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…
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.'"
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
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.
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
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.
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.