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Memento mori is a broad and understudied cultural phenomenon and experience. The term “memento mori” is a Latin injunction that means “remember mortality”, or more directly, “remember that you must die”. This terminology is applied to items – including artifacts, images, texts, and performances – and to experiences that bring a renewed consciousness of human mortality. In art and cultural history, memento mori appears widely, especially in medieval folk culture and in the well-known Dutch still life vanitas paintings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Yet memento mori extends well beyond these points in art and cultural history. In contemporary culture, I suggest a prominent form of memento mori is the medium and genre of documentary film. Documentaries may be best understood as offering composed transformative experiences in which the viewer is offered an opportunity to renew one’s consciousness of mortality and, thus, renew one’s action in life.

In this book, I introduce and provide context for the phenomenon of memento mori, its features, and its functions with special attention to how memento mori is referenced by documentaries. Memento mori is established as not only an item in art history but also as a broad cultural phenomenon that may be understood, first, as symbolic and pictorial, including religious imagery, still lifes, portraiture, and “visual quotations” in art, including photography. Second, memento mori may be identified as verbal, literary, and ideational, for example as picture nomenclature, verbal instruction, and verbatim and ideational references in literature. Third, memento mori may be found as referential, including its presence and operations in film and elsewhere in culture.

I suggest that memento mori is an “index of death” that points to empirical death, relies upon consciousness, and, also, is a cultural convention. Memento mori is an artifice with a history or cultural genealogy that relies upon particular social reception and relates to various and specific genres, media forms, and material. Yet, ultimately, I suggest thinking of memento mori as a composed transformative experience, which operates on intellectual, ethical, and affective levels.

Having established memento mori as consciousness of mortality, as a cultural convention, and as composed transformative experience, I argue, with the help of, among others, philosophers and theorists of film Vivian Sobchack (1984; 1992; 1999; 2004; 2011), Bill Nichols (1983; 1991; 1996; 2001; 2010; 2013), and Laura Mulvey (2002; 2004; 2006), that documentary film is an especially apt form of contemporary memento mori and is ultimately transformative, not simply informative.

Building on these and other film studies, specific levels of analysis by which memento mori may be identified in particular documentaries, segments of documentaries, and select footage are outlined, and several examples are discussed in chapters that alternate with the larger discussion. These examples include Charles and Ray Eames’s Powers of Ten (1968/1977), Wim Wenders’s Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989), and Derek Jarman’s Blue (1993), among numerous other works that are discussed throughout, including an in-depth discussion of viewer experience of the now iconic 9/11 news footage. Woven through the book and suggested in the conclusion is also a possible development and future for the phenomenon of memento mori as memento vivere: that is, “remember life”, “remember you will live”, or “wake up to the life one has to live”.