Existentialism In Film Essay, Research Paper
EXISTENTIALISM IN FILM
I could not say where or how existentialist themes first emerged in film. Often times, critics will point to the work of Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini as early examples. Indeed, these two men are titans in their art, and they will be discussed in this essay. However, it occurs to me that a certain genre of film being made in America during the late forties and early fifties perhaps deserves credit for treating very early, if not for the first time, subject matter and themes that might rightly be called “existential” while perhaps not directly inspired by formal existentialist thought. These films were shot in rich black and white, draped in shadows spliced by neon light bleeding intermittently through Venetian blinds, peopled by hard-boiled characters whose speech was tough and witty, who were hard drinkers and fast livers. They smoldered with a barely sublimated intense sexual tension. The French critics of the day were the first to hail the new style, which they called “film noir”.
Before I proceed, let me be quite clear as to how film noir might qualify as a genre worthy of our consideration in connection with existentialist film. As I said, I do not necessarily assert that the film noir genre is a direct result of the popularity of existentialist philosophy in America. Film noir does, however, represent some of the first serious confrontation with truly dark subject matter, much of which was provoked more by film makers’ insight into the contemporary American scene than by their third reading of Being and Nothingness. Film noir does not treat existentialism per se, but it does concern itself with the dark, the absurd and disturbing, the amoral and the severe; in short, it handles material that has come to be thought of as “existential”.
The true film noir of the late forties and fifties were radical innovations. They were nothing like anything that had come before, and they were certainly nothing like anything that was being produced at the time. Two films, Detour and Force of Evil, are often called the definitive film noir. A host of others like them would follow the example. Detour was terribly controversial in its day, depicting a returning war veteran who aimlessly wanders around the country and eventually is involved in a murder scheme. It was shot on a low budget, and in only six days’ time. The censorship board refused to allow its release because the main character was never punished for his crime. A final scene in which he is picked up by the police had to be added. The film capitalized on the historical situation emerging in the United States after World War II. Men were returning home to find America very different from how it was when they had left it. Behind the fa ade of the suburban middle class was the seedy world of the disenfranchised. The cities were increasingly crime ridden. The economy was in a slump and Mom-and-Pop businesses were being swallowed up into faceless conglomerates. The atrocities of the Holocaust were being discovered. The bomb had been dropped. There was a growing awareness of racial inequality while women remained in the work force. Film noir would be driven by a concern for the dark shadow cast behind the new American dream.
The quintessential film noir was one that had the brooding and shaded atmospheric look. The film noir directors learned to be innovative with limited resources and so set the mood using minimal lighting, bare sets and would even stage scenes is such a way as to intentionally restrict the number of camera angles and actual cuts in the film. The look their techniques produced is unmistakable. The quintessential film noir also needed an anti-hero that, throughout the course of the film, moves from bad to worse. Despite his frantic and often misguided efforts, he fails to improve his situation, even becomes more and more entangled in sinister events he cannot control. The genre’s short life thrived on these formulas.
Joining Detour the same year in this new tradition opposed to mainstream film (represented at the time by Gene Kelly’s musical Anchors Aweigh and Bing Crosby’s The Bells of Saint Mary’s, classic films in their own right but not in line with the new dark cinema) were Mildred Pierce, another classic noir, and The Lost Weekend, one of the first films made in America to brutally confront social concern with alcoholism. It was so provocative that the big liquor moguls got together and offered Hollywood five million dollars for the right to destroy the film before its release. Many more of the same sort would follow, films like The Man with the Golden Arm, a “Lost Weekend for drug abuse”, Double Indemnity, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Guncrazy, and The Big Sleep, a classic detective noir with Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall.
Besides spawning a handful of remakes, these films would have a tremendous impact on later artists who would pursue the same kinds of themes in their own artistic endeavors. To name only two examples, The Big Sleep directly inspired Roman Polanski’s classic Chinatown, and Martin Scorsese has repeatedly called Force of Evil one of his favorite films, naming it as his most important influence.
Even so, we have yet to encounter a film that explicitly expresses existential thinking itself. A debt to certain existential literature has by the mid-century been acknowledged, as in Orson Welles’ production of Kafka’s The Trial. Yet for an artistic treatment of formal existentialist philosophies we must turn to Europe. I can think of no better examples than Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957) and Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963).
Bergman is known even in amateur circles as a filmmaker with a distinctly dark and depressive vision. His work is deeply troubled, preternaturally focused on himself and morbidly preoccupied with death. Viewers of his recent autobiographical films, Best Intentions, and particularly the much neglected Sunday’s Children, will understand perfectly the root of the melancholy and despair that permeates his work. Bergman’s sense of the cold and bleak rises from the very foundation of his person. He was born in Uppsala, Sweden. He would later portray his father, a stern minister, as oblivious to the real condition of his own life and the lives of his wife and children. As a result of this fundamental flaw, Bergman came to see his own father as domineering, isolated, and ridden with foolish expectations. Bergman’s view of his father is supremely articulated in Sunday’s Children. The film uses a time span of only a few days in Bergman’s early childhood to illustrate the whole of his relationship to his father, the end of which is pictured in a few scenes that flash forward to Bergman’s own old age. These scenes that illustrate the end product of his damaged home life contain the crucial event of the film, chronologically the final event, juxtaposed in the film with the final event in the ongoing childhood narrative. In the childhood narrative, little Ingmar has bicycled with his father to another village where the minister is preaching in place of the absent regular clergyman. They are on the return trip when his father wrecks the bicycle, throwing Ingmar into a ditch. When Ingmar climbs back onto the road, his father lies motionless beside the mangled bicycle. Although no word is spoken, it is quite clear that Ingmar believes that his father could be dead. It is also quite clear that he is not at all disappointed by the prospect. Naturally, his father has not only survived, but has not even sustained any significant injury. The scene flashes forward to when his father actually is dying in his advanced age. Upon the death of his wife, he learned the awful truth of his family’s own opinion of him from her diaries, long kept secret while she was still living. Still unable to face reality, even on his deathbed, he attempts to impart his blessing to Ingmar, himself now a middle-aged adult. His voice enfeebled, the dying minister cannot make himself heard, and clutches at Ingmar’s sweater, pulling him closer. When Ingmar hears his father’s whispered prayer for his own son, he pulls his father’s fingers from his garment in anger and disgust, rejecting completely the old man’s final expression of regret and plea for forgiveness. The final scene depicts little Ingmar and his father continuing on the barely functional bicycle. When a hard rain begins to fall, they take shelter in a barn, and in a tender moment, the father wraps his soaked and cold son in his jacket. By now, however, the viewer knows full well what a useless gesture this is.
I relate these scenes from Sunday’s Children as an example because they account for the tone of Bergman’s entire +uvre. His films will overthrow convention, authority, religion and ideals. He will remain the savagely self-absorbed existential hero, bold and uncompromising in his confrontation with the problems of the human predicament, intractable and unresponsive with regard to their traditional answers. To acquaint yourself with Bergman, go rent The Seventh Seal. This extraordinary film tells the story of a knight (played by a very young) returning from the crusades to his Scandinavian home. On his native shore he meets Death. Frustrated by the absurdity of having survived so much only to now have his life claimed, he challenges Death to a game of chess. As long as they play, the knight may continue the journey home to his wife. Death will claim the knight when he wins, and he is confident that he will win. The knight joins up with a traveling couple, and together they make the trek, encountering a rowdy tavern, a troupe of carnival players, and a procession of flagellants along the way. All the while, the knight knows he is slowly losing the game to Death, who manifests himself to the knight at inopportune occasions to make his next move on the board. Death’s visitation is final, however, and no victory in the game can possibly deter him. When the knight realizes he is losing, he tries to seek some way out of the deal. Angered by the knight’s attempt to save himself, Death threatens to take the lives of the traveling couple as well. The knight upsets the chess pieces, but Death has not forgotten one detail of their arrangement. While he is placing them on the board again, the viewer realizes that the knight has done this not to buy himself time but to allow the traveling couple to slip away. In the end, the knight is left with the impression that he has devoted this energy to the game only to buy himself a little more time and that there has been little purpose to his having prolonged life apart from his liberation of his kind companions from the menace of Death that he himself bore to them.
The film contains expressions of many classic existentialist themes. The man’s vision of the apparition of Death that saves him and his wife is contrasted to a vision he had early in the film of a celestial woman, an angel or the Virgin, which was illusory and ridiculed by his wife as a hallucination. As in all existentialist thinking, Christian and atheist alike, there is no divine sign, no miraculous visitation. There is, however, the visitation of Death, which is one of the great certainties in existentialism. Not only will everyone face death, but also there is even a certain way to face death when it comes. The existentialist advocates defiance, taking any measure necessary to prolong precious existence as long as possible. Even though the knight has gained so little, his existence, no matter how he gives it meaning or how he spends it, is worth preserving. The film is keenly aware of the absurd and the ironic. The entire premise is based on the awful irony of the knight’s having come so close to the realization of his goal but discovering that he is still so far away. Above all, the recognition of the finality and inevitability of death as an occasion for the absurd serves as a central theme in this film, one that is close to the heart of existentialism indeed.
The second film that I have in mind as a definitive representation of how explicitly existentialist ideas can be expressed in film is Federico Fellini’s 8 1/2, which has been reviewed in this issue by Jerry Solomon. Given the capable analysis he supplies in his own article, I will only say a few words here about the character of Fellini’s efforts in film and will direct your attention to Mr. Solomon’s article for the bulk of what needs to be said about 8 1/2 in particular. Fellini’s Italy is a vibrant and rich artificial landscape, in contrast to the natural picturesque and spare visions of Bergman’s Sweden. Despite the flurry of activity that is always going on in Fellini’s work, there is no activity, even including, as Mr. Solomon points out, the activity of directing film, that is intrinsically worthy of pursuit. Instead, Fellini’s characters are busily distracting themselves with useless vanities. Again, as Mr. Solomon has noted, there is in Fellini’s work a fixation on the acute need for choice, for some kind of act, without any solid guidelines for choice. Besides 8 1/2, I would personally recommend La Dolce Vita (1961) as one of Fellini’s films that best represents his concern with the futile and arbitrary choices of man. His films are gloriously photographed, filled with vibrant images of glamorous and exciting people, whose external beauty and grace conceal their internal emptiness and frustration. He is a master of imagery. La Dolce Vita alone is a lush but pruned arrangement of strikingly vivid visual compositions, from the opening shot of a helicopter airlifting a massive statue of Jesus over Saint Peter’s Cathedral to the closing scene in which an abnormally large fish is dragged onto a beach as some kind of eerie signal of the main character’s final confinement in his own despair. The world of 1960’s Italy, as Fellini depicts it, is hopelessly superficial, exhausting itself in a frenzied hurricane of champagne bubbles, costume parties, gossip and paparazzi’s flash bulbs. Fellini’s mood is bizarre and frantically upbeat where Bergman is obsessive and morbid. Fellini’s experimentation with the extremely surreal will surpass that of Bergman. Yet, these two, despite their divergent styles, stand together as the greats who understood perhaps more fully than any other film makers the implications of existentialist philosophy for their medium.
Their films are “existentialist” not necessarily because they treat existential themes, but because they benefit from the impact of existentialism on popular culture. As has been indicated many times, existentialism, more than any other philosophical movement, would come to pass out of the hands of the privileged elite and would be claimed by the common man. In so far as this movement took place, film benefits, in that as a medium open to the common man, it is able to continue to bear highly conceptual subject matter to a wider thinking community. Thus while film in the wake of existentialism may not be existentialist, it is often at the least deeply philosophical in a medium accessible to thinking individuals who may not be formal students of philosophy. Whereas the “existential” films prior to Bergman and were inspired not so much by existentialist thought but by post-war shifts in culture, the “existential” films that follow Bergman and Fellini are not necessarily inspired directly by existentialist thought, but are certainly inspired by Bergman and Fellini and by what existentialism in part stands for, namely, the communication of philosophical ideas to all men.
It seems ironic at first that we are a bit strapped for philosophical filmmakers in America, this most populist of nations and home to the world’s largest film industry. The very size, though, of our film industry, and its need to be populist, makes it restrictive and pandering. Hence in recent years we have seen a solid group of quality independent works spring up in the fallout of the film school generation’s creation of the global blockbuster movie. Eschewing all desire for fame and fortune in favor of creative control, the independent filmmakers of our nation have been much freer to handle dark and contemplative subject matter that owes its origin to existentialism proper or its related ideas. For the second part of this essay, I would like to give terse accounts of a crop of recent films that give artistic expression to such ideas.
I would direct your attention to Barton Fink, a film by Joel and Ethan Coen, in which the idea of artistic authentication is given an intriguing comic interpretation. Barton Fink, played by John Turturro, must forge something of creative worth out of his studio’s mandate that he produces a trite and conventional wrestling picture. By authenticating his existence as a writer he realizes his muse, represented by a postcard hanging over the desk in his hotel room. Although the cost is great, he becomes something of an existential hero. Barton produces art that is true to himself without making concession to others, and ultimately witnesses a conversion into the real of his great and singular idea, symbolized in the final scene by his postcard muse literally coming to life.
Using material from the life and work of Franz Kafka, Steven Soderbergh assembled a fictional story, titled simply Kafka, animated by the ideas of the great existentialist. The figure of Kafka, enacted by Jeremy Irons, is portrayed as another type of existential hero, one who seeks only peripherally to authenticate himself through his art but is driven to discover the truth of the strange circumstances of his life despite the potentially dreadful results of such a discovery. Limitations on space in this publication forbid me from pursuing a line of thought that I have developed about these two films, but I will say this much: If you watch Barton Fink and/or Kafka, consider what both the Coen brothers and Soderbergh may be indirectly saying about their own work as filmmakers, or better yet, as independent filmmakers. I don’t know that such self-reflection is at the forefront of either film, but clearly each deals with the a kind of existential heroism that pits creative independence against external pressures to compromise the artistic vision, a conflict upon which both the Coen brothers and Soderbergh have directly commented in interviews.
Also deserving of much attention is the incomparable Woody Allen, arguably America’s greatest existentialist filmmaker. It is Allen’s thinking that his films come directly from his consciousness of the shockingly absurd condition of man’s existence, and that the only possible confrontation one might make against the absurd is laughter. Some of his films point more directly to their philosophical origin than others, but Allen has been known to attribute the bulk of his career to realizing this humorous confrontation with the existentially absurd. See Crimes and Misdemeanors or Love and Death (a satire of nineteenth-century Russian novels, themselves constitutive of early existentialism) for sound examples of that philosophical basis for his creative endeavor.
In a similar vein, one only need view Dr. Strangeglove, the genuinely hilarious satire of (of all things to be funny) nuclear holocaust, or Full Metal Jacket, a not dissimilar study of the Vietnam Conflict and its particular challenge to the twentieth century as a war that stands apart from all wars, or A Clockwork Orange, the quintessential disturbing cult favorite, to discover the absurd genius of Stanley Kubrick. These three representative pieces of his are comic and bothersome, with the purpose of turning the viewer’s mind to the true horror of what man has done, or is capable of doing, to himself. Their comic sense (as is often the case in Allen’s films) is intended to shock and repulse.
Turning our attention to Europe, we find a film which, although relatively minor, is one of the most plainly existential films to be treated in this essay. It is Toto le heros, a Belgian film that garnered several major European awards three years ago. It is the story of Thomas van Haesbroeck, a man who is at the end of his life and reflects back upon the events therein, interpreting them according to his unshakable conviction that he was switched at birth with his next door neighbor, Alfred Kant, in a hospital fire, and therefore, his life has been lived by someone else. In the technical language of existentialism, it is the story of a man who believes that his life has been utterly and completely defined by the other. It is only the realization that his life has been lived by this other person, however, that gives Thomas’ own life any meaning. Through that recognition Thomas is able to make sense of his strange attraction to his sister and her subsequent death, the “accidental” death of his father, his later affair with the wife of Alfred Kant, and above all, the angst that has finally driven him to the contemplation of the murder that will not only destroy Kant, his Other, his double, but by necessity will also destroy himself.
A less perfect portrayal of the same dichotomy is at work in an early piece of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s, The Double Life of Veronique. In this interpretation, the twin heroines are living the same life, even though miles separate them. Similar experimentation with existential themes haunts Kieslowski’s superior Three Colors trilogy, Blue, White, and Red, united by their respective treatment of the three slogans of the French Republic, overlapping subject matter and imagery, and an overall striking visual style that is uniquely accommodated to Kieslowski’s concern for the ordinary details of speech, of action and of physical surrounding that transcend their ordinariness by their repeated manifestation in varied circumstances.
He occasionally reminds one of Wim Wenders, a German filmmaker who likewise often takes great care to manage the composition of imagery with the purpose of manifesting to the senses what would otherwise remain highly conceptual, an objective most brilliantly realized in his greatest film, Wings of Desire, and its inferior sequel, Faraway, So Close! The films tell the story of two angelic beings that watch over the citizens of Berlin. They move in and out of their thoughts, influencing them with the message of God’s grace that always remains at the limitable edge of man’s awareness, or, even worse, is forced away from man’s consciousness by a self-erected protective barrier of distractions that take the form of commercial images, music, and detachment from other human beings. The divine always hovers so close to man, and yet so far because of man’s inability to perceive it directly and his out and out refusal to know it indirectly, through the intangible, namely, the love of others, art that penetrates more deeply the structure of reality rather than merely mimicking its surface, and meditation on the quiet and ordinary miracles of human life. The move of the angels themselves from their black and white, a temporal, non-spatial realm to the time cursed, space bound, noisy Technicolor world of humans illustrates the unique existential situation of man. He, unlike any other being, occupies the border of the finite and the infinite. These films of Wenders, as well as others from his vast +uvre (I would recommend Until the End of the World, Alice in the Cities, and Paris, Texas) explore various facets of this relationship. His ultimate message seems to be that despite, and even perhaps because of, man’s finitude, he is able to realize the infinite, or, in his particularly Christian metaphors, man alone is condemned, and thus man alone may be saved by God’s grace.
Again, what is provided here is simply a brief synopsis of some of my favorite films that give expression to philosophical and conceptual subject matter made possible by the far-reaching effects of existentialism. I could speak at length about Terry Gilliam’s hysterically dystopic Brazil, the dark and brooding tone of Zentropa, the bizarre and inhuman Delicatessen, the work of Jim Jarmusch in films like Night on Earth and Mystery Train, but the limitations of time and space confine me from saying as much as I would like. I trust, though, that what has been said will serve as a useful resource for your own pursuit of understanding film that challenges its viewers to move beyond what is ordinarily presented in the medium.