The Young & the Dead
directed by Shari Springer Berman
& Robert Pulcini
(Tail Slate, 2000)

Assume most people would like to be remembered when they die. And assume Hollywood, per capita, may have one of the highest concentrations of self-absorbed people in the universe. Then Hollywood, even more than most places, is full of people, famous and not so famous, who really, really want to be remembered after they go to that big motion picture theater in the sky.

That's not to say The Young & the Dead is a documentary solely about egocentric, wealthy people who are intent upon memorializing themselves -- people who would rather have the last word from beyond the grave. There are moments of intense sincerity -- many of them -- that speak volumes about how we hope to be remembered after we die.

But The Young & the Dead profiles the efforts that are bringing a landmark Hollywood cemetery from its recent past as a site for drug deals and illicit encounters of all kinds, back to a 21st-century version of its glory days. Call it rags-to-riches for burial grounds.

Hollywood Memorial Park for generations was a 62-acre sanctuary parked right next to Paramount's studios (the movie giant was, in fact, built on land formerly owned by the cemetery). You can't get much closer to The Biz than that, and for decades some of Hollywood's most famous (Valentino, Tyrone Power) and infamous (Fatty Arbuckle) were buried there.

The operation, now owned by Tyler Cassity, has become Hollywood Forever (its logo a nifty little infinity symbol), and its premise a little more hip than competitor Forest Hills: Hollywood Forever will create a 15-minute video for you, while you're alive, that will let you tell your own life story. Cemetery visitors can access your "life" from kiosks on the cemetery grounds, or even through the cemetery's own website. It's all apparently part of a chain, or a franchise of sorts, on immortality by video.

But beneath all the technology is a look at both the crass and tender side of making your arrangements for the hereafter. It's not quite as bizarre as Errol Morris's Gates of Heaven, a 1978 documentary about a California pet cemetery, but it sometimes comes close.

People should think about their memorial, argues one Hollywood Forever partner, because it'll last a lot longer than your life did. "If you have a crappy font on your headstone," he says in all seriousness, "I think it would reflect on your attention to detail."

Well, yes, for an off-the-chart Type A, it would.

When The Young & the Dead gets interesting, it's giving more than 15 minutes of fame to customers like Bud Testa, an old-school Hollywood publicist, and the process of making funeral arrangements for his ill wife. It interviews fans of Valentino, born generations after he died, who attend the screen legend's annual memorial service at the cemetery. It's giving time to an unctuous representative of Forest Hills, who recites that cemetery's creed as if it's the Magna Carta.

And it's examining the policies of paranoid Jules Roth, who established Hollywood Memorial Park and who denied burial to Oscar-winner Hattie McDaniel because she was black.

Cemeteries are for the living, it's true. And The Young & the Dead looks at our efforts, both sincere and futile, to stay in that world of the living just a bit longer.

- Rambles
written by Jen Kopf
published 19 July 2003

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