Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Soylent Green is made out of people!

by Marcus Sakey

Not too long ago, I saw Soylent Green for the first time. It’s one of those iconic films that I’d somehow missed, probably at least partly because I was familiar with the catch phrase and figured it might be a one-trick movie.

It’s an interesting film. Dated, certainly—my friend Michael has a great line about how that happens with sci-fi, that “Nothing ages like the future”—and the film's misogyny is a little too hard-edge to write off as satirical. The basic premise is that the future is a pretty bleak, overcrowded place, with the masses barely kept alive by the miracle food Soylent Green, which, yes, is made of people.

What I found most interesting, though, is the way it treated suicide. Because the world is a teeming mass of humanity, the government encourages suicide, especially as people get older. There are advertisements for suicide centers, clinics that promise a smooth transition into death.

This being a story, of course one of the main characters ends up going to one. And as a savvy viewer, what I was expecting was the bait-and-switch: I figured that the moment he entered the clinic, he’d be handcuffed and lock-stepped, screaming, to the futuristic equivalent of a concentration camp shower. The problem with dystopia fiction is that it often pulls from the same bag of tricks.

What was interesting, though, is that I was completely wrong. The character was asked about his favorite colors, his favorite music. He was led to a gracious room where he lay down on a comfortable platform bed. Soft orange lighting—his favorite—filled the room, and a sunset screened on the wall. Two beautiful, serene people came in and stood holding his hands. Classical music swelled as he drifted painlessly away.

And then they made him into food.

The reason I bring it up, in this wildly odd post, is that it struck me as interesting how different my 2009 reaction was than the one I imagine was felt in 1973. The film is supposed to be a warning sign, a story about the future we should avoid at all costs.

Personally? It’s okay by me.

I’ve never understood our culture’s view of suicide. It has never made sense to me that ending your life with dignity and at a time of your choosing is anything but noble. Yes, it needs to be done with consideration for others, to be done in a way that doesn’t traumatize everyone dealing with the aftermath. But to me, suicide is as much a right as the decision to procreate. Why do I owe it to the world to linger on past the point where I enjoy life, or, worse, past the point where I can even be said to be myself? Some people are scared of heights; I’m petrified of dementia.

As for the eating people part, I’m not religious. I believe what’s left behind is meat. In reality our bodies are probably better used as organ donations than Thanksgiving dinner, but once you’re gone, I don't think you should get much say in what use the continuing world finds for you.

But besides my personal feelings about death, I also think it’s interesting the way the culture has changed. I doubt people seeing the film today would be shocked. That’s partly because other stories have tread the same ground. But I think it’s also a shift in the way we think. And for my money, a positive one.

What do you think? Should suicide be a right? Or is it a reprehensible act? If you’ve seen the film, how did you feel about those aspects? Do you feel differently now than you did then?


Darwyn Jones said...

Ah, you and your holiday cheer!

Dana King said...

The ethics of suicide are, as you indicated, somewhat situational. Yes, it's your life, and you should be allowed to end it as--and when--you see fit, so long as you are of sound mind and others' needs and feelings are considered.

Should a bread-winning father of three get sick of the rat race and do himself in? Almost certainly not. Suck it up and find a new job, or some way to make the current gig more bearable.

Now, someone who's going to check out in six months or less, no matter what? Why should the rest of us arbitrarily condemn this person to the suffering that comes with the end of certain illnesses?

There's not much I truly fear, but dying of something like ALS and becoming completely helpless is at the top of the list. I'd like the option to check out of this hotel before My perfectly lucid mind is unable to get the rest of me to wipe my own ass.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Suicide may not be painless, but I think it's a right and in many cases, as the ones Dana mentioned, "right." Rights do not always acknowledge the feelings of those left behind unfortunately.

Tony D'Amato said...

By prohibiting suicide, society is saying to the would-be suicide, "We care about you, we want you to live among us." Of course, the person can override society on this point by jumping off a bridge or whatever. So the end result is still free will. But the message is a lot better than "kill yourself if you feel like it; you're nothing to us."

Darwyn Jones said...

I've been thinking about your post more.

You say, "It has never made sense to me that ending your life with dignity and at a time of your choosing is anything but noble."

With this statement, I agree. However, we have to understand that no all suicides are committed "with dignity." I suspect, and can speak from my own family's experience, that they are committed in desperation, confusion, and depression.

So, I'm thinking the subject is more complex than just "suicide." Much like abortion, I'd say, some people are completely against and others at least have a compassion for the act depending upon the situation. An understanding.

The suicides we tend to hear about are those in which the person, with a supposed clear mind, wants to take his/her life. We hear about them because they are controversial. It is all the suicides that are done without such forethought that we may not hear about unless we are brother/cousin/friend/etc to that individual. It is these suicides that leave no feelings of dignity or nobility.

Kevin Guilfoile said...

I think there's a public interest issue involved here, as well. If we made suicide "legal" there would be almost countless attempts by people to exploit the practice. There could be "doctors" pressuring the incapacitated to hire them to end their lives. Obviously there will always be family members out of an Agatha Christie novel, anxious to end the lives of their aging, wealthy parents. The combination of those two things is a tragedy waiting.

So I think the societal taboo against suicide serves a purpose, if for no other reason than to ensure that any apparent suicide will be followed by an investigation.

Steerpike said...

But Darwyn, would the suicides you describe have been committed in a state of desperation, confusion, and depression if safe, kind alternatives were offered?

The ancient Romans viewed suicide as the final act of free will; not only acceptable but encouraged if an individual wanted to die, had become a burden, or was facing an existence they perceived as worse than death.

I also can't agree with Tony's view that prohibiting suicide is tantamount to saying "we care about you," and legalizing it is tantamount to saying "go die already." Why are cigarettes not prohibited? BASE jumping? The implication that prohibiting something is society's way of caring doesn't ring true to me. Instead, it sounds like society's way of imposing its own morals and views on individuals who may not share them.

The food part bothers me, though. I wouldn't want to eat people. Mad cow disease kind of indicates that feeding a species itself for long enough leads to some unhealthy outcomes. Maybe if Soylent Green were fertilizer it'd be okay, but I wouldn't want to eat a Human Suicide Powerbar, no matter what I think about suicide.

Anonymous said...

I saw Soylent Green first-run in the theater with my then-husband. It left us shivery and a bit depressed.

Over the years, there were times when I thought suicide was much preferable to what was happening, such as the break-up of the marriage. I'd read the obits and think 'lucky devils.'

But then there were so many good things I would have missed. So much growing I wouldn't have done. So many good friends I wouldn't have known.

Now, as I age, I think there is a place for suicide (and for centers) but it should come not from desperation but from transition and anticipation. As the body ages and aches and pains beyond endurance, or the mind begins to go so that a chapter read is a chapter disappeared, then why not? Go at your own time of need when you can still make the choice logically.

I am/will be an organ donor and it gives me satisfaction that when I'm done with what I need, that miraculous tissue can help someone else survive to discover their dreams and enjoy the parts of their life they've yet to experience.

In the end, giving back and paying forward is all we can do.

Darwyn Jones said...

I see your point, Steerpike. However, I'm talking about those individuals who, through desperation, feel that there is no other choice but to end their life. When really an alternative did exist - garnering help in the mental health arena and living contently. Basically, those individuals who make the decision of suicide rashly without seeing other possibilities.

It's definitely an interesting topic and I think there are a multitude of situations which could fall into any number of categories.

Ann Littlewood said...

I live in Oregon, one of a very few (2?) states with legal assisted suicide. I'm also a cancer patient, so I've given this a lot of thought. I suggest that potential suicides fall into two camps: those who need help living and those who need help dying. I know the devastation the first group can cause their family and friends and I'm eager to see suicide averted in the young, the depressed, the desperate. But those who are beyond medical help deserve a decent way to go. I very much would like that for myself, should I need it, and I get pretty hostile toward those who would deny me that amenity. Butt out, I say, if I am terminal and let me make my own choice. It's not about pain, it's about control and dignity. As for my carcass, as they say in the zoo world, "feed it out." Or use the organs, if anybody wants them. I won't be caring.

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