Madeleine Davies

The land that runs on memories: thoughts on Coco and grief

In Uncategorized on October 31, 2018 at 10:26 am


THE Land of the Dead was the “big design challenge” for the creators of Coco, according to the film’s lighting director, Danielle Feinberg. What should it look like?

“We all want to know the answer to that ultimate mystery: is there anything after death?” the director, Lee Unkrich, observes in an interview accompanying the film. “Is there a heaven? Is there a world to go to?”

What emerged from extensive research, including trips to Mexico, was a gorgeous vista of vertical cities, connected by vertiginous viaducts and lit up in a pretty palette – pink, orange and blue – evocative of enormous coral reefs. This soaring cityscape is built on pyramids that give way to pre-colonial architecture and topped by cranes signalling ongoing construction. It was in part inspired by designer Ernesto Nemesio’s visits to see his grandparents in Mexico, where he remembered close-knit buildings constructed almost on top of each other.

Although there are no living things in this world, what’s striking is how familiar it is. You arrive at magnificent iron-wrought station reminiscent of St Pancras or Grand Central, where customs staff are on hand to check your possessions (“Welcome back to the Land of the Dead. Please have all offerings ready for re-entry”). There are skyline trams, a plaza, concerts, and bureaucrats available to assist with family reunions.

“This isn’t a dream then?” asks Miguel Rivera, the 12-year-old at the centre of the film, who accidentally winds up here. “You’re all really out there? . . . I thought it might have been one of those made-up things that adults tell kids, like vitamins.”

When it was released in January, to huge critical acclaim, Coco was praised by the Telegraph’s Robbie Collin as a “zingy, sunny family adventure about what it means to be dead”. In doing so, he noted, it “crosses a frontier that most films, animated or otherwise, can only tip-toe up to at best”. Rated PG, it wasn’t too ghoulish or macabre for children, he reassured readers, but “healing and hopeful . . . in the way it makes sense of bereavement, Coco could conceivably become a means for children to better understand grief.”

I watched it this week and, while there were many things I loved about it, I’m not sure I’d entirely agree.

At the heart of Coco is memory. The theme, which reappears at several points, is “Remember Me”. Those who inhabit the Land of the Dead can only do so for as long as someone on Earth remembers them. “This place runs on memories”, Hector, Miguel’s guide, explains. When people stop remembering you, you fade. And when you are forgotten altogether, when there’s nobody left who remembers you, “you disappear from this world. We call it The Final Death.” It’s not enough to try to resurrect the memory of such a person, for memories have to be passed down by those who knew you in life, who can tell stories about you. Eventually, everyone fades.

These rules are bound up in Coco’s central message: the importance of family. “Our love for each other will live on forever” is the refrain of the final song.

This celebration of family is one of the most beautiful aspects of the film. There is a lovely montage in which Miguel explains his relationship with his great-grandmother, Mama Coco, who “has trouble remembering things but it’s good to talk to her anyway, so I tell her pretty much everything”. The power of music, another theme, is illustrated in a moving scene in which his singing manages to reaches her through the fog of dementia.

Another brilliant aspect is its celebration of Mexican culture. The bonus features that accompany the film include excellent interviews with its makers, many of whom have Mexican heritage. They talk about their own childhoods, the effect of never seeing families that looked their own on screen, and the people, stories and traditions that inspired Coco. The film is centred on Día de Muertos (Day of the Dead) and many of the elements of this festival have been lovingly recreated (this was a very interesting reflection on whether Disney got it “right” ). At the start of the film, the Rivera family is preparing for the return of members who have died.

In one interview, Daniel Arriaga, art director, recalls how a research trip to Mexico meant “seeing a cemetery for the first time that wasn’t sad. It was more of a celebration.”

“People might have preconceived notions that since our story takes place mostly in the land of the dead that that’s going to be a spooky place,” observes Unkrich. “Nothing could be further from the truth. . . It’s a land filled with music full of colour full of dance and it’s celebratory.”

In this, I think Collin gets it right: Coco does a great job of depicting an afterlife you’d actually want to go to. It’s, ironically, full of life. And on Earth, the dead are not hidden from sight but lovingly remembered in photographs placed on the family offrenda and in stories passed down the generations. The graveyard is not a place of horror but a public space full of fat white candles, dripping wax, and generous helpings of cempasúchil (marigolds). The primary emotion is not fear but love. There are Memento Moris everywhere you look, from the skull that tops the neck of Miguel’s guitar to the skeleton puppets on display in the plaza. I was reminded of the Ahlbergs’ Funnybones books.

Regardless of adults’ attempts to shield children from death, they often display a fascination with it, as described hilariously by Nicole Cliffe, who notes here that, “being honest about death with your child . . . is the fastest ticket to realizing we don’t know what death is.” Coco draws on Mexican traditions to pull us closer to it, suggesting that it’s best viewed at close range, rather than at a fearful distance.

Antonio Weiss points out that this approach is “all the more unusual in contemporary Mexican culture because so much of Euro-American 20th century thought has been about denying death – preserving the life of the citizen at all costs.”

Many articles written to explain Dia de Muertos seek to avoid confusion with Hallowe’en and emphasise the act of loving remembrance at its heart. This blog gives a Roman Catholic perspective, arguing that it “gives the bereaved an opportunity to become immersed in thoughts of a lost loved one and even to imagine that that loved one has paid them a visit.” Lourdes Gaza goes on to observe that, “Ironically, even though many church doctrines, including Christianity, espouse a life after death, Día de los Muertos makes it seem more real.”

Coco left me wondering about this diagnosis. Polls suggest that a significant number of people believe in heaven, yet I’m not sure I can remember ever hearing a sermon on it, despite the fact that everyone in the congregation must wonder about it, particularly perhaps, those recently bereaved. Perhaps I’m unusual and many clergy have preached on it!

Do we lack opportunities to talk about those who have died, and what has become of them? There is a fascinating essay here by Stephen Greenblatt in which he suggests that Shakespeare believed that, in the wake of the Reformation, “crucial death rituals in his culture had been gutted”. This week, the Times reported on a poll that suggested that people who did not believe in God were “more comfortable talking about their own demise”.

I don’t know what heaven will look like, and I’m far older than Coco’s suggested audience, but I found myself hoping that some of its creators’ instincts are correct. The Bible talks about Jesus coming to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death”, and yet I sense so many of us remain afraid. Perhaps we would be less so if we talked about what lies beyond. “Come on Miguel, it’s okay,” says the relative who helps him across the cempasúchil bridge to the Land of the Dead.

My hesitation in agreeing with Collin is that, in emphasising memory, and tying it to the fate of those who have died, Coco places quite a burden on the bereaved. For only those who are remembered on Earth – whose photos adorn an offrenda – may cross this bridge to Earth on Día de Muertos. “No photo on the offrenda, no crossing the bridge,” a border official intones. At the bottom of the majestic cityscapes of the Land of the Dead live the forgotten. And while Hector, initially one of their number, displays a certain sanguinity about the Final Death (“hey it happens to everyone eventually”) this is a frightening concept. For nobody knows where it leads.

It is good to remember those we love, but I think it’s really important not to present memory as a duty or burden. Many people, particularly children, may be frightened of forgetting the person who has died. They may feel guilty about fading memories, or afraid to “move on” and enjoy life, regarding it as a betrayal of the person, or of their grief. Telling stories about those who have died can be a beautiful and healing practice, but I’m very wary of the suggestion that in doing so we somehow “keep the person alive”. I don’t know what heaven looks like, but my faith is that it is real, and that, ultimately, we can trust God to remember and care for all those we love.

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