Exquisite Corpse - Issue 4
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A Sense of Doom: The Sixth Sense and the Triumph of the Therapeutic
by D. Graham Burnett
"Remember your dead!"  An admonishment not soon forgotten, that. And the setting-sumptuous Pére Lachaise cemetery in its crepuscular grandeur-made the sepulchral voice still more sonorous and prophetic. We had deserved it, two friends and I, this dressing-down delivered by a shade of a man seated respectfully before some umbrageous mausoleum. We had settled on a graveyard as a fetching place for an evening stroll, and a heated conversation. Hearing our too-casual exchange, this Pluto had called up long-disused English to scold us.
     The film now topping the punters picks for an Academy Award, last summer's blockbuster, The Sixth Sense, was a film about remembering your dead, and its take-home message (sopped to the milquetoast of a careful PG-13 rating) was this:  remembering your dead can be a little unnerving at first, but it all works out in the end. Despite a certain amount of smarm and hokum, despite the mugging of its palpably ungracious star (Bruce Willis), and despite the distinctly focus-grouped emotional registers it often haunts, The Sixth Sense can be read as a nearly epochal allegory of late twentieth century American culture. If it were a French film, with noir sensibilities black-lit with self-consciousness, we would have to call it genius; veiled by a scrim of Hollywood screed, its profundity goes incognito.
     Full disclosure is in order:  I went to (oppressive, Catholic) grammar school and (preppy, Anglican) high school with the writer/director of this film, who currently calls himself "Night."  He is a really, really good young guy, with a lovely wife, two kids, and a house on the Main Line outside Philadelphia. He has been writing and making movies since the final phases of his zygotic gestation, and he has succeeded as few might hope: this is his second major motion picture, and his up-front remuneration on The Sixth Sense topped $2m. Outlandish as this might seem (it did to me when I first heard it), it would take a true sour-puss not to be impressed with the "big trick ending" of this film. In the language of mystery novels, it is a "fair" ending, relying on clues internal to the story, and it certainly gave me a firm metaphysical thump: the wooziness lingered much of the evening. Sitting in the theater after the premiere I caught myself thinking that if people can earn numbers that look like the GNP of a small nation for streamlining the graphics on computer golf games, then the script of The Sixth Sense ought to be worth more than $2m. The number for his most recent deal was the beefier $10m., making him the highest paid writer/director in the history of the industry.
     The premiere. One of the nicest things about Night is that, as celebrity has embraced him, he has not forgotten his old friends-and this means complimentary tickets, always welcome in the home of an academic couple. Let me assure you: a little red carpet, some celebrity flash, three news vans with their boar-penis antennae piercing the night sky, blinding Klieg lights-all this will do any studious historian a world of good. Nobody took my picture, but then again nobody asked why they got a B minus, either. Moreover, when the lights went down, a Proustian reverie descended: the hero is a Catholic school boy, the setting our native Philadelphia; the classroom scenes evoked the unpleasant hours whiled away in striped ties and blazers. There is even a rather hyperbolic bit in a cavernous church involving a phrase of Latin. It irritated at least one reviewer (the film suffered in the New York Times), but, for those of us initiated into the sacred mysteries under the beady eyes of Sister William Mary (a.k.a. "Willard the Rat King"), it rang true.
     The hero, Cole, has plenty of reason to seek solace under divine wings. His "sixth sense," as it turns out, is a sort of second-sight: he sees dead people. As in, he sees dead people walking around; as in, all the time. Most of the dead people seem pretty pissed-off about being dead, and-wearing some pretty ugly contusions and suppurating wounds-they harass Cole in a number of ways. Sometimes they're just there (which is reasonably unnerving in itself), but at other times they seem to lose their temper with him and rough him up a bit (which is considerably worse).
     Not much enjoying scary movies, I at first found all this simply unpleasant. But as Cole made his way through Philadelphia being accosted by an array of garroted and bleeding specters, I began to discern that the hero and I had disturbingly analogous disorders:  Cole gets the willies because the dead won't simply die and shut up; not infrequently, I get the willies after spending seven hours in a musty archive-for roughly the same reason. These pesky undead! Cole, I suddenly perceived, had a horrible disease:  he had caught, somehow, history.
     This is a particularly sad fate in, of all places, Philadelphia, that cradle of the Revolutionary re-enactment and historical malls. Sure enough, Cole pays. His school building, we learn, was a judicial court in the days of yore. His homeroom teacher would have you believe that this meant happy barristers with powdered wigs dispensing Enlightenment justice. But you and Cole know better, as he (and you) must suffer the spectacle of a flogged family of petty thieves pendulous over the blackboard. The majestic mansions of Philadelphia, we learn, were home to some people who seriously mistreated the domestics, back in those days of tri-corn hats, as Cole's second sight reveals.
     Cole as figure for the suffering of the historian. This reading-not surprisingly-gave me a new empathy for the film's central character. As a particularly disgruntled (dead) stableboy gave Cole a once-over in the cellar, I found myself thinking of the figures from the distant past who had given me similar drubbings. Was it too implausible to reexamine my collegiate encounter with Pascal as a sudden, luminous apparition that delivered a set of body-blows? Blaise, whom the infinite spaces so terrified, certainly terrified this Catholic boy: midway through university I had something of a nervous breakdown over a paper I was writing on the Jansenists. Sounds weird, no doubt, but such are the creepy things that go bump in the past. Crossing paths with dead giants can be a thoroughly unsettling affair: one can come out of the cellar with a case of the shakes, even bruises. I think those who spelunk in the past as a full time job become gluttons for this sort of punishment. That, after all, is exactly the point: to watch the dead rise, vigorous, unexpected, potent.
     Cole has a bit of nervous breakdown himself; understandable, given the circumstances. Enter Bruce Willis as (it works better than one might guess) a child psychologist, charged to give Cole, a nervous boy, the talking cure. In a sense, this does the trick, though not quite in the way one might expect. As it works out (and this is not the "big ending"), the dead-scary as they seem-are just, well, venting. And all of Cole's troubles stem from the fact that he has just not been a very good listener. In other words it's the dead, not Cole, who need the talking cure; once they get a chance to tell you how they feel about things, they turn as playful as puppies.
     In one sense this counts as a happy resolution. The broader implication, however, cries out like a spook in the attic: The Sixth Sense amounts to a telling parable for these times; The Sixth Sense depicts the triumph of therapy over history. Whereas, at first, Cole's brushes with the past had about them all the feral intensity of a confrontation with the strange and foreign-and, if history is to be something other that nostalgia, it must often be this-the dénouement smilingly tranquilizes all those clamoring specters that trouble us through the floorboards. Domesticated, the past presents the avuncular face of the ersatz Ben Franklin, posing by the Liberty Bell: no problems here, just some stories to tell.
     Less bleak readings could be offered: Cole learns to be "open to the past on its own terms," perhaps; or, Cole "finds peace" with history. I can see the way these arguments might go, but I am unconvinced: history "on the couch" suggests a distinctively American extension of our basic faith: that everyone just needs to be heard, and then everything will be OK; that all darkness, pain and sorrow can be laid at the feet of the dark god of "repression."  How natural then that we would be so uneasy about the past: the dead are completely repressed, the poor souls. This is called "hell," and it no wonder that they are so mad about it. In The Sixth Sense Disney has ridden to the rescue of the last silence in the American psyche: the dead are going to get their turn. And then, we're all going to feel a lot better.
     By turning history into therapy The Sixth Sense gets the whole story backward, of course, in a distressing way: assiduous attention to the past turns up little that belongs on a Hallmark card. The more carefully one listens to the past, the more harrowing do the voices become. The deceased, I think most historians would agree, don't at all calm down once one begins to listen, they start positively howling. And, in many ways, the more one has them around, the weirder they (and their stories) become.
     The past haunts us. But, as Cole understood, it haunts some of us worse than others, and each must make a separate peace. But as historians we would do well to remind those willing to listen that an anodyne past-assuaged, domesticated, made passive-is a past that will return to haunt us later with redoubled force. For those of us who choose, in a sense, to stay in the cemetery, the task is to startle when we call out to those otherwise engaged, "remember your dead!"  As Bruce Willis's character discovers, once you start to remember your dead, you are due for a startling discovery in the end, you're dead.

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