October 2, 2006

Cornell Cinema

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Cornell Cinema is running a short series of films this week revolving around the issue of imprisonment and all its attendant (in)justices. The Road to Guantanamo will be showing one final time on October 3rd. Heir to an Execution: A Granddaughter’s Story, about the Rosenberg executions, will be showing October 5th, with a discussion to follow, featuring various authors and professors. And finally, the subject of this week’s column, Last Supper, which takes a look at the historical practice of final meals before execution, will be showing October 4th.

Last Supper (2005)

Can you imagine what you would choose to eat hours before you die? Would it be your favorite meal? Something that you’ve never had before? Childhood memories? Would you even be able to eat? Would anything taste fresh or sweet and appetizing? Would you ask for a bottle of whiskey? Cigarettes? Nothing? Your death to come sooner?

These are some of the questions posed, not posed in Last Supper – a 2005 Swedish documentary by the very artistically-dubbed Bigert & Bergström. The film describes some of the tradition behind the last supper, tracing it back to ancient times. The custom has its roots in the idea that the soul needs to be prepared for the afterlife – so you stuff the body with milk and eggs and meat, which should get it through a few days.

However, this tradition is not exactly commensurate with the way the supper is administered nowadays. The documentary points out how this rather morbid fare (pardon the pun) is more of a gaudy presentation to society than an act of mercy for the individual. The last supper has become a surreptitiously cruel travesty of grace. Instead of providing relief to the victim, it often does the opposite, waging one final psychological assault.

So what, you might ask, does the film propose? Do away with the last supper? No, do away with the death penalty. For that is what the film boils down to – it takes just one ridiculous aspect of the death penalty as its bat and commences to beat the death penalty to death.

The documentary is grounded with the presence of Brian Price, a former prison convict who prepared the last meals for inmates on death row – over 200 meals in ten years. Price fried up chicken, salmon, onion rings, and hamburgers at the Texas State Penitentiary in Huntsville, Texas, which, I imagine, has one of the highest execution rates in the country, executing 40 prisoners in 2000. Price authored the book Meals to Die For, and in this documentary, he is very effective at casually imparting both the absurdity and the emotional weight of the last supper.

The documentary employs various media to convey its message: cartoons, quotes, interviews, slabs of meat falling in slow motion on a pristine white table – you know, the usual. Only a European could have made this film, what with its surrealist and transnational elements. The filmmakers zigzag from the United States, to South Africa, to the Philippines, to Japan, to Kenya and to Sweden, of course. They interview former death row inmates, judges, executioners, doctors, a Buddhist monk, and a German writer.

In short, while they spend a lot of time in the United States, they don’t treat the death penalty and last supper as an American phenomenon, but rather as a transhistorical, transnational human institution. For the film, discussing the issue of the last supper is to enter into a debate “about how human mercy and cruelty can share the same dinner table.” The film is most affecting when it emphasizes this savage, primordial link and makes you shake your head at the cruelty than can be Man.

Of course, from here the debate about capital punishment emerges, with some decrying its inhumanity and others espousing its justice. Whatever side of the issue you stand on, I think it can be agreed and should be affirmed that human life is sacred, and some of the aspects of modern, American capital punishment are wanton and in need of reform. Last Supper does not directly confront this issue, but the emotions it evokes ring far beyond their introductions and will make you think for a long time afterwards.