Category Archives: Cemetery movie review

Reviews of movies about cemeteries.

The Grove: AIDS and the Politics of Remembrance

Grove DVD001Film is the perfect medium to capture the beauty and peace of the National AIDS Memorial Grove in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This documentary, in particular, captures the memorial across the seasons, such as they are in San Francisco:  spring, summer, rain, swirling fog. There’s a real sense that this is a living, breathing, growing landscape.

For all that, the AIDS Grove is an artificial landscape, carved out of sand and neglect in the midst of an extremely busy park. The people who do the work of gardening, maintenance, and building the memorial features came to be at odds (fortuitously for the filmmaker) over just what this landscape remembers.

Originally the Grove was envisioned as a peaceful place where people who felt ostracized from traditional holy ground could hold memorial gatherings and grieve without stigma for the tens of thousands who’ve died of AIDS and have no other monument. As the worst of the epidemic seems to be over and AIDS directly impacts fewer lives each year, the Grove’s board of directors wonders, “Is this memorial for people who suffered the losses firsthand or for future generations?”

A false comparison is made to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington DC, visited by two million people each year. For one thing (which the film neglects to note), that Memorial stands between the Washington Monument and the Lincoln Memorial. It’s not like people go out of their way to see the Vietnam Memorial. For another, fewer than 50,000 American soldiers died during the Vietnam War, while 636,000-and-counting have died of AIDS in the US. The Vietnam War ended; AIDS continues to ravage the world. Apples and oranges.

The documentary records the impassioned debate between the factions who see the Grove as a healing space and those (mostly not directly affected by the plague) who feel the Grove isn’t shocking enough to force untouched visitors to feel how devastating the plague was.  The schism appears generational.

Without comment, the movie captures the contest to design a new memorial element as a way to confront people and cause controversy. Tellingly, while emphasis was placed on finding a memorial design that would shock the future, the winning design had its own obsolescence planned in. If built, the stark charred-wood “Living Memorial” would have had seeds planted inside its planks so that, in time, nature would have reclaimed and obscured it. No one in the film notes the irony that, $6 million and a decade later, the Grove would return to being a garden once more.

The film spends too much time interviewing tourists who have gotten lost in Golden Gate Park seeking the Japanese Tea Garden. If the point is that the Grove is not well known, I suspect the solution is better advertising. It seems to me that the Grove faces the same problem that more traditional cemeteries face: how do you draw people who are not connected to the dead through your gates?

Finally, at the end, the film shows a volunteer sobbing because his team found a marble urn in the Grove when they were weeding. A man is shown scattering ashes. Memorial services are held. I’m not sure if this is meant as counterpoint to the aborted design contest, but it demonstrates that the National AIDS Memorial Grove does serve a real and necessary purpose. Perhaps it’s more personal in scope than “national” implies — and some on the board of directors are comfortable with that, but until the plague has ended, there continues to be a need for a place to remember and grieve.

The film has shown several times on PBS. It’s worth seeking out. It will give you much food for thought.

Traveling through Movies

St. Louis #1, New Orleans

St. Louis #1, New Orleans

I’m working hard to promote The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two, a collection of ghost-hunting reports and short stories which I edited, with a series of interviews on my other blog. Unfortunately, that means that Cemetery Travel hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves.

While I haven’t been getting out physically to visit cemeteries, it doesn’t meant that I’ve stopped obsessing about them. In fact, my husband and I were watching a movie last night when the action suddenly raced through a graveyard. If it had been possible, I would’ve slowed the movie down to a frame at a time so I could really absorb what I was seeing. The plot would have had to wait for me to glut my eyes.

The cemetery feature I was enjoying? It’s called The Naked City, the 1948 noir that gave us the line, “There are eight million stories in the naked city.” You may have even watched the movie without noticing the cemetery scene at all, since it’s just a backdrop for the murderer to flee the police. I turned to my husband and said, “I think that’s the Marble Cemetery.”

We’d stood outside its locked gate last summer while I pined to get in.

It’s got me thinking about other cemeteries that show up in movies. One of the first I saw was Holy Cross–in Colma, California–in this great scene from Harold and Maude:

And there’s the acid trip scene in Easy Rider, which was filmed in St. Louis Cemetery #1 in New Orleans. I won’t link to that here, since I can’t find a clip that shows much of the cemetery, but it’s in the movie, if you care to go looking for it.

One of my favorite cemetery scenes that’s actually integral to the movie’s plot is in the scene in the churchyard of San Francisco’s Mission Dolores in Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart follows Kim Novak to a prop headstone, but while most people are watching the story unfold, I’m always admiring the old rosebushes and the lovely old gravestones and the imitation Grotto of Lourdes that has since been removed. You can catch a glimpse of the graveyard in the trailer:

Think about it: how many cemetery scenes can you name in movies?  When you saw it, were you paying attention to the plot–or were you, like me, trying to read the headstones?

Edited to add:

I’ve been doing more research about the cemetery in The Naked City.  The best I can figure out is that it isn’t really a cemetery at all.  Take a look at a still from the film:

naked_tombstonesNot only are the tombstones very close together, but there’s no visible text on any of them.  I think this isn’t a graveyard at all but a tombstone showroom.  That’s sort of borne out here.

Still, my point remains:  I obsess over graveyards in movies.


A Second Final Rest

In August 2005, I finally had the pleasure of seeing Trina Lopez’s documentary A Second Final Rest: The History of San Francisco’s Lost Cemeteries. It was worth the wait.

I heard Lopez speak on Halloween (2002?) at the California Historical Society. She showed the most amazing slides of the historical cemeteries of San Francisco, all of which were demolished and thrown into the sea in the 1940s. I’ve known about the travesty since we moved to San Francisco and discovered that the rain gutters in Buena Vista Park were lined with broken headstones — some still legible — but I’d never seen the photo record of the extensive beauty that was lost. Lopez’s research was impeccable. Her passion for the topic burned.

While those elements carried over into the film, it included less of the historic documentation that I would have liked. The focus of the film is interviews Lopez did with seniors who remember playing amidst the crumbling monuments or walking past the tattered clothing unearthed in the excavations. Unfortunately, while those interviews played in voice-overs, we watched the seniors puttering around in the gardens or riding the Muni. I’m sure that was more cost-effective for the filmmaker, but I was disappointed by what might have been.

My favorite part of the film was the interview with Richard Barnes, the photographer who documented the exhumations of the bodies under the Palace of the Legion of Honor’s new gallery space. His comparison of the care taken with the artwork in storage vs. the callous way that the pioneers’ bones were treated served as the heart of the movie.

A Second Final Rest will break your heart.  Check it out if you love cemeteries, San Francisco, or history.

The filmmaker’s website has links of historical interest.

At the moment, there aren’t any upcoming showings scheduled, but you can order a copy of the movie on DVD or buy a download from

Forever: A Movie to Avoid

As you can guess, I adore cemeteries. I wrote about them monthly for four years for Gothic.Net and didn’t come close to exhausting everything I wanted to say on the subject. I love everything about cemeteries: the monuments, the landscaping, the wildlife, the history, the iconography, the people you meet in them and the stories they tell…

I never thought I’d see a boring cemetery documentary.

In May 2007 I endured Forever, a documentary by Heddy Honigmann about Paris’s Pere Lachaise Cemetery. Afterward, I was so furious that I couldn’t wind down and go to sleep. Three hours of my life I’ll never get back!

For those of you who don’t know, Pere Lachaise Cemetery is an enormous graveyard, full of political and artistic celebrities. Honigmann assumed that everyone viewing the movie knew the cemetery’s history. In fact, outside the theater afterward, I heard an older couple trying to puzzle out what the graveyard’s name meant. They’d heard Pere (which means Father) as Pierre (stone). Lachaise (Father Lachaise’s last name) they translated as “the chair.” So they were struggling to figure out why the graveyard was named for a stone chair. I wondered if I should stop and clarify things for them, but I’d paid $24 for two tickets to the damn movie and wasn’t in the mood to be charitable.

Honigmann’s modus operandi seemed to be loitering at the graves of famous people with her camera crew until she could find someone to talk about their relationship with the deceased. Most of the conversations were inane: people visiting Proust’s grave who hadn’t read his work, a South Korean fan of Proust who explains his adoration in untranslated Korean, a gathering at the grave of the Communards full of atonal singing and absolutely no context or explanation. If you didn’t know who the Communards were or that they were shot down inside the cemetery before you saw the film, you’d still be clueless afterward.

Worst of all, people’s ruminations were completely unedited. Whenever an interview subject paused for thought, the camera remained trained on their faces for an embarrassing and excruciatingly long time. It wasn’t enough to hear a snatch of song by an unknown chanteuse, we had to listen to her whole song, lingering over every nuance of her gravestone for three minutes.

One of the recurring people in the movie was a Japanese pianist who’d come to Paris to study Chopin in memory of her father. Over and over through the movie, we watched her sitting at her piano, practicing, complete with sour notes and repetitions of phrases until she mastered them. The movie ended with her playing an entire etude. While any sane film maker would have used the lovely music as a soundtrack to explore the exquisite sculpture of the cemetery, Honigmann made us suffer through watching the pianist’s face in enormous closeup. For the entire length of the piece of music.

I’ve never seen so many people checking the time on their cellphones in my life.

Perhaps I could have felt more forgiving of the movie if I hadn’t been forced to sit through a mind-numbing interview with the director beforehand. The evening started late, they presented her an award (!), she gave an acceptance speech, then a movie critic interviewed her for the longest hour of my life. If only it had been light enough in the theater to read… Or if I’d guessed the damn questions were going to go on so long, I would’ve sat in the lobby. All around me, people shifted and muttered, groaning each time the interviewer posed another question. After that finally concluded with a brief Q&A, there was an intermission. When I left during the movie’s credits at 11 p.m., the film festival people were gearing up for a second Q&A. If anyone remained in the theater. It looked to me as if people were pouring out, as irritated as I was.

The highlight of the evening occurred in the lobby. A woman complained to her friends, “On top of everything else, I had a snoring tranny sitting next to me all night!” Several of us grinding our teeth in the lobby burst out laughing.

Let’s just say this: I will never watch another Heddy Honigmann documentary. I will never download a movie from Jaman, who sponsored the award given to her. And I will never forgive the San Francisco International Film Festival, for failing to warn me to come an hour late and miss the interview ordeal.

And the description made the movie sound so wonderful!  I was so looking forward to it.

Here’s the trailer: