Existentialism In Film

First published on Little White Lies (24 March 2010) //

To look at the endemic slew of mediocre films rolling onto screens every week, it might be trite to comment that ideas are not always the primary concern of a mainstream film; the aim of purely entertaining is an aspiration that can frequently take primacy rather than bogging down the viewer by inspiring original thought.

Of course it’s easy to bash the majority of Hollywood’s desolate offerings simply on the basis that they repeatedly deliver a one-dimensional worldview that the audience can usually recognise as false or even dishonest. Yet the marriage of philosophy with the decaying bride of mainstream cinema was successfully achieved, in both artistic and commercial terms, during the galvanising film noir period at the beginning of the 1940s.

Rooted in the cinematic style of German Expressionism and developing throughout the trauma of the inter and post-war periods, not to mention the Great Depression, noir progressed film as a valid medium through which dark psychological and philosophical meanderings could now be taken, both viewer and filmmaker together.

With alienated anti-heroes face-to-face with the abyss of human existence the period often depicted existential thought in largely negative terms. Particularly toward the end of the period, protagonists maniacal in thought and reckless in action were often judged from a dogmatically bumptious view of what was ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ and, with thanks to the censoring endeavours of the MPPC, regardless of the character’s situation or integrity, resolute virtue was often rewarded in the final act. Nevertheless, films like Carol Reed’s The Third Man and Anthony Mann’s T-Men portrayed a bleak world where little separates the good and the bad, where characters create their own purpose and meaning, topped with finales that deliver lasting commentaries on the futility of struggle and the absurdity of existence.

Popular with the French New Wave auteurs who, like their philosopher forefathers came to varied conclusions, the ‘existentialist film’ began to flourish. These ideas, favoured by the likes of Truffaut, Godard and Rohmer, soaking their films in the pervasive themes of anxiety, despair and choice were not, however, originated in film; literature was the usual catalyst. Hall-of-fame thinkers and writers such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Dostoevsky, Jaspers, Sartre and Camus had already been tackling these topics for years and, much like film noir, existentialism was largely categorised as a school or style retrospectively.

Reflective of the critical thinking that took root during this time, directors and screenwriters such as Bergman, Antonioni, Tarkovsky and Kurosawa began to actively tackle the struggle of the individual, but within a context of serious social and political upheaval. Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, one of the great esoteric theses on human faith and existence, demonstrated a maturity of storytelling that combined serious introspection with an outward vision of hope.

Precedents such as this and Antonioni’s The Passenger render overt questions they wish to put to themselves and audiences en masse. There has been subsequent generation after generation that engage these unanswerable questions, films where the onus is on the audience to discover for themselves by cracking the surface of the story – something audiences are increasingly prepared to do with ‘serious’ cinema. These are movies not as mere entertainment, but cinema as enriching in ideas as literature. This augmentation of film has elucidated the icon of workaday Sisyphuses, the abundant alienated and disillusioned workers of industrialised civilisation.

As a symbol of mankind’s advances through social struggle, this category of film has induced a revolution of consciousness, albeit in a symbiotic growth with the apoplectic garbage that make big box office weekly. Nevertheless, Hollywood still hits with important and lucid depictions of absurdism, an important branch of existentialist thinking: The Truman Show is a strong example of this, where the hero peels back the unnecessary illusions and takes a leap of faith into the unknown. The Matrix is prescript to mention, the classic Groundhog Day another and, of course, Richard Linklater’s loquacious phenomenological derivé Waking Life. Along with the emerging brilliance of names such as Charlie Kaufman, Christopher Nolan and the Coen brothers, it is distinctly clear that one does not have to look far back to find great existential film.

The recent resurgence is an affirmation of the political and social awareness that often finds nourishment within the nebulous framework of existentialist thought. It is again a time of political and social trembling where new film emerges to fuel the positive aspect of man’s struggle in the face of indelible institutions. Whereas before these ideas filled novels, plays and poetry there has been a forceful spreading of existentialist thought, in films that ask us to question established belief systems. It is a universal struggle that these films portray, stimulating the perpetual revolt that Camus writes of, while never capitulating to singular beams of belief, but taking responsibility to create our own truths – and still, to never cease questioning.

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