Feature Articles    Meet Joe Black: Death visits Earth
Meet Joe Black uses the classical mythology of Death as an entity and an Otherworldly realm, but has turned the imagery upside down. Rather than a hero’s descent to the Underworld, Death ascends to Earth…
by Philip Coppens

The descent of men – heroes – into the Underworld, the Realm of Dead, is a well-known mythological theme. Often, a person descends to meet the Lord of the Underworld, asking him to return his beloved, and let her return with him to the World of the Living.

The name of the hero varies from legend to legend, but the best-known example is perhaps that of Orpheus, made into a surreal trilogy by Jean Cocteau in the middle of the 20th century. Orpheus went to Hades to plead for the release of the soul of his dead wife, Eurydice. His beautiful music captivated the god of the dead, who granted his request on condition that Orpheus should not look back when leaving the Underworld, otherwise Eurydice would have return to Hades. Orpheus failed to honour this rule of the spiritual path and hence his journey was in vain.

Nevertheless, Orpheus lent his name to the Orphic Mysteries, where the descent theme was the core of the experience. In a later phase of this religion, devotees were buried with small gold tablets on which were etched not only descriptions of the entrance to Hades, but also intimations of the mystic ritual to prepare the departing soul for its after-death journey. Another mythological theme is how the god of the Underworld – once again the Greek Hades – abducted Persephone, the daughter of Demeter, to his kingdom. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter dates from the 7th century BC. The hymn describes how Hades stole Persephone, how her mother searched for her and hid the seed within the earth until she got her daughter back again. Persephone eventually returned, but only for part of the year, because she had eaten seeds in the underworld and had to spend four months of the year with her husband.

The secret rites at Eleusis, one of the major oracular sites of ancient Greece, celebrated Persephone’s return to her mother. Though no-one knows exactly what happened at the Mysteries, it is suggested that a “descent into the Underworld” occurred by those seeking to make contact with the spirits of the dead. These two myths form the foundation for the story of the movie Meet Joe Black, released in 1998. Here, it is not a hero who descends to the Underworld, but “Death” who decides to surface on Earth. Furthermore, while doing so, Death falls in love with a woman, but in this case decides not to take her with him to his Infernal Realm. Death takes on the name of “Joe Black”, as he wants to be your “average Joe” and he is of course, as Death, best known for the colour black.

Meet Joe Black took director/producer Martin Brest two decades before the project became a reality. Brest decided to centre the film on a successful businessmen, William Parrish, and his assessment of his life and the astonishing appearance in his house of an otherworldly presence.

Though the movie has Brad Pitt (as Joe Black) and Anthony Hopkins (William Parrish) as the leading actors, the movie did not become the classic it could have become. For starters, in the US, the movie was preceded by the first trailer for the new Star Wars film, The Phantom Menace. This meant that many people bought tickets for the movie, but only stayed for the trailer, then left the theatre, before Meet Joe Black actually began. But it failed largely due to some negative reviews, including some who felt that the movie was “too long”. Specifically Pitt was taken to task for “wooden acting”. However, Pitt plays the role of “Death”, who for millennia has been taking life – or to use Death’s own words: “Just think of millennia multiplied by eons compounded by time without end, I’ve been around that long…” Now, he wants to explore what it feels to live, and therefore takes the body of a recently deceased person, and uses that to explore life. He makes contact with William Parrish, who is supposed to die of a heart attack. However, “Death” lets him live, so that he can act as a guide for “Joe Black”. Together, they will put certain situations right, which otherwise would not have been put right if Parrish had died from his heart attack. The “wooden attitude” of Joe Black fits in with Death taking on a human form, and feeling totally alien in it.

Trying to accommodate the criticism, a two-hour version was made to show on television and airline flights. This involved cutting most of the plotline involving Hopkins’ character’s business. Brest disowned the movie, and the director’s credit was changed to Alan Smithee, the usual director’s name used for movies they disown. Still, the movie gained an unexpected, somewhat anonymous claim to fame when a clip of the crash scene (which kills the person whose body Joe Black will take) became something of an Internet phenomenon, leading many Internet viewers to believe that the scene was authentic footage. Meet Joe Black is based on the 1934 movie Death Takes a Holiday and the 1920s stage play that preceded it. The original film was adapted from a play by Alberto Casella. In the original version, Death poses as Prince Sirki and spends three days with Duke Lambert and his guests at his estate. Several women are attracted to the mysterious prince, but shy away from him when they sense his true nature. But Grazia, the beautiful young woman whom the Duke thought was to marry his son, loves him even when she knows who he really is.

Brest’s 1998 film has removed the royal setting, changing it for a hard business environment that hallmarks much of the late 20th century. Joe’s stay also seems to be longer than three days. In the original edition, it is clear that the timeframe of how long someone most spend in the Underworld – three days – now also applies to Death being able to stay in “our” world.

Both the original and the 1998 edition are not negative. At no time have the directors decided to portray Death as a man who extinguishes the life out of flowers or the flames from candles by merely walking past. The movies aren’t depressing and the endings are surprisingly uplifting. In Meet Joe Black, Death is largely unemotional. He has a job to perform and even though people may be afraid to die, those in the movie who meet him are remarkably unafraid, which includes a woman in a hospital who is terminally ill. Parrish equally is more afraid of his daughter’s ill fate than his own demise. Only at the very end does he question Death whether he should have anything to fear. The original success of the stage version, both in Florence and New York, and the successive movie, had both to do with the strong performances of the leading actors. But, as Hollywood knows, as long as strong mythological themes are used, the audience will fall in love with the movie. And, as mentioned, the story has used and worked with two strong mythological themes, taken from Greek mythology. Hades, otherwise known as the Underworld, was the abode of the dead or, more accurately, of departed souls. It is necessary to distinguish between Hades the locality and Hades the god of the Underworld, “Death”. Hades comes from a Greek root meaning “unseen,” “hidden,” or “unknown.” Relevant comparisons can be found in the Egyptian religion, where the equivalent of Hades is Amenti, meaning “hidden place” or “place of the hidden god,” and in the roots of the word “hell”, which had the sense of “hiding” or “concealing.” In mythology, Hades was located under the earth; hence the journey to Hades involved a descent.

Hades in ancient traditions was not just a place where sinful souls were tortured. The Greeks also saw it as a gateway to a heaven-like existence. One road in Hades led to Tartaros, where imaginative punishments were administered, the other, the right hand road, led to the Elysian Fields. As such, Hades was a midway station, and not equal to the Christian concept of Hell. A descent into the Underworld, the abode of the deceased, is therefore “emotionally neutral” – and this is largely how Pitt plays Death. Meet Joe Black also did away with the traditional presentation of Death. This either comes in the form of an angel, or of a hooded and cloak man, sometimes wielding a scythe. Still, it does conform to the general norm that Death is personified as a man.

Today, we consider death to be an event, but in ancient civilisations, death was (also) considered to be an entity – a god; the Grim Reaper. The angel of Death, in a biblical setting, is known as Azrael. The Greeks labelled him Thanatos.

However, “Joe Black” differs from the biblical characteristics of Azrael, who is an angel deprived of all voluntary power. Thanatos and Hades have a will of their own, as has Joe Black, who exercises that possibility by taking a holiday – and a human wife if he so desires.

Still, in his biblical setting, he is also known for his almost random acts of mass suicide: he smites 185,000 men in the Assyrian camp (II Kings xix. 35), kills the first-borns of the Egyptians during the Exodus, etc., displaying our angel has a “temper”, even though he only seems to be acting on God’s wishes.

The biggest digression from the Judaic angel of death is precisely in Joe’s freedom, whereby Parrish is allowed to put his affairs in order. The biblical setting (Eccl. viii. 4) is explained in the Midrash Rabbah: “One may not escape the angel of death, nor say to him, ‘Wait until I put my affairs in order,’ or ‘There is my son, my slave: take him in my stead.'” Death on a holiday on Earth results in an “entity” being outside his normal domain. There are numerous references to this in the movie. Specifically those characters close to dying themselves, which includes Parrish, tell Joe that there must be something “wrong” with him if Death decides to incarnate. What is missing in his existence that he craves to learn what it feels like to be human? Parrish “informs” Death that “You may be the ‘pro’, Joe. But I know who you are, and you’re all fucked-up!” The old dying Antillan lady in the hospital equally tells him “You are not in your right place, Mister.”

In classical mythology, Death’s loneliness – an altogether human emotion – is portrayed by his abduction of a woman into his realm, to keep him company. Here, his loneliness is shown by his decision to incarnate – and subsequently falling in love. These “emotions” make him vulnerable, if not compassionate. Meet Joe Black sat within a period in which a series of movies placed death at the centre of their plotlines. The other two were City of Angels and What Dreams May Come, whereby City of Angels received high critical acclaim.

Each of these movies is a fantasy about death, some of them taken from the Bible, some of them from classical mythology. In City of Angels, an angel abandons eternal life to become a human and experience human love. It turns out he is not the only one. In What Dreams May Come, a man and wife, living in heaven after their deaths, decide that they have not had enough of this world and come back to experience more.

Meet Joe Black and City of Angels differ from the latter, as these two movies incorporate some of the mythological theme of the Rebellion of the Angels, in the Bible portrayed by Lucifer, in which angels decide to taste the pleasures of the flesh – i.e. live as humans.

The eternal realms may know peace, but they do not know pleasure, and that is what this world has to teach them. The specific “pleasure” involves that old sin of Adam and Eve – love and sex. Nevertheless, Meet Joe Black is without any references to God – either in a biblical or mythological sense. There are, for example, no references to any negative repercussions for Death’s actions. It is not God who threatens Death to end his holiday and stop messing with humans; it are, in fact, human being who inform Death that he is “out of place” and perhaps needs to rediscover his balance, and then return to his domain.

The movie’s finale begins with the key attraction as to why Death decided to incarnate in the first place. When Parrish and Death decide to “go” (i.e. die), Parrish tells Death: “It’s hard to let go, isn’t it?”, to which Joe replies “Yes.” Parrish adds: “That’s life. What can I tell you?” powerfully summing up his role as guide for Death’s holiday on Earth.

In classical mythology, there is often a guide – a psychopomp – who guides the searching soul in his descent into the Underworld. In Meet Joe Black, Death receives his own psychopomp: Parrish. Susan, Parrish’s daughter, had met the “body” of Joe before [the person is never mentioned by name, and even in the script, is referred to as “Young Man”], and had fallen in love with that person, which explains her early attraction to Joe, at a time when she does not realise he is “someone else” – Death.

When Death has decided not to take her with Him to the Underworld, the symbolism of the ancient myth is taken up again: though Susan has not descended into the Underworld to ask Death for the soul of the “Young Man”, Death has understood that she is in love with the “Young Man”. As a consequence, once he has returned to the Underworld, he allows the body of the Young Man to return to the world of the living, as a gift to Susan, with whom he has fallen in love – a reference to the many “holiday romances” so many humans experience. Again, it is a theme from classical mythology, but not used in its ordinary sense; Susan never asks for the “Young Man”’s return; Death decides to offer her this present out of his own free will – a thank you, it seems, for the good holiday he had while being on Earth.