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From Kurt to Elvis, JFK and more, what movies did stars see just before they died?

Clad in black and wearing a cheeky-chappie grin, the artist and author Stanley Schtinter resembles Damon Albarn dressed as an undertaker. That suits his new book, Last Movies, which refracts cultural history through the prism of films watched by notable figures soon before their deaths. Stocking-fillers such as 1,001 Movies You Must See Before You Die are 10 a penny, but this is a more profound proposition: 28 Movies They Saw Before They Died. Bette Davis, Charlie Parker and Steve Jobs are among the cinema-goers attending this last picture show, which mixes fact with scintillating speculation. What parallels might Kurt Cobain have drawn, for instance, between the life he was about to leave and The Piano, the last film he saw, in which a woman is sold, brutalised and deprived of her beloved musical instrument?

“I wanted to see if I could remap the century of cinema based on something other than the usual categories or value judgments,” Schtinter explains over coffee at Close-Up, a London cafe, cinema and DVD library. His book opens with Franz Kafka bowing out in 1924 after watching Charlie Chaplin’s silent comedy The Kid. The last film to unspool in front of Chaplin’s eyes, before his life flashed before them in 1977, was a print of Barry Lyndon, directed by Stanley Kubrick. (Chaplin “hated to send it back”, he wrote in a telegram to Kubrick.) That film-maker, in turn, watched the trailer for his own swansong, Eyes Wide Shut, right before his own eyes shut for good in 1999.

Elvis Presley hired out a Memphis cinema to screen The Spy Who Loved Me before the end credits rolled on his own life

At least Kubrick was permitted to rest in peace, unlike Chaplin, whose body was exhumed and held for ransom. And unlike the director FW Murnau (final film: his own Tabu: A Story of the South Seas), whose skull was snatched by grave-robbers. Unlike, too, the gangster John Dillinger, gunned down by the FBI outside Chicago’s Biograph cinema in 1934 after seeing Manhattan Melodrama; his body, Schtinter reports, was “defiled” by a mortician. Last Movies itself might represent a kind of exhumation but there is no whiff of defilement here. “I was trying to honour the people I’m writing about,” says Schtinter. “I don’t want to be flippant.”

The narrative stretches from the 1920s to the 2020s – the final entry is for Jean-Luc Godard, who died last year – and incorporates various digressions, such as a run-down of the TV schedules on the night Ian Curtis of Joy Division hanged himself. But where was this whole deathly idea born? “It started when I read about Olof Palme’s assassination,” Schtinter explains, referring to the Swedish prime minister who was shot dead in 1986 after leaving a Stockholm cinema. “That made me wonder, ‘What did he see?’” The answer turned out to be The Mozart Brothers, directed by Suzanne Osten, who had in fact offered Palme a role in her film. Would he even have been at the cinema were it not for that link? And does that make the movie itself culpable? Schtinter quotes the late director Louis Malle: “The cinema can kill, just like anything else.”

If Palme’s murder inspired the book then the philosophy behind Last Movies is more broadly characteristic of Schtinter, who has been described by the writer Iain Sinclair as “the witchfinder general of cultural complacency”. His career is devoted to rendering the drearily familiar in an impish and alien fashion. His previous project, The Lock-In, stitched together scenes shot in the Queen Vic from EastEnders to create a 100-hour film set entirely in that fictional pub. In 2018, he restaged Princess Diana’s funeral, word-for-word, on the streets of Manchester, replacing the original music with a mariachi band. In 2021, Important Books (Or, Manifestos Read by Children) did what it said on the tin: anyone yearning to hear The Communist Manifesto read by an eight-year-old boy was in luck.

“The way I measure whether to spend time on a project is firstly to ask, ‘Does it make me laugh?’” he says. “And then, once I’ve finished laughing, does it activate anything? There has to be some kind of liberating application.” The Important Books idea came to him before he learned that the current Conservative government had outlawed the use in schools of any resources from groups wishing to end capitalism. “I already wanted to hear The Communist Manifesto read by a child. Then I heard about the ban, which means that you can’t teach resistance in schools, and I thought, ‘I need to pursue this.’”

Last Movies shakes up the orthodoxy in its own way. “I think it’s important to abandon the criteria by which we organise history,” Schitnter says. “As it stands, it’s not working. What we end up with is this biased history leaning heavily toward James Bond: chauvinism, expensive food, the killing of foreigners. It’s kind of how JFK got to power in a weird way. He wanted to position himself as a serious literary guy but he also needed this strongman element on the side.”

Related: EastEnders goes Warhol with a 100-hour bender in the Queen Vic – The Lock-In review

The likelihood is that Kennedy’s last movie was From Russia With Love, but he isn’t the only Bond fan in the book. Elvis Presley hired out a Memphis cinema to screen The Spy Who Loved Me in the weeks before the end credits rolled in his own life. From this starting point, the Presley chapter spirals off into a survey of the King’s eating habits, from the squirrels he devoured as a youth to the hamburgers, Pepsi-soaked Sweet Tarts and deep-fried peanut butter and banana sandwiches that hastened his exit. That leads on to a playlist of food-related songs in the singer’s discography, including It’s Carnival Time, taken from Presley’s 1964 film Roustabout, which featured a small role for Richard Kiel, who went on to play the metal-toothed baddie in … yes, The Spy Who Loved Me. Wade more than a dozen pages into Last Movies and these connections start to reveal themselves like constellations on a cloudless night.

Soon you are spotting them everywhere. A week before our interview, I happen to be on my way to Close-Up to rent a DVD when I receive an email from Schtinter: due to car trouble, he finds himself unexpectedly in London for the day, and will be hanging out at Close-Up, so did I want to call in and say hello? That coincidence would be strange enough even if the title I was coming to collect wasn’t Death in Venice (“Devastating film,” he murmurs when I arrive, turning the DVD over in his hands). This in turn prompts him to mention that he will shortly be visiting Venice for the first time. The reason: a trip to lift the spirits of a recently bereaved friend.

Then there are the pictures in his book, which are printed upside down. “It’s indicative of what the book is doing with history,” he says. Turning it on its head, in other words. That’s when I show him a screenshot on my phone from a 2021 film that I love: its protagonist, a trans actor, has a rogues’ gallery on his wall of cis-gendered performers who have played trans roles, such as Jared Leto and Hilary Swank. These portraits are hung upside down, just like the illustrations in Last Movies. And the title of that film? Death and Bowling. “Excellent synchronicity!” Schtinter says, practically rubbing his hands.

Death may be ubiquitous but these coincidences are plain freaky. Was he ever creeped out while writing the book? “It does feel like I’m crossing the line,” he admits now. “If you’re spending extensive amounts of time quite isolated, and concentrating on a project that takes death as one of its central components, then you want … I don’t know. Just to take care. Death might think you’re one of them.”

What really gave him the heebie-jeebies was pondering the drug-addled director Rainer Werner Fassbinder, who watched the crime drama 20,000 Years in Sing Sing during the final moments of his life. “It’s wild that the telegram shown in the film is dated 10 June 1932, which is 50 years to the day before Fassbinder watched it. And it’s the telegram that changes the narrative so that Spencer Tracy is sent to his death.” The room suddenly feels a few degrees colder. “These ghosts are real,” he says ominously. “We don’t really grapple with it or consider it but that’s what we’re seeing up there on the screen: ghosts.”

• Last Movies is published by Tenement Press. A series of monthly screenings is at the ICA, London, until March