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Hereafter is a sleeper

26 October 2010. Trust me, even if you are a true believer in psychics and believe that near-death experiences are voyages into the hereafter, you will find that Clint Eastwood has produced one hour and thirty minutes of sentimental bilge. The movie begins with a tsunami that no psychic apparently predicted. Later we find that ghosts are precognitive, so it seems that none of the billions in the hereafter bothered to notify any of the true psychics via a living loved one of the impending disaster. Soon we get our first glimpse into the hereafter as Eastwood tries to show what it's like to have a near-death experience. You see still and shadowy figures standing or floating in a vague plane of light and you wake up feeling like you've really experienced something special. Well, you did. You nearly drowned. Cécile de France plays a French television journalist, Marie, who is swept away in the tsunami, has the NDE, and has her life changed because of it. She gives up her glamorous life before the cameras and gathers research materials on NDEs from scientists who are forced to work in secret for some reason. She writes a book on the hereafter called Hereafter and presumably lives happily ever after with Matt Damon's character, George. (Actually, it's very unlikely that George or Marie will live together, happily or unhappily. My guess is that after they have their coffees and reveal all they have to reveal to each other about the afterlife and psychic visions, they'll go their separate ways.)

George is a real psychic from San Francisco. (I have to admit I enjoyed the scene where Matt Damon is sitting at a picnic table at Crissy Field with the Golden Gate Bridge in the background. I've sat at that very table or one nearby and have many fond memories of the place.) George is a medium who really does seem to get messages from the dead and passes them on to those for whom he does a reading. His story is that he had a childhood illness that nearly killed him and then started the hallucinations, visions similar to the floating figures in the tunnel or plane of light that Marie experienced. Except his figures talk to him. Was he schizophrenic? No. He's psychic. (Reminds me of a poster I once saw from the Berkeley Psychic Institute: You're not crazy, you may be psychic.) Poor George, though, considers his psychic ability to be a curse. Like Marie, he gave up a lucrative career. He used to do psychic readings for grieving people who wanted to connect to the hereafter. But he gave it up for a job working a forklift in a factory. One thing Eastwood does capture is the desperation of people who have lost a loved one. They literally beg George and pound on his door to help them make contact. The ease with which George could manipulate these suffering people, should he wish to, is made evident in several scenes. Particularly poignant is the scene with a kid named Marcus (excellently played by Frankie McLaren), where George brings comfort and gives advice to a little English fellow that will probably help him move on from the death of his twin brother. How George meets Marie is through Marcus who lives in London. George is in London because he got laid off, loves Charles Dickens, and goes traveling. Might as well go to London and visit the home of Charles Dickens where, as fate would have it, there is a poster for a reading by an author of a new book on Dickens. The reading, not by coincidence, takes place in the very building where Marie is giving her reading and where, as fate would have it, Marcus is brought to meet his foster parents' former ward.

Yes, there are these three stories that have to come together: the French journalist, the American medium, and the kid from London whose twin brother Jason is killed when he jumps in front of a van while trying to escape four youthful thugs who want his cell phone. Marcus's mother (played brilliantly by Lyndsey Marshal) is a drug addict who goes into rehab after Jason's death. Marcus goes to live with a foster family whose former ward is now a security guard at the very place where Marie, George, and Marcus will cross paths. Marcus steals some money from his new guardians and uses it to consult various charlatans in the afterlife business. These scumbags are depicted in glorious Technicolor by Eastwood. Yes, there are phony psychics, my son, but the kid persists and when he sees George at a book fair, he identifies him as the psychic he saw on the Internet. George tries to run away but the kid follows him and eventually George takes pity on Marcus and does a reading for him. George's readings are identical to the kind of cold readings the phony psychics do: I'm getting something about June, the month June. Does that mean anything to you? or I'll ask questions and you answer either yes or no. George's readings are spot-on, however. With the kid whose twin brother has been killed this includes a touching bit where Jason's ghost takes credit for knocking off the cap Marcus was wearing in the London tube station. The ghost tells George to tell Marcus to take off the hat. It belongs to him (Jason) and it's time for Marcus to move on knowing that he and Jason are always together, that they came from one cell. Jason the ghost has the power of precognition, apparently, for George tells Marcus that Jason was protecting him. Marcus missed the train because he was chasing the cap. The train was blown up and Marcus was saved. Again, no psychic apparently foresaw or was warned by a ghost of the impending act of terror. [John Renish, in editing the above notes: "This sort of ridiculous coincidence is famously a major plot element in Dickens’s oeuvre. That’s Eastwood’s way showing you how intellectual he is."]

Actually, as I'm writing this, the story seems interesting, but while I was watching the movie it felt like time had slowed down. Maybe Eastwood wanted me to have a near-death experience while watching his movie. I had a near-sleep experience, but that's not quite the same.

The worst scene in the movie for me, however, was not the ending where, through the urging of Marcus, George writes a long letter to Marie (apparently explaining his experience with the hereafter and validating her belief that she'd made contact) and they meet at a cafe where George has a precognitive hallucination involving a nice embrace and kiss with Marie. That scene was pretty pathetic, but the worst scene was the one where Marie goes to some sort of hospice in the Alps where research is being done on NDEs. The head of the research outfit explains that there must be something to these experiences since so many of them are similar even though the people having them come from different cultures. Apparently, it didn't occur to her that they all have human brains and the similarity of the experiences might be due to the similarity of biological processes that occur when the brain starts to shut down. (Roger Ebert, who knows infinitely more about movies than I do and claims not to believe in woo-woo, was sucked in by this similarity gambit and writes in his favorable review of this second-rate film that it makes the survival of consciousness after death "plausible." Ebert's skepticism only goes so far: maybe George is using telepathy, he writes, and isn't really getting messages from the dead. Either way, it's woo-woo, Roger.)

Anyway, the movie's boring and, as should be expected, sheds no light on the hereafter. It's just a movie, after all. It's not a complete waste of time and money, though. Some scenes are entertaining, like the tsunami scene and the cameo reading of Dickens by Derek Jacobi. But mostly the film just drags on toward the inevitable meeting of the three separate stories of the French journalist, the American medium, and the London kid whose twin brother was killed. If you're like me, you'll forget Marie and George the minute you leave the theater, but Marcus will haunt your dreams. If there is a "message" in this film, I guess it would be don't fear death, it's infinitely more boring than life.


You may be wondering why George's likeness is on the Internet even though he has quit the psychic medium business. Suffice it to say that he has an older brother, Billy, who may well have been the precognitive model for Dylan's "promoter who nearly fell off the floor" in "Highway 61." The brother is a wheeler and dealer who was all set to promote George's comeback when he got the news from George's neighbor that George had skipped town.

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