By Rebecca Cleman
The Will of Dean Snider
A film by Jaime Kibben
Review by Rebecca Cleman
In 1994, the San Francisco-based filmmaker and artist Dean Snider decided to end his own life, possibly in front of a camera. For nearly ten years, he had been suffering from Parkinson’s, and though he might have slowed the progress of the disease through a regimen of rest and relaxation, that wasn’t his style. Now a dark vision of a future in convalescent homes staffed by condescending nurses consumed him. This wasn’t his style either, and he valued the significance of death too much to leave his final narrative in the hands of an indifferent stranger.
He turned to fellow filmmaker Jaime Kibben
, who was a friend and neighbor, to collaborate with him on a portrait of the months leading up to his death. He even proposed that Kibben document the suicide itself, if the latter man could handle it. Whether or not Snider and Kibben go through with it becomes the primary source of suspense during this 56-minute documentary.
While The Will of Dean Snider
is a shocking and subversive film, it is not an exploitative shocker—though it has been deemed as such and barred from wide release and distribution by some of Snider’s friends. It is a film of incredible sensitivity and craft, which manages to remain remarkably artful despite its subject matter.
The handling of the final scene is most shocking of all. If you care to see the film, you might want to skip this paragraph, so as not to spoil the ending’s full impact. For his suicide, Snider designated a spot on the beach where the warm sand would soothe him like an electric blanket. Cutting through the black of the night, a spotlight scans the beach as Snider’s voice is heard leaving a final phone message. He troubles over mundane details like whether or not he should have called collect or used a phone card. Suddenly, the spotlight comes upon something in the grass—Snider’s body—surrounded by scattered personal belongings. The camera lingers on him, not hesitating to document every grotesque detail as if it were a crime scene; in fact, the scene does read like something from the television series The FBI Files
“If I could be well again I would...
There’s a difference between arrogance
and a sort of necessity.
I feel that I’m the one who should be in
total control of my life while I’m living it
and that death is too great of a decision
and process to let anyone else handle,
The narrative trauma of becoming acquainted with Snider, only to be left with his corpse, is to 1999 (the year of the film’s completion) what Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho
might have been to audiences in 1960. Between these films are notable timeline events in the development of both film and television such as the emergence of video for the home market, the proliferation of reality television shows, the rise of the documentary subgenre, and the mainstream, financial success of The Blair Witch Project
(also completed in 1999). By the time The Will of Dean Snider
was released, true crime shows like The FBI Files
were making commonplace displays of graphic forensic details and reenactments of violent crimes, presenting them without even the veneer of fiction that mediates the audience experience of, say, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre
As if in anticipation of these developments, Hitchcock envisioned Psycho
as a departure from his big-budget Technicolor spectacles. The draw of the film was its proximity, the ‘dirty-dishes in the sink’ grain of reality that brings the horror home. Though it might have been primarily a pragmatic decision made because of financial restrictions, it now seems significant that the film was shot in a way that followed the model of Hitchcock’s television series.
To compare The Will of Dean Snider to Psycho is not to liken the objectives of the films, they are in some ways polar opposites; but, rather, to suggest that Kibben anticipated the audience as effectively, as respectfully, as Hitchcock might have. Which is to say that Kibben meant for the film to be publicly received, and it is this motivation that may be the film’s greatest controversy.
The subtlety and intimacy of Dean Snider
’s structure, up to the end, might leave this aspect of the documentary under-appreciated. It opens with one of Snider’s own films, a droll fictional portrait of a young man, cobbled together from found footage. With no clear transition, Kibben cuts abruptly to Snider speaking directly to the camera, describing the moment when Parkinson’s became an irreducible fact of his life. And so it goes—Kibben’s unaestheticized Hi-8 footage occasionally interrupted by excerpts from Snider’s films. The only grounding detail is the intermittent date that labels scenes from Snider’s last summer, later revealed to be a countdown to the day of his death.
The film is spare. It lacks dramatic flourishes like fades or inter-titles. A singular exception is the last glimpse of the living Snider, slowed down to memorialize that fact. The excerpts from Snider’s films and poems provide the most expressive moments. Ample space is given to Dean’s direct camera addresses, in which he reasonably articulates his difficult decision. We are given a chance to empathize with him and to like him.
And then the final shot, for which Kibben plays on audience expectations. Dean’s voice-over merges with Kibben’s camera as the advances towards Snider’s body, so that it seems that Snider himself is guiding the camera. When Kibben comes upon Snider’s body, it is an unanticipated shock that delivers us much closer to the reality of the moment than any maudlin alternative might have. At the same time, the actual suicide is not shot directly and is obscured. To show this would have been exploitative and crass, utterly unnecessary.
Our culture has an addiction to raw moments of horror or sentiment that just happen to be caught on tape. The proof is in the sustainability of shows as conceptually bankrupt as America’s Funniest Home Videos
. The mind-numbing dullness of this show, which favors the appeal of its home-video content over an imaginative presentation, clogs the channels with what amounts to family-friendly pornography. Many reality-based shows and documentaries fall victim to the privileging of content over form, assuming that the prize of controversial or unusual subject matter is sufficient. When there is a rupture in this contrivance, however, it resonates.
The Will of Dean Snider
accomplishes such a rupture and should be received by a broader public. It is one of the few documentaries I have seen that truly brings something new to the form.
Rebecca Cleman works for the video/media distributor Electronic Arts Intermix (EAI), and has served on the juries of the New York Underground Film Festival and the Canary Island Media Festival. She has programmed screenings for Squeaky Wheel, Ocularis, Union Cinema Milwaukee, and Rooftop Films.
This article was originally published in The Squealer (Fall 2005). Reprinted with permission of the author. Visit their site at Squeaky.org.
Copyright © 2006 by Rebecca Cleman