Existentialism in Film 1

Film genres come in all shapes and sizes, but the usual ones, such as American Westerns, War Films, Spy Thrillers, and French Policiers, typically have standard schemata that encompass setting, character types, and plot structure. The subject or theme here, though, is Existentialist films, and those that belong to this category may vary across a wide range of the usual types. Nevertheless, I believe that Existentialist Film, despite some confusion as to what this means, is an important theme in film and one that lies close to the heart of the cinematic experience. This article is offered as an introduction to what is a broad and multi-faceted subject.

What ‘existentialism’ means exactly (and whether it is now a spent force that is no longer current) is a matter of some dispute, but I will begin with a somewhat simplified characterisation just to get things started. Existentialism in film concerns those movies for whom one or more of the principal characters is shown to experience alienation from his or her authentic self. I will elaborate on this further.

One of the issues with the theme of Existentialist Film is the name, “Existentialism”, itself. Steven Crowell, in his authoritative Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article says that Existentialism belongs to the past and now refers to a particular literary and philosophical phenomenon that peaked in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s in connection with European disillusionment after the two World Wars. The principal figures of this movement included philosophers Karl Jaspers, Martin Heidegger, Martin Buber, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, along with writers Knut Hamsen, Franz Kafka, Andre Gide, Albert Camus, and Andre Malraux. As the popularity of these figures spread to wider circles, the cultural image of Existentialism became blurred and even a cliche. Perhaps because of the multiple interpretations, leading figures like Heidegger and Camus refused to be labelled “Existentialists”. And by the 1960s, Sartre, himself, had repudiated his own Existentialist work. By the 1970s, Existentialism was subjected to derisive self-parody of Woody Allen’s angst-ridden heroes. By this reckoning, then, “Existentialism” would seem to have lost whatever standing it once had as a meaningful framework with which to interpret the world.

However, I would argue that even though the name, “Existentialism”, is no longer favoured, many of the its issues are still fundamental to our modern consciousness. There are now other, preferred names that are concerned with many of the topics originally addressed by Existentialists: Phenomenology, Hermeneutics, Interactionism, Continental Philosophy, Postmodernism. I could have chosen any of these other names for the theme under discussion, but somehow none of the other names are quite right here. “Interactionism” and “Continental Philosophy” are perhaps too general. “Hermeneutics” and “Phenomenology” refer to modes of interpretation. “Postmodernism” also has its blurred and now controversial semantics. So I will stick with “Existentialist Film” to designate this theme, and will focus attention just on the work of Heidegger, Sartre, and Merleau-Ponty.

Although Heidegger was perhaps the first to articulate the fundamental themes of Existentialism, the basic issues began to appear in the 19th Century as a reaction to Positivism, which was an attempt to apply the principles of natural science to the entire world of human existence. Underlying Positivism is what we might call Objectivism, which claims that the world is knowable and can ultimately be reduced to a single, objective, and unified theory describing the interplay of fundamental particles operating according to the laws of physics. Objectivism holds that consciousness, itself, will ultimately be explainable in terms of physical laws. Despite the intellectual optimism underlying Objectivism, though, it has the unsettling consequence of undermining the integrity of all human values: life has no meaning. So despite the continuing and spectacular success of science and technology during the course of the 19th century, there were certain thinkers, such as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Doystevsky, and even Tolstoy, who became profoundly uncomfortable with this line of thinking and offered expressions of protest that ran counter to the general current. Heidegger was the first to put these various thoughts together and identify the fundamental Existentalist motifs:
  • the rejection of science and objectivism;
  • a tension between the conscious life of the individual and that of society (alienation);
  • an emphasis on the situated context of human thought (being-in-the-world);
  • an acknowledgement that the feelings of anxiety, dread, and nihilism were unavoidable;
  • an awareness that authenticity is somehow an identifying aspect of self.
For the purposes of this introductory article, I will focus my discussion to two aspects: alienation and transcendence, because they both manifest themselves quite strikingly in Existentialist Film

The feeling of alienation is something that is difficult to articulate for those who experience it, because the feeling is so profound. Although the world may be objectively meaningless, I, as a concerned operator in the world, have my own activities that may have a meaning to my own life. So it would be through my own projects that the world takes on a meaning for me. But despite this fact, the world in which I find myself was not brought into being by my projects. This world, then, has a stubborn existence that is independent of me and completely indifferent towards me. There is something about this indifferent world that is utterly beyond me; it is uncanny and alien. So the fact that I am immersed in this uncanny and alien world gives rise to my feelings of alienation. In addition, I am also aware of being observed by other people, and I can adopt a third-person perspective on myself, too, to imagine what they are seeing. But when I look at myself this way, the "self" that I see is utterly alien to me, too. I do not feel comfortable with this image of myself; it is a stranger to me. So I am not only alienated from the world, I am also alienated from that “objective” image of myself, too.

This is not just the feeling of a malcontent or of a social outcast. Even in an ideally operating world, I know that the world is not entirely under my own control. In order for me to operate successfully in this world, I must adopt a role that has generally been found to work well in situations like my present circumstances. But when I adopt that role, then I am just another, average person fulfilling that role, and that “average” person fulfilling that role (me) does not fully characterise the real me, in all my uniqueness. So my alienation remains.

Related to this feeling of alienation is the idea that I must transcend the “ordinary” descriptions of reality that are used by others. It was Sartre who stressed the idea that “existence precedes essence”. By that he meant that we cannot form categories of thinking about existence, because existence is more primordial (more primitive, i.e. comes “earlier”) than the category-forming activities of scientific model-building (which characterises things in terms of their essences). I might, for example, characterise objects in the world by the kind of things they are. So when I see a particular apple, I might say, “this is an apple”. But what makes a human is not the kind of thing it is (its essence), but the way it acts. By the way it acts the human becomes itself. Thus interactions are more primordial than the essences that are derived from Objectivist theory. In other words, Interactionism is more primordial than Objectivism.

On top of those interactions in which humans are engaged, humans are also characterised by care: they are concerned with some activities. While ordinary entities are what they are “in themselves”, human reality is “for itself”. Thus who I really am is not just describable as another essence (my facticity), but is determined by (a) my manner of coordinating the essence-based things that I encounter in the world and (b) the manner in which I interact with other being-for-itself entities (other persons). This is what characterises my transcendence, what it is that transcends ordinary essence-characterised entities. My transcendence goes beyond what simply is and is concerned with what can be. Thus I am always concerned with what is, what is not, and what is possible in the future.

These two aspects, alienation and transcendence, represent our dissatisfaction with everyday culture, which fails to account for key elements of our existence. This dissatisfaction has often been expressed in stories and novels of the past century and a half, and one’s first thought might be that these ideas are so abstract that they can only be expressed in words, not in film. The facility of written language gives us direct access to the expression of abstract ideas, whereas film depicts a physical, concrete world. This is, however, a misleading assertion.

Although many people think that films present the world as it factically is, this is far from the truth about the cinematic experience. Films are much closer to being an expression of our dreams, than they are about a representation of “objective” reality. Although we may watch a film and construct an “objective” representation of that world “on the fly”, we are actually performing extensive mental model building as we do this. What films present is a sequence of multimedia images, and they are closer to the primitive, real experiences of conscious beings than reflections of objective reality. These images can uncover and reveal our sense of the uncanny and alienating nature of life in a more direct way than a text can which merely “talks about it”.

Film can also express our awareness of and concern for the transcendent nature of our experience. Some people feel that the term 'transcendent' must be reserved for an awareness of spiritual and religious matters. But the ‘transcendent’, as used here, refers more generally to that aspect of our existence that extends beyond the factically-defined model of the world in which we live in our practical affairs. Certainly, we could say that this more general feeling for our transcendence beyond the everyday is associated with our spiritual yearnings and our belief in another, spiritual reality. But it need not be limited to religious concerns. So, for example, Paul Schrader, who later became an influential screenwriter and film director, wrote the book Transcendental Style in Film, which focussed on the work of directors Yasajiro Ozu, Robert Bresson, and Carl Dreyer. Some people have criticised this book on the grounds that these three directors, in films made outside the scope covered by Schrader’s study, concerned themselves with matters that were not spiritual and “transcendental”. I disagree. If you consider ‘transcendental’ in the manner that I have defined it here, then I would say that Bresson’s work continued to have a feeling for the transcendental.

So, in summary, we can say that films offer a powerful and direct means for expressing and immersing ourselves in exactly the kinds of issues that the Existentialists were talking about with words. It is worth pointing out here that in this sense Existentialist films can be closely related to Expressionism and Expressionist films, which depict an external “world” that reflects the internal, emotional state of a consciousness. These reflections could perhaps lead one to the conclusion that all films are Existentialist. While there may be some truth in that statement, I am going to limit my designation to those films that have markedly raised our awareness and experience of Existentialist themes in a deep fashion. Here, for the purposes of illustration, is a list of outstanding films that I would classify as Existentialist Films:

Sundays and Cybele (Bourguignon 1962)
La Strada (Fellini 1954)
L’Avventura (Antonioni 1960)
The American Friend (Wenders 1977)
La Rupture (Chabrol 1970)
Blowup (Antonioni 1966)
Once Upon a Time in America (Leone 1984)
Badlands (Mallick 1973)
The Go-Between (Losey 1971)
Le Jour Se Leve (Carne 1939)
The Passenger (Antonioni 1975)
Baran (Majidi 2001)
Il Posto (Olmi 1961)
L’Eclisse (Antonioni 1962)
Zorba the Greek (Cacoyannis 1964)
Red Desert (Antonioni 1964)
Fellini Satyricon (Fellini 1969)
La Guerre est Finie (Resnais 1966)
McCabe and Mrs. Miller (Altman 1971)
A Condemned Man Escapes (Bresson 1950)
The Trial (Welles 1962)
Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976)
Medium Cool (Wexler 1969)
La Dolce Vita (Fellini 1960)
Isabel (Almond 1968)
The English Patient (Minghella 1996)
Accident (Losey 1967)
The Conversation (Coppola 1974)
Alice in the Cities (Wenders 1974)
Quadrophenia (Roddam 1979)
Diary of a Country Priest (Bresson 1951)
The 400 Blows (Truffaut 1959)
Roma (Cuarón (2018)

And, of course, there are many others that you might nominate for this category.

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