, 2015

The Films of 1980: Death Watch

An obscure science fiction film that was lost, and then found after a 2012 DVD re-release, Bertrand Tavernier’s Death Watch (1980) is a beautifully-made, thoughtful motion picture about a (future?) age in which everyone gets fifteen minutes of fame…whether they want it or not.

Shot in and around Glasgow, Death Watch is based on the 1973 novel The Unsleeping Eye (or The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe) by David Compton. The premise involves a near-future world in which new surgical techniques make it unlikely that anyone will die of disease or illness. 

Because of this fact, the public has largely become “distanced” from death and mortality. 

Accordingly, NTV network Vincent Ferrihan launches a reality TV series called “Death Watch” wherein people can tune in to see a real person succumb to illness and death over weeks, if necessary. 

Vincent views the program as a kind of public service to keep people anchored to the concept of death.

Others see the program as a moral obscenity, and an invasion of privacy.

As this premise clearly indicates, Death Watch concerns the boundary between private and public lives, and raises the possibility that TV is a kind of bread-and-circus distraction from other, more important issues.  

Although the movie doesn’t delve deeply into the future society’s underpinnings, it seems a remarkably unhappy place, especially since death is all-but conquered.  

What, then, accounts for the desire to invade the privacy of another?  The movie doesn't provide many specific answers, except perhaps, those to be found in the vicissitudes of human nature.  In the end, we may simply all be....voyeurs.

As you can guess, Death Watch's theme is not irrelevant in today's world of CCTV, and the so-called "surveillance state."  

Elegiac and intimate, Death Watch plays out in restrained, human fashion, eschewing special effects and even caustic satire to dramatize its emotionally affecting tale of two characters who come to know each other under a difficult, even impossible situation.

“This lady won’t die easily for us, Vince.”

Death Watch focuses on one woman -- the lively and passionate Katherine Mortenhoe (Romy Schneider) -- who is informed by her doctor that she is dying, and then, under pressure from the press and paparazzi, is basically forced to participate in a reality-TV show about the situation.

Katherine refuses to play along (even after signing a contract) and flees the city, but Death Watch's producer, Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton), has one final trick up his sleeve.

He has surgically-implanted highly-advanced cameras inside the eyes of an experienced camera-man, Roddy (Harvey Keitel), and, then secretly arranged for him to accompany Katherine on a journey to visit her ex-husband (Max Von Sydow). 

Katherine is unaware that that her new “friend” is filming her every moment, her every reaction.  As she weakens, she comes to cherish Roddy's fellowship, never suspecting his terrible betrayal. However, Roddy finds it more and more difficult to continue, and to live with what he is doing.

Meanwhile, the nation watches the reality-show in avid interest, hanging on every moment of Katherine's decline.

“Not everything has to mean something.”

First and foremost, Death Watch concerns the dangers of technology. If people can have cameras implanted in their eyes -- without your knowledge -- how can you ever know that they are who they say they are? Or that they are in your life for the reasons they claim?  

What if they are just recording a reality show, taking your most secret and treasured moments away with them?

Katherine is betrayed in the film by society and by Vincent too, but most importantly by Roddy. He pretends to be her friend, and yet exploits her terribly. He transmits her every move and every thought back to NTV for editing, without her permission, without her knowledge of his actions.  

Creepily, Roddy is betrayed by the same forces as well.  

At one point in the film he visits his ex-wife, and attempts to have sex with her. Back at the TV studio, Vince doesn’t turn off the feed, however, noting that he wants to wait and see what happens.  

Roddy and his wife end up not sleeping together, but that’s not the point.  The camera is always on -- the feed is always live -- and nobody is going to turn down the experience to vicariously experience someone else’s life…or death.

We are all voyeurs, the film tells us.  And worse, many of us even feel that we have been given permission -- by network programming, YouTube, or other visual presentations -- to be voyeurs.

Without being obvious or sensational, Death Watch also reveals how reality TV can obsess and consume a culture. Bill-boards for the fictional reality show are plastered everywhere, even on city buses, in the film. And before Katherine has even signed the papers to appear on the series, she is confronted with her face on an advertisement.  

Basically, at the most private time of her life -- having just learned of a terminal illness -- Katherine is used without permission to sell a product.

The press soon gathers at her house, and chases after Katherine as if she were Hillary Clinton visiting Chipotle. 

The one thing Katherine desires -- time to think, process, and be alone -- she is explicitly denied. 

But as bad as the press is, we have come to expect its vulture-like behavior. 

By contrast, Roddy’s behavior is a whole dimension worse.  Katherine lets down her guard for him, and he exploits her, over and over, minute-by-minute, day-by-day.  At one point in the film he suffers an extreme punishment for his behavior, and yet we still feel sorry for him. Although he keeps filming, he clearly also grapples with what he is doing.

Indeed, Death Watch is even-handed in approach because it doesn’t make anyone (save for Vince) into a real villain. At one point, Katherine asks the question of Roddy: “which is worse, being disappointed by somebody, or disappointing somebody else?”  

The film’s answer, as is clear from Roddy’s journey, is disappointing someone else. 

In time, Katherine seems to forgive Roddy, but he has a harder time forgiving himself.  He used Katherine, and he was used himself. The worst thing Katherine did was trust another human being.  She has nothing to feel regret over, except the loss of her privacy. Roddy, by comparsion has stolen something that he can never give back.  And the price is his ability to do what he loves, to be a camera-man.

Death Watch has a final surprise in its third act regarding NTV and Katherine’s illness, and it is the thing that exposes, finally, how reality-TV programming plays with people’s lives for no other reason than to entertain viewers.  It’s the final insult to Katherine's journey, and it destroys more than one life.  

The point is that in this future world where death no longer matters, the sanctity of life no longer really matters, either.  A person’s privacy is just a thing that can be manipulated and toyed with.

Although prophetic, Death Watch is not nearly caustic enough in its depiction of reality-TV as we know it in the 21st century. Today, I suggest it would be very difficult to find someone like Katherine, someone who turns down a chance of fame, even if it coincides with her own death.  

We have seen from more than a decade of the form -- and examples like Temptation Island, Joe Millionaire, and Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo -- that there is always someone willing to go on camera and look a fool, a narcissist, or a monster.  The fame is apparently worth it, though in Death Watch, Katherine feels quite the opposite. She wants to provide for her second husband, have a chance to say goodbye to her first husband, and die in peace.

How can society deny her that?  

Well, if society can keep people alive through technology, perhaps it believes it has a right to watch people die through technology as well.  One hand giveth; the other taketh away. 

This conceit certainly makes for an interesting side-by-side comparison. Katherine believes she is living the last, precious days of her life.  Roddy thinks, at the same time, that he is crafting great television. He telephones Vincent at one point and tells him how long to hold one shot, and when and where to cut another.  

For him -- at least at first -- it’s all a job. Only later, upon spending time with Katherine, does Roddy start to see that there is more than “entertainment” in her story.

Death Watch gets right the ubiquitous nature of TV advertisements and reality TV, and another early scene seems to forecast writing in the Internet Age. Katherine is a writer of “computer books.”  

This means that she talks to a computer on her TV (named Harriet) and provides a formula for a romance novels. Harriet determines where that formula would sell best (regionally-speaking), and then writes the book for her human masters.  But Harriet is just plugging in templates and formulas.  

If you look at some YA books (and the similarities, say, between the Roswell High books and the Twilight books), you start to understand, perhaps, how authors rely on book-buying data and stats to tell a story pre-sold to be a success. It's not about creativity. It's about shuffling and re-shuffling the same deck.

Although Death Watch is saddled with an abrupt and unsatisfying ending, the film remains a beautifully-shot effort.  As a healthy viewer, you may question Katherine’s final choice, but one must respect her rage-against-the-machine solution to her predicament.  

Her life -- and her death too -- is finally her own, and to the end, she is unwilling to let society take it.  

Rod’s journey is darker, because he has “disappointed” someone else, and he will likely spend the rest of his days trying to make sense of what he did, wh id it, and if he can ever make himself right, and whole again.

Science fiction film fans should go into a screening of Death Watch knowing exactly what to expect. This is a quiet, intimate film about morality in the age of technology. There are no special effects or action scenes to galvanize the attention, or to add pace. The trade-off, of course, is the introduction of a great, memorable character -- Katherine Mortenhoe -- and the director's meditation on the way society tries to package our most intimate moments for mass consumption.

The problem -- as Harriet the Computer might observe -- is that only 37% of the audience would find what happens to Katherine on Death Watch “obscene.”


  1. This is an interesting addition to the genre of relatively early (pre-1990) satires on the television industry. Many of these seem to focus on reality TV before reality TV became a dominant force, and this can be considered as prescient. Many of the reality TV satires further seem to focus on the prospect of actual deaths being televised for entertainment purposes; that possibility has seemed to be "just over the horizon" for quite a while.

    I have compiled a little list of pre-1990 satires on television AND of reality TV "anticipations" - there is considerable overlap between these. This is undoubtedly far from complete, but it is what I have got right now. A good subject for further research.

    "The Racer" (short story, Ib Melchior, 1952, basis of Bartel film below)
    "The Seventh Victim" (short story, Robert Sheckley, 1953, basis of Petri film below)
    Who He? (aka The Rat Race) (novel, Alfred Bester, 1953, with interesting similarities to Michael Tolkin's 1988 novel The Player and Robert Altman's 1992 film of it)
    "You're Another" (short story, Damon Knight, 1955)
    "The Prize of Peril" (short story, Robert Sheckley, 1958, basis of Toelle and Boisset films below)
    Golk (novel, Richard G. Stern, 1960)
    "It Could Be You" (short story, Frank Roberts, 1964)
    The 10th Victim (Elio Petri, 1965)
    "Survivor" (short story, Walter F. Moudy, 1965)
    The Year of the Sex Olympics (Michael Elliott and Nigel Kneale, 1968)
    "Bread and Circuses" (episode of Star Trek, 1968)
    Das Millionenspiel (Tom Toelle, 1970)
    The Unsleeping Eye (aka The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe) (novel, D.G. Compton, 1973, basis of Tavernier film below)
    Your Sparkle Cavalcade of Death (novel, Robert Shiarella, 1974)
    Network (Sidney Lumet and Paddy Chayefsky, 1975)
    Death Race 200 (Paul Bartel, 1975)
    "Ladies and Gentlemen, This is Your Crisis" (short story, Kate Wilhelm, 1976)
    Real Life (Albert Brooks, 1979)
    The Long Walk (novel, Stephen King, 1979)
    Death Watch (Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)
    The Running Man (novel, Stephen King, 1982, basis of Glaser film below)
    Le prix du danger (Yves Boisset, 1983)
    Videodrome (David Cronenberg, 1983)
    "Vengeance on Varos" (eight-episode arc of Dr. Who, 1985)
    Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future (Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, 1985)
    The Running Man (Paul Michael Glaser, 1987)
    Deathrow Gameshow (Mark Pirro, 1987)
    Max Headroom (TV series, 1987-1988)

  2. I already thought of another example that I forgot to include, and it's a REALLY good one:

    Daddy-O (TV pilot, Rod Amateau and Max Shulman, 1961)

    Maybe I'll work further on this topic at my new blog, Book 'em, Danno! (a successor to my old Patrick Murtha's Diary blog). I would also love to see more thoughts on it by JKM here!