Sunday, March 1, 2009

Film review: The Young and the Dead

The former Hollywood Memorial Park, which opened in 1899, became the final resting place for many stars of Hollywood’s golden age, among them Douglas Fairbanks, Tyrone Power, and Rudolph Valentino. However, it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy in the mid-1990s, and some families moved the remains of their loved ones from its untended grounds.

Two Midwestern entrepreneurs, Tyler and Brent Cassity, bought the cemetery in 1997, rechristened it Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and set about transforming the grounds and, they hoped, American "death care" itself. The Young and the Dead (2003), which focuses largely upon the media-savvy Tyler Cassity, chronicles their efforts to do so.

Archivists ought to find Tyler Cassity an interesting subject. He has the desire to preserve evidence of the past that propels many people to enter the archival profession, and he sees cemeteries as having a mission akin to that of archives:
Cassity: We believe that cemeteries are libraries of lives, and if we don’t capture the life that’s written on that stone, then we’ve failed at that task. So that three or four generations from now, after people who might have remembered that person are gone, that person should be able to speak for themselves, to tell their story and to be remembered. We think we fail as cemeterians if people are forgotten.

Interviewer: And how do you do that?

Cassity: Through modern technology.
Hollywood Forever has a film crew that works with survivors to conduct interviews, digitize photos, and create a short film about each decedent; it also encourages people who are planning their own services to sit for interviews and gather materials well in advance of their demise. Completed films, which Hollywood Forever calls LifeStories, are shown at funeral services and can be accessed by anyone at any time via the Internet or kiosks stationed throughout the cemetery grounds, and Hollywood Forever asserts that these films will be preserved in perpetuity.

The Young and the Dead emphasizes the cemetery’s only-in-Hollywood status as a tourist destination and its clear relationship to the city’s celebrity culture. Cassity and his Hollywood Forever colleagues were clearly inspired by the capsule biographies that television news organizations create whenever a prominent politician or cultural figure dies, and one of the cemetery’s film producers explicitly connects LifeStories to Andy Warhol’s oft-quoted prediction that in the future everyone will enjoy 15 minutes of fame.

Of course, professional archivists will have some questions about this enterprise. What kind of software is being used to create these LifeStories? Has Hollywood Forever developed any sort of plan for ensuring that these films will remain accessible over time, or has it deferred making such decisions? The Young and the Dead is silent about this aspect of Hollywood Forever’s work, as is the LifeStories Web site, which simply notes the existence of a "Forever Endowment Care Fund."

Archivists should keep in mind that Hollywood Forever is in sync with the larger culture: owing to the availability of inexpensive and easy-to-use hardware and software, short films and slideshow-style presentations are an increasingly common component of contemporary memorial services. At least a few of these productions will invariably make their way into archives, and future archivists will likely find themselves dispensing advice to families who find that technological change has rendered these cherished mementos inaccessible.

Cassity’s interest in the past also extends to Hollywood Forever itself. He has pored through the records of former owner Jules Roth, and what records they are! Roth was a key player in the oil swindles that beset the Los Angeles area in the early 20th century and served time in San Quentin as a result. He diverted money from the cemetery to fuel his globetrotting lifestyle and scattered the erotica he collected on his journeys throughout the records. He refused to allow Hattie McDaniel, the first African-American performer to win an Oscar, to be buried in his cemetery. He also hired "operatives" who spied upon his employees; their reports detail workers’ off-the-job activities (one groundskeeper bragged about "a wild night in the Drake Hotel with three girls, two sailors, and a Marine") and gossip about Roth.

Archivists will not like seeing Cassity scatter Roth’s records throughout his office or Executive Vice President Bill Obrock smoking while handling them, but they ought to appreciate the film’s use of business records to highlight Roth’s colorful life.

The Young and the Dead is ultimately a group portrait of Cassity and his Hollywood Forever colleagues, some of whom have been his friends since childhood. All of them really seem to enjoy preserving people’s memories and spending their days surrounded by Hollywood Forever’s bucolic splendor, and their encounters with death and grieving survivors seem to have deepened their appreciation of and zest for life.

The film is similarly pleasant, sincere, and thoughtful. It nonetheless lacks a certain something, and the hole at its center stems from the decision of directors Robert Pulcini and Shari Springer Berman’s to focus so tightly upon Tyler Cassity. Cassity comes off as a well-read and reflective person who wears his good looks lightly, but his demeanor is so calm and reserved that one can’t help but wonder what lies beneath his contemplative, articulate exterior.

A quick Web search will only intensify these questions. In mid-2008, officials in Texas and Missouri took over three businesses operated by Tyler and Brent Cassity and their father Douglas, who -- like Jules Roth -- spent time in prison after the collapse of an investment scheme he ran. Regulators in at least 10 states are trying to sort out the complicated and possibly fraudulent insurance arrangements that supported the prepaid funeral plans that the Cassitys sold, and funeral home directors in 19 states may experience ruinous losses as a result of these faulty plans. Moreover, the LifeStories concept, trumpeted endlessly in The Young and the Dead, may have been created to attract media attention; even if it isn’t, the proliferation of YouTube, iMovie, PowerPoint, and other low- and no-cost digital tools virtually guarantees that the LifeStories program won’t generate huge revenue streams. Tyler Cassity, who graciously cooperated with the writers who profiled him in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, Time, and a host of other publications, no longer answers media inquiries.

Despite its shortcomings and the scandal that now engulfs the Cassity family, The Young and the Dead is nonetheless a worthwhile examination of recent changes in the "death care" industry and memorialization of the dead. Archivists and other viewers interested in American social and business history should find that its merits outweigh its faults.


Russell James said...

This is a pretty cool idea for an old cemetery hunter like myself. I'd like to see this technology applied to many of the old cemeteries of the South I have visited, white and African American. The history in cemeteries is so vast and wonderful. I'd like to see that preserved in this way somehow. However, I guess the cost is pretty high for such things.

More said...

This is something new, I think it would be warmly accepted. It is a great idea.

You might be interested in The YES movie at by Louis Lautman. An excellent entrepreneurial resource.

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