Talking Pictures

Stairway to Heaven

By David Templeton

For over five years, writer David Templeton has been taking interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. His guests have included Joan Baez, Larry King, Suzie Bright, Barry Lopez, and Ram Dass. This week, he ventures through heaven and hell with award-winning Seattle author Bruce Barcott, with whom he views the mystical epic What Dreams May Come.

I already knew that Bruce Barcott was an excellent writer, an award-winning author with a knack for describing the natural world so vividly that readers can all but smell, taste, and touch it. I also knew–from reading his book The Measure of a Mountain–that he’s a former philosophy major, holds a keen awareness of various schools of intellectual thought, is an accomplished backpacker, and knows all the words to the theme song from The Flintstones.

So, I was already pretty impressed.

But Bruce Barcott, I am further delighted to discover, also does a first-rate Max von Sydow impression.

Yes! We are going to hell now,” rumbles Barcott, adopting von Sydow’s thickly articulated baritone growl. “You want to go to hell, we’ll go to hell. Get in the boat. Don’t stand up.”

What has inspired this spontaneous homage is the film What Dreams May Come, which we have just seen, and in which von Sydow has a ripe little role as the surly “tracker” who leads a newly dead doctor (Robin Williams) across heaven and into hell in search of the doctor’s doomed wife. The film–a visually astonishing work with mind-blowing visions of the afterlife–was a bit gloomy and morose for my taste, and the character of an out-of-focus, heavenly “greeter” (Cuba Gooding Jr.) who spouts so many pop-psych aphorisms–“Your house has no windows; what is it you do not wish to see?”–that Barcott felt he’d wandered into a bad therapy session.

“Or a Deepak Chopra seminar,” he laughs. “After all that stale, New Age, Buddha-in-the-field stuff, Max von Sydow was a breath of fresh of fresh air. I couldn’t wait to go to Hell with him.”

There is plenty of hell–of a different kind–and of heaven too, in The Measure of a Mountain: Beauty and Terror on Mount Rainier. In Barcott’s award-winning exploration of Washington State’s mighty and majestic marvel, the Seattle-based author–a confessed acrophobic whose growing obsession with Rainier took him from its lush, low-lying meadows to the terrifying top of its icy summit–has written the eccentric biography of a passive-aggressive mountain, a mountain Barcott calls “the largest and most dangerous volcano in the United States of America.” In terms both geologic and poetic–with lots of personal insight and a double-dose of sharp-edged humor–Barcott lays into the monumental arrogance of the vast majority of mountain-climbers, but never denies the powerful draw of Rainier itself, a mountain so seductive and beautiful that many would give up their lives–and annually do–just to partake of its secrets.

Barcott, who admits to having thought a great deal about death while scaling Rainier, confesses to a somewhat utilitarian belief system when it comes to the afterlife.

“Yeah, well, I guess I’m a wimpy bet-hedger,” he shrugs. “I do think there’s someplace you go afterwards, and it appeals to the logical side of me–or maybe it’s just the Seattle side–that you would recycle souls, reincarnating back into someone else. That seems like a wise use of energy.”

“I’ve never thought it an unwise use of energy,” I counter, “to think that we might just become worm food and mulch, fertilizing the earth with our remains. Seems like a reasonable recycling of energy to me.”

He nods. “There’s that great Wallace Stegner quote,” he says. ” ‘The only thing I owe the earth is about three pounds of chemicals.’ “

“Three pounds?” I repeat. “Is that all?”

“Give or take a few ounces,” Barcott affirms.

In Dreams, the hereafter isn’t all that different, in its basic functions, from the bet-hedging Great Beyond that Barcott has described. There is reincarnation for anyone who signs up, and there is also heaven. In fact, there are countless heavens, one for each resident, custom-made to fit that person’s specific wishes and desires: Williams’ heaven is an impressionist landscape, still dripping wet with paint when he arrives. Max von Sydow’s heaven is an immense floating city with endless shelves all crammed with books.

As for hell, it’s the place for tormented souls and tragic suicides, people in such despair that, even in death, they can’t give up their unhappiness, and have fashioned their own tragic worlds in which to spend eternity.

“That whole suicide thing seemed a bit creepy to me,” Barcott notes. “What about someone who’s 67 years old and dying of cancer, and they decide to hasten their death by three weeks instead of lying there in a hospital dosed up on morphine? ‘Sorry. You’re off to hell. Should have waited three more weeks.’ It seems like an awful trick to play on someone in pain or despair.

“The whole other can of worms to open,” he goes on, “is the question: Who’s the line? Where’s the line between who gets into heaven and who doesn’t?”

Good question. In the film, God is pretty much just a rumor, kind of like on Earth; he’s “up there somewhere,” looking down, even in heaven, and there seems to be no so-called Judgment Day vibe going on; if you think you’re in heaven, you are.

Barcott once heard someone describe a way to determine if a movie is good or bad.

“The dividing line is the film The Truth about Cats and Dogs,” he explains. “Precisely neither good nor bad. So you’d say about a movie, ‘Gee, was it better than Cats and Dogs? Yeah? Well, than it’s a good movie. Was it worse? Then it’s a bad movie.’ So, using that system, what person, what life, would stand as dead center between heaven and hell?”

“Michael Milken,” I venture a guess.

“What about the normal person who leads a normal life, finally dies, and has an obituary three lines long?” he wonders. “He never did anything great, but never did anything especially bad. So does he simply pass on through because he doesn’t come close to Hitler or Pol Pot? Or is he judged according to little things, weighing every time he kicked a dog against every time he helped a little old lady across the street?”

Ah. The big questions.

“According to the movie,” I reply, “I guess it would depend on how happy he was during his ordinary, run-of-the-mill life.”

“Maybe his heaven will be Shopping Mall U.S.A. or something,” he observes.

“Which would serve as hell for other people,” I note. “They could save space that way.”

“Not everyone in Heaven is going to have good taste, you know,” Barcott warns. “My own hell,” he further remarks, “would probably be the first day of elementary school in a brand-new school where I didn’t know anyone. That was my childhood. We moved a lot. Every school year, I wanted to die.”

“Good hell,” I nod approvingly. “What about your heaven?”

“My heaven would be Max von Sydow’s library,” he answers. “That would be the main room in heaven house. The house would be a library, a bookstore, one room with eight or 10 of my best friends at a dinner party, and another with no one in it at all. Then there’d be a backyard, with mountains that came down to the ocean–but it would be an ocean with good waves and warm water.

“Would Mount Rainier be one of those mountains?”

“Sure, Why not?”

“And Max von Sydow? Would he be there in heaven?”

“Oh, absolutely,” Bruce Barcott is certain. “He’d be the librarian.”

Web extra to the October 15-21, 1998 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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