"If you're wondering about being on your own, don't worry. You're not."
For Clint Eastwood, the 2010 release "Hereafter" may his most unusual film to date, dealing as it does with the afterlife. Accordingly, because I have a rather limited background in paranormal matters, I asked two friends--Loyd Auerbach and Willie Swenson--who have far more knowledge of the subject than I do, if they would preface my remarks with their own commentaries on the film.
Loyd Auerbach is a leading authority on paranormal phenomena, the Director of the Office of Paranormal Investigations, a professor of paranormal studies, a recent appointee to the faculty of Atlantic University, a best-selling author of over half a dozen books on hauntings (the latest being "The Ghost Detectives' Guide to Haunted San Francisco," co-authored with Annette Martin), a professional mentalist and magician, and a chocolate maven and chocolatier extraordinaire. His two Web sites, www.mindreader.com/loyd.htm and www.hauntedbychocolate.com, will give you an idea of his qualifications. (You'll also hear from Loyd on the Blu-ray disc, since Warner Bros. asked him to say a few words about the film in several of the disc's Focus Points.)
Our other contributor, Willie Swenson, is an R.N., P.H.N., and C.C.H.T, who holds an M.A. degree in Interdisciplinary Consciousness Studies from JFK University and has studied at HCH Psycho-Spiritual Institute. He was one of the original developers of Neurolinguistic Programming at Not Ltd's Division of Training and Research and today is developing a curriculum for nurses around the near-death experience, its scientific basis, its understanding, and the nurse's role in counseling patients who have gone through the experience.
The Film According to Loyd:
I watched "Hereafter" in a theater with the eye of a parapsychologist and the other eye of a movie-lover. In truth, I'd read the script months before as preparation for my interview for one of the special features for the Blu-ray release, so I had certain expectations, which I felt were met. Fortunately, I did know more than a bit about the film and was able to recommend it in advance for people seeking a non-horrific encounter with a paranormal film during the height of the Halloween (October) season.
"Hereafter" is a fascinating film presentation of three forms of interaction with the concept of Life After Death (what we in the parapsychological field call "Survival of Bodily Death" or "Survival" for short): the medium, the person who went through an impacting Near Death Experience (NDE), and the bereaved family member looking to contact his deceased loved one. With the NDE a more recently identified phenomenon, the other two have been part of the history of my field since the mid-1800s, before there was even an official field of Psychical Research. Personally, I've worked with a number of mediums, folks who have had an NDE, and worked with many (and spoken with more) people seeking a connection with the Hereafter, the "other side" as it's most often called today.
Let me comment on each of these story lines and then the film as a whole from my professional perspective--and I'll leave it to my friend John Puccio to give you the movie critic's angle (though I will say I enjoyed the film, as a film).
Matt Damon's medium, George, is a conflicted individual. This is actually not all that uncommon in the world of psychics and mediums, and I have met folks who left their mediumistic or psychic practices behind because the burden of the experiences got too much for them. George leaves it behind because the fame and the people tugging at him for attention (I'd guess both the living and the dead) got to be too much for him. The reading of a potential lover that scares off the woman especially hits the mark, as I've seen this happen with several mediums and psychics who've struggled with starting normal relationships.
In other words, the character does ring true--well, other than his need to touch the client to do the reading. That seems to be more a device of fiction (Psi Corps from "Babylon Five" anyone?), but it is an effective device nonetheless.
But in reality, George's inability to turn it off is a rare thing. Most people who work in the mediumistic/psychic field, while they may have started with limited or no barriers, quickly learn to create personal firewalls to prevent overload--whether it be an overload of psychic information or spirit contact. George, apparently, did not even try (or at least, it wasn't referenced in the film or script). On the other hand, maybe it wasn't the being-psychic part that he really hated; maybe it was too many people clawing for his attention all the time, especially given the emotionality of the requests to contact deceased loved ones. Psychic or not, this would be a hard thing for most people to handle.
Cecile De France's character Marie goes through a traumatic experience (caught in the tsunami) and has a Near Death Experience because of it. Double-whammy! Marie's character and circumstances actually ring truest in the film.
Not all people who are in the near-death state and resuscitated see a tunnel and/or light or have any apparent contact with people in the hereafter, but a larger percentage do. About 15% of all people who have the NDE are impacted to where they, like Marie, have a fundamental philosophical change with regards to Life and Death, and even who they are. Some of them are quite driven to learn more, to connect with others like themselves, and to share their stories.
Then there's Marcus, the London boy who's brother is killed, yet seems to make his presence known. It's actually rare for someone so young to be so determined to contact a deceased loved one, but then, I've not known of many twins who are so close and as kids, where one's killed leaving the other as alone as Marcus seems to be.
Marcus's search to find a connection to his brother on the other side is touching, and his encounters with so many frauds is typical. (As a side note, there are many people out there who do sincerely believe they have psychic abilities, but do not. Sometimes they may be deluded, but generally they are mistaken or naïve or gullible, having been told they're gifted in this way or perhaps gone through some really bad "psychic training.")
Were he an adult, Marcus's quest would have been more believable to me. Still, it did fit in with how some people react to the death of a loved one.
All in all, I really appreciate how screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Clint Eastwood handled these encounters with death in such a serious and emotionally impacted way. Too often, the subject matter is so sensationalized that it is hardly recognizable from real situations and experiences. All three of the characters and experiences are within the normal-for-parapsychologists range. Certainly the NDE has been experienced by millions of people all over the world, and even more have found themselves seeking a connection to the hereafter with people who have died. Such numbers make the experiences more normal than paranormal.
Perhaps the least believable part of the film was the synchronicity that brought the three together. But then, such plot devices are common to films. And "Seinfeld" would never have had plots without them.
The Film According to Willie:
When John asked me to contribute to the review of "Hereafter," I was honored because I knew that my friend and former graduate-school professor, paranormal psychologist Loyd Auerbach (featured on the disc), would be contributing as well. No doubt Loyd will have many interesting things to say as I choose to direct my comments toward something that I observe both inside "Hereafter" and amongst some movie critics outside it. I am speaking of an understanding of the subject matter itself. My observation is that if you have had previous experience, actual or intellectual, with consciousness beyond death, you are more likely to be sympathetic to people who claim these experiences for themselves. Further, you are more likely to enjoy and/or understand this movie than if you have had no previous experience with the subject.
I saw this movie in theaters several months ago and enjoyed it very much. The acting, the direction, the cinematography were extremely pleasing to me. But what I thought Clint Eastwood got most right was the telling of the emotional stories of three human beings as they struggled to understand their experiences around death and explain to a larger and not very understanding society what had happened to them. It is the story of how contact with a reality that circumscribes our everyday world leads to both alienation and transformation.
So I was a bit puzzled to read around the time "Hereafter" opened that some critics had panned the film, characterizing it as disjointed and inadequate in its portrayal of the afterlife. The film is not about the portrayal of the afterlife. It is about people in this life and what happens to them when they undergo something extraordinary. One of the characters undergoes a near-death experience (having an encounter with the hereafter?) and returns to life a significantly changed person. A second character suffers the loss of someone so close that the bond between them continues to operate across the bounds of time and space. And the third character is a psychic who must come to terms with his existence moving in and out of multiple realities. Eastwood does a masterful and artistic job of presenting the lives of these three individuals in parallel stories, which converge by the end of the movie to make their existence and that of the audience more enlightened.
The distinction that makes the difference between what I saw and recommend highly and what others saw and spoke poorly of may be the foundation beliefs with which we approach the subject matter. If the world you grow up in trains you to believe that consciousness after death is not possible, then you may see this movie as a mediocre attempt to portray a fantasy. But if your field is consciousness studies, as is mine, then you have some awareness that quantum physics and reputable scientific studies have been chipping away for quite some time at what we have thought was the foundation of our world and of our existence. They point in the direction of a new and larger reality, a reality beyond a material world, where subjective experience plays a very important role. The day may come when humanity easily accepts consciousness after death. As has always been the case in scientific evolution, new ideas supplant old ideas...but old ideas do not go easily. I offer the following example.
In the 18th century, despite eyewitness accounts to the contrary, the French Academy of Sciences categorically declared that rocks don't fall from the sky. At that time, the French Academy of Sciences was the most-prestigious repository of scientific knowledge in the world. When they declared what was real and what was not, the modern world listened and believed. Today, you can go on the Internet and look up the next date and time for a meteor shower in order to position yourself to see and enjoy rocks falling from the sky.
So how could science get it so wrong? Science did not get it wrong. After all, in the 18th century such a thing defied known principles of reality. Astronomy was still in its infancy. There was no theory of a big bang, star building and destruction, cosmic debris, the vacuum of space, or what happens to space debris when it encounters more massive objects and is pulled into an atmosphere. It took at least another hundred years and numerous scientific developments in many fields--the fall of old ideas and the rise of new ones--to allow us today to easily accept and explain the fact that rocks do fall from the sky.
Science is merely a process of investigating what is. Humans get it wrong when they close their minds to new evidence and new possibilities, when the fear of change rules their reason. On a scale of 1-10, I rate this film a "9" for its subtle, artistic presentation of a controversial subject matter, and I invite the reader to view "Hereafter" with a mind-set open to the possibility that there is more to the world than we have yet to imagine or describe.
The Film According to John:
As a director, Clint Eastwood was always good, going back to his first full-length directorial effort, "Play Misty for Me," in 1971. Since then he has directed well over thirty films, seemingly getting better as he goes along, with films like "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Unforgiven," "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima," and "Invictus" establishing his range and ability. Yet no matter how serious or how dramatic his movies, people still expect definite things from an Eastwood film, things they won't find in 2010's "Hereafter." They expect a certain degree of action or adventure or humor, which they'll find little of here. Instead, in "Hereafter" Eastwood provides a thoughtful examination of the subject of an afterlife. No horror. No melodrama. No "Ghost Hunters" theatrics.
An interviewer asked Eastwood if his choosing to do a film about life after death had anything to do with his age. After all, he was nearly eighty when he made "Hereafter," a time when some people are at least beginning to question what happens next. He shrugged it off, saying of course not. If he had found the same script thirty years ago, he said, he would have made it then. OK, I say. Maybe. Maybe not. Who knows what goes on in one's subconscious. In any case, he did make it, but he made it his way.
The thing is, while the story is about a man who possesses the ability to see into the next world, Eastwood doesn't push it on us. Eastwood never tries to convince us that an afterworld actually exists. He merely tells the story, letting it unfold as it will and allowing the audience to accept it or reject. And, wonder of wonder, you don't have to believe a word of it to enjoy it. If you're a skeptic, an agnostic, or an atheist, the movie should still work for you because it's not about believing or not believing but about appreciating the characters' situations.
Understand, this may not be what every viewer wants to see, nor was it probably what every critic expected. You won't find any scares here, any frights, any supernatural manifestations or ghostly apparitions meant to give you goose bumps. Rather, you'll find an engrossing character drama, filled with people seeking answers that neither they nor the viewer ever find. Thus, you get another reason the film might not appeal to all audiences: It doesn't provide solutions to life's greatest mystery. Eastwood never says, See, I told you so; there is a life after death. He leaves you to make up your own mind from the possibilities life provides. Frustrating? Yes, probably for many viewers. Eastwood doesn't seem to care. He's old enough now to make the movies he wants to make and to make them his way. If you don't like it, don't watch.
No, this is not your usual Eastwood film. You'll find no horses here, no guns, no fights, no crime, no police, no chimps, not even a rugby match. Instead, you'll find a straightforward drama, done with style and grace.
The movie stars Matt Damon as an otherwise ordinary San Franciscan, George Lonegan, who possesses a most extraordinary talent. Since childhood he has been able to see into the next life. By merely touching someone, he is able see and communicate with that person's deceased loved ones. George finds it a curse, making his life a living hell as everyone wants to know something from him; after coping with his gift for years, he finally tries giving it up, only to find that's not so easy.
Writer Peter Morgan structures his movie like many that have come before it, with multiple story lines and multiple characters in multiple parts of the world, all of them inevitably converging. Life's interconnections are in themselves always fascinating to watch, even when they sometimes stretch credibility. Yet matters of coincidence, or fate, do happen, and we all have our own personal stories to tell that are almost too good, too strange, to believe.
So, while we're learning more about George and his avaricious brother Billy (Jay Mohr), who wants to partner with George and make a fortune off his psychic abilities, we see two other stories unfolding. In France, we find the story of Marie Lalay (Cecile De France), a journalist who had a near-death experience during a tsunami (wonderfully staged, incidentally) and is now having to learn to deal with it; and in England we find the story of twins, Marcus and Jason (Frankie and George McLaren), one of whom dies in an automobile accident, leaving the other devastated.
Everybody in "Hereafter" is looking for answers, as we all are, and Eastwood's knack is for bringing these searches to a satisfying conclusion without being moralistic or histrionic. He successfully anchors everything in the movie in the here and now, the possible, the plausible. Reinforced by the direct, uncluttered cinematography of Tom Stern, Eastwood's simple, almost old-fashioned directorial style, and his beautifully evocative musical score for guitar, piano, and harmonica, "Hereafter" keeps one mesmerized from start to finish. It's talky, to be sure, but it's gratifying and pleasurable in the process.
Warner engineers use a dual-layer BD50 and an MPEG-4/AVC codec to transfer the movie to Blu-ray disc. The image they obtain looks pretty close to what I remember from a movie theater. It displays average-to-good definition, sometimes sharp, sometimes a bit soft, depending on the photography; good colors, never too bright or too dull; and a fine, natural print grain to provide a lifelike texture to the picture. As with many of Eastwood's films, the overall palette favors slightly subdued, metallic hues, with often in this case a dim but glossy sheen overlaying objects. With "Hereafter" it works well to give the film a kind of subconscious ghostly effect.
The disc uses lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 to reproduce the sound, which ranges from simple dialogue to a thunderous tidal wave and everything in between. Mostly, it's relaxed and easy on the ear, but when it has to produce, it does. Still, Eastwood never overuses it. Even during the opening tsunami, there are moments of quiet that make the surrounding conflict all the more striking for its contrasts. Dynamic impact is strong; stereo spread is wide; deep bass is prodigious, though used sparingly; and surround activity is exemplary, especially in subtle environmental noises like the movement of cars on city streets and the rustling of knives and forks in a restaurant. While it's not the kind of soundtrack that videophiles look for to show off their home theaters, it's the kind of sound that does its work calmly and efficiently, and the listener is the better for it.
There are two primary bonus items on the disc, both in high definition. The first one is a series of "Focus Points," nine brief featurettes totaling about forty-two minutes that the viewer can watch during the film or independently. Their titles are self-explanatory, and most of them include comments from Eastwood, Damon, and the rest of the filmmakers, as they talk among themselves and with skeptics, psychics, mediums, and Loyd about the making of the film and the possibility of a life after death. The chapters are "Tsunami! Recreating a Disaster"; "Is There Life After Death?"; "Clint on Casting"; "Delving into the Hereafter"; "Twin Bonding"; "French Speaking French"; "Why the White Light?"; "Hereafter's Locations: Casting the Silent Characters"; and "The Eastwood Experience."
The second major bonus is "The Eastwood Factor," a ninety-minute, high-definition, extended version of the 2010 documentary. Narrated by Eastwood's buddy Morgan Freeman, the documentary profiles the actor-director's career, in his own words, covering about thirty-five years with Warner Bros. In addition to the documentary, you'll find several trailers at start-up; fourteen scene selections; English and French spoken languages; French and Spanish subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.
Finally, since this is a Combo Pack, it contains not only the high-def movie on a Blu-ray disc but a standard-definition version on DVD, plus a digital copy for iTunes and Windows Media (the offer expiring March 13, 2012). The two discs come housed in a flimsy Eco-case, further enclosed in a cardboard slipcover.
As I've said, "Hereafter" will sorely disappoint viewers expecting a horror movie or an action flick. Eastwood has no intention of cheapening the subject of an afterlife with any "Paranormal Activity" nonsense. The story is an honest attempt to explore the single greatest mystery of life--namely, death--and to do so with intelligence, open-mindedness, understanding, and compassion. Which is not to say Eastwood doesn't fashion an engrossing story. For those who come to the film for what it is and not for what they want it to be, "Hereafter" tells a compelling tale and provides a fine, if unsettled and unsettling, background on its subject matter.