#10 Top Grief on Film: Six Feet Under

Last but by no means least on my top ten “Grief on Film”:

10) Six Feet Under

Even though this multi-award-winning drama about the Fishers, a Los Angeles family of funeral directors, was a television show and not a film, for me, it was, and remains, the most accurate, authentic, multifaceted and complete portrayal of grief ever filmed, particularly effective in its portrayal of death as part of life. Created by Alan Ball, who wrote American Beauty, Six Feet Under ran for five seasons, from 2001 to 2005, and can still sometimes be seen on HBO on demand, or rented. It’s well worth it. On one level, Six Feet Under is a family drama that deals intelligently with such issues as relationships, sex, religion, infidelity, sibling rivalry, and mental illness, but its brilliance stems from quite another level, namely its bold and daring focus on death and grief and its willingness to employ an inventive array of fictional techniques to illuminate the subject. Psychologically sophisticated, often surreal, with a strong measure of irony and dark humor, Six Feet Under regularly brings the world of the living in contact with the dead in ways that show how people actually deal with loss, as the dead taunt and/or comfort, explain and/or question, frighten and/or anger, and illustrates its complex, authentic characters’ interior monologues and psychological issues by exposing them as external dialogues. This technique has enormous emotional, philosophical, and metaphorical payoffs; I employed a similar approach with the ghost in my 2000 novel, Saving Elijah, which was inspired by my own experience of losing my son. Each Six Feet Under episode begins with a death –anything from a heart attack, to SIDS, to old age, to murder, to a pool accident—and that death sets the tone for the drama to come as each of the characters live and reflect on their own lives with the introductory death and preparations for the funeral service as a backdrop. Six Feet Under stars Peter Krause as Nate, the older prodigal son who returns after his father’s death to reluctantly become a partner in the family funeral business; Michael Hall as the gay, younger son David; Lauren Ambrose as the artist rebel daughter Claire; Frances Conroy as bewildered, stymied matriarch Ruth; and Richard Jenkins as Nathanial, the patriarch killed in the first episode who regularly returns as a ghost. Smaller but no less powerful roles are played by Mathew St. Patrick as David’s boyfriend Keith; Lilly Taylor as Nate’s first wife; the wonderful Rachel Griffiths as Nate’s second wife, Brenda Chenowith; Jeremy Sisto as Brenda’s bipolar brother, and many others. The last episode in which each character ultimately embraces life and finally death left me (and every Six Feet Under fan I’ve ever met) deeply moved and weeping. So many scenes remain with me, but I have to say that the entire show is worth watching just so one can feel the full measure of the last amazing sequence as daughter Claire rides away from Los Angeles to meet her life and her fate, and each character in turn does the same. The ending is the perfect coda to all that came before it. True genius.

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