Dying men are candid because they don’t expect to see us again. It’s their last day at work, so they don’t have to worry about causing offence, or making life awkward for themselves. They can scream if they want to scream; confess undying love; dynamite the unbearable niceties tomorrow enforces on us…and be real, for once. Even if “real” is another way of saying they don’t have to suffer the consequences of life. Deathbed candour is only as revealing as your faith in the supreme “revealing moment”. More likely, we don’t know the truth about ourselves five minutes before we die; instead, we know one truth: without the countdown, we’re all pragmatists.
In the short film, Tick Tock, a young man mistakenly believes he’s dying. A student prank leads him to think he’s overdosed on morphine pills. He reckons he has five minutes to live. What follows next is told backwards from when the five minutes are up. He tells his girlfriend he loves her. He tells his professor that his lectures suck. He tells a charity worker they can take all his money. And he tells his parents he wishes he had been a better son. Essentially, he behaves like a man on a whisky bender; frantic and sentimental in equal parts. Disorientation, for us, reflects the man’s fear. His life is apparently dissolving. Reverse chronology gives us the sense he’s being reeled in by death. For five minutes, he has no future.
Somewhat reminiscent of Run Lola Run with its ticking clock and sprinting hero, Tick Tock also wants you to question the forces which shape your life. Unlike Lola, the short isn’t concerned with predestination and free will, but rather five obstacles to personal fulfilment: Laziness, Indifference, Greed, Reputation, and Cowardice. Each in its own way stops us from being happy, and each is confronted when we believe we’re dying. As I’ve said, I’m not sure behaving with: Dynamism, Passion, Selflessness, Bravery and Lack of Ego…are any more human. But it is true we want to be well-thought-of when we die. The truest moment for me in Tick Tock is when the guy wants his wallet back. Though some might say he hasn’t learned anything if he’s still obsessed with material things, I would tell those people: we all need money, and the right make a U-turn.
One way to look at Tick Tock is as a high-stakes celebration of the simplicity of student life. Most forty-somethings would be hard-pressed to wrap up their lives in five minutes, but at eighteen, a quick “I love you” and a disgruntled “your lectures are stupid” pretty much rounds things off. It’s true, last words are often: “I love you”. And these are valid last words, and they do express something profound. But to discard all the finagling and the procrastination that make up life as somehow “untrue” seems juvenile. It’s as if you said: to be ambivalent was to be less human. But selfhood is muddy. For me, it’s the part of us that waits too long that’s most human; the stupendous, ignorant bliss of believing we have time.
Where a director like Gaspar Noe used reverse chronology to show us the gruesome tragedy of human lives (in Irreversible), here the focus is on living. Actions are not meaningless in Tick Tock’s universe. There’s no cynicism in this film. The hero’s retreat might be elegiac, but he runs so fast it’s as if he’s chasing death, with a view to stopping it, rather than speeding towards his inevitable doom. The film has enough creative energy to fuel a rocket. It’s composed as a tracking shot of which Brian DePalma would be proud. The image of a man running is so basic to cinema it’s like returning to Eadweard Muybridge and the first motion pictures. But the image works because it’s pure cinema; this action tells us everything.
I’m a believer in truth, but I have a soft spot for weakness. I think it’s ok if people bungle the last minutes of their lives. Or if people bungle their lives, period. The thing is, yes, Steve Jobs is right when he says “all external expectations…fall away in the face of death”, but that’s because they’re irrelevant then. And Steve Jobs is a billionaire. External expectations aren’t irrelevant if you’re going to live. Or if you’re forty, and unemployed. We sink or swim in this life based on negotiating “what is truly important”. What you value most isn’t always what pays the rent. Minutes from death, we long to be noble. After death, I bet we cherish wasted hours.