Jane Campion’s ‘The Piano’ (1993). Image: AJ Pics / Alamy Stock Photo

The last sights

Stanley Schtinter’s new project draws our attention to the final movies that famous people watched before they died
October 4, 2023

There are film curators and then there’s Stanley Schtinter. He himself hates the term “curator”, finding it too stuffy, too joyless. He deals in delinquent, almost demented absurdism. From 2016 to 2020 he ran The Liberated Film Club off London’s Brick Lane: neither guest speakers (among them prominent directors such as John Akomfrah and Laura Mulvey) nor audiences knew what film was to be screened. Laughter, rather than chaos, reigned. Whisky would be passed around, sometimes mayonnaise. Singalongs ensued. 

During Covid, Schtinter, like many people, had more time on his hands than usual. Unlike other people, he used that time to watch every episode of the BBC soap opera EastEnders from when it was first broadcast in 1985. He then homed in on each scene that takes place within the walls of the Queen Vic, and edited them all into one extended indoor sequence. The resulting film was entitled The Lock-In, lasted 5,760 minutes (four days and nights), and was screened at various pubs across London’s East End in 2022. 

Now comes Last Movies, a book (and a touring programme) devoted to the final films watched by artists, criminals, politicians and front-page celebrities across the 20th century. It’s an opportunity, Schtinter says, “to see what those who no longer see last saw.” In the case of Anne Frank (whose last diary entry includes the line “I’m what a romantic film is to a profound thinker”), it was Malcolm St Clair’s The Lighthouse by the Sea (1924), a canine thriller starring the German Shepherd dog Rin Tin Tin. For Kurt Cobain of Nirvana, it was Jane Campion’s The Piano (1993). For Sergio Leone, it was—bathetically—I Want To Live! (1958) by Robert Wise.

This is an eccentric, tenacious, sometimes obsessive approach to writing film history. Schtinter calls it “a forensic of the last earthly dance of a star, and the pause they took to catch a movie.” He reconstructs the last days of Pier Paolo Pasolini, who travelled to Stockholm to screen his 1967 Oedipus Rex, gave a post-screening Q&A in which he told the audience he expected to be murdered soon, and asked his hosts for a tour of the city’s sex clubs. He then returned to Rome, where he was indeed brutally killed in what one former gang member claims was an extortion job. One chapter deals with the Heaven’s Gate cult on the west coast of America, 39 of whose members committed suicide shortly after watching Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies (1996). 

The more details Schtinter uncovers, the more mysterious his project becomes. What are we meant to understand from learning that Franz Kafka’s last movie was The Kid (1921) by Charlie Chaplin? Or that Chaplin started casting it one week after the death of his son Norman? Or that Norman’s tombstone reads only “The Little Mouse”? Or that, after Chaplin himself died in 1977 (his last movie was Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon), his coffin was dug up from a Lausanne cemetery by two refugees and held to ransom? Perhaps it’s the freedom to speculate, the unanswerability of those questions, that is its own reward.

It’s amusing that JFK’s last movie was Tony Richardson’s era-defining celebration of guilt-free promiscuity, ‘Tom Jones’

Boldface names, lurid details, strange connections: Schtinter, always eager to deflate pomposity, likens his project to an “occult version of OK! Magazine”. It’s eerie to discover that the place where, in 1986, Swedish prime minister Olof Palme was fatally shot on his way home from watching Suzanne Osten’s The Mozart Brothers was the exact spot where Andrei Tarkovsky had filmed a dream sequence for The Sacrifice that involved a crowd trying to flee an apocalyptic attack. It’s amusing that the last movie of John F Kennedy (who, according to journalist Ben Bradlee, enjoyed “the cool and the sex and the brutality” of From Russia With Love) was Tony Richardson’s era-defining celebration of guilt-free promiscuity, Tom Jones (1963).

Last Movies could be a morbid, ghoulish project. Schtinter renders it with poetry, glee, humour. Here’s Bette Davis travelling to San Sebastián, where it’s said that, in her eighties and dying of cancer, she sat and watched her younger self in James Whale’s Waterloo Bridge (1931). Here’s Joy Division’s Ian Curtis watching not only Werner Herzog’s Stroszek (1977) on late-night BBC Two but also, quite possibly, international golf highlights afterwards. 

As of November, Last Movies will be presented as a screening series. Schtinter, who says he’s committed to “the re-enchantment of the gathering”, hopes its striking conceit will attract bolder filmgoers. I myself can’t help wondering: what if we were to watch each movie as though it were our last?