Existential Movies: Explicitly Facing Existential Choices (2 of n)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 26th, 2009

Previous part

Rope Two anti-heros execute a murder as a form of art. They consider them superior beings that are not restricted by conventional morality. They host a party as a sort of game, to see if their friends will suspect them of murder. Their former mentor, invited to the party, was an advocate of this type of action, at least in principle. When he discovers the truth, he thanks them for putting him to the test, and U turns to claim the murders are evil. The film being produced in 1948, Hollywood films were not permitted to let the anti-heros win or escape “justice”. The film conveniently overlooks the choice faced by their mentor, Rupert Cadell: to approve of the murder as art or to personally inform the police, and therefore have then tried, judged and executed. This makes Rupert an approver of killing or an actual killer (but state sanctioned in the latter case).

Lost in Translation This film is perhaps the most direct treatment of enui and existentialism that I have seen. Two characters, who are “lost souls” and who’s marriages are in doubt have a chance meeting in Tokyo. Through their unlikely friendship, they struggle against boredom, insomnia and anxiety of the future. The message, in my view, is that their lives might be otherwise meaningless, but their friendship in that time and place was something worth valuing. Although the characters are usually alienated by Japanese culture, the aesthetic of the movie is in accord with Wabi-sabi (the acceptance of the transience of things).

Lydia Harris: Did you like any of the other colors?
Bob: Whatever you like – I’m just completely lost.

Bob: [picks up Charlotte’s CD] Whose is this? “A Soul’s Search: Finding Your True Calling.”
Charlotte: [evasively] I don’t know.
Bob: I have that.

Charlotte: Does it get easier?
Bob: No. [pause] Yes. It gets easier.
Charlotte: (sarcastically) Oh, yeah? Look at you.
Bob: Thanks. [Chuckles]
Bob: The more you know who you are, and what you want, the less you let things upset you.
Charlotte: I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be.

Blade Runner has many elements that raise identity and existential questions; in fact too many to list here. I will list a few provisional examples. A few characters discover or suspect their memories are artificial implants. Since our values are generally based on past events and experience, the loss of one’s past throws the basis of all future actions into unknown territory. Also, “appropriate” relationships between machines and humans, and between each other, has not been defined to any great extent in contemporary culture – the movie has several relationships that are perhaps unsettling in this regard. Finally, the movie has a memorable “anti-villian”, Roy, who is merely trying to stay alive and preserve lives of others. The “anti-hero” Deckard ends up questioning his orders to kill replicants on sight, including possibly Rachael – his robotic love interest.

Rachael to Deckard: You know that Voigt-Kampf test of yours? Did you ever take that test yourself?

Deckard: How can it not know what it is?

Groundhog Day is often cited as an existential movie and with good reason. Phil is confronted with reliving the “worst” day of his life a seemingly endless number of times. He can remember the whole experience, but everyone else doesn’t notice anything unusual. The writers speculated that he experiences the same day for 10,000 years. He soon realises that no action he takes has long term consequences and seemingly has no meaning. Hilarity ensues! (It’s Bill Murrey after all). His experience is similar to Camus’s analysis of Sisyphus being force to eternally roll a stone to the top of a mountain, only to see it roll to the base again. According to Camus, he is happy rolling his stone. By appreciating life in the moment, there is no expectation of a better life. A person’s attitude to life is simply a consequence of physiology.

Footnote: Groundhog day is occasionally mentioned in connection to the concept of the eternal return. Although the protagonist faces the possibility of him experiencing it, he only returns a finite number of times (in the movie anyway) and there is reality outside the “ring”. I hear that the movie K-Pax mentions the possibility of the eternal return in a more strict sense. It’s on my to do list.

[Phil explains how he spends eternity on trivialities.]
Rita: Is this what you do with eternity?
Phil: Now you know. That’s not the worst part.
Rita: What’s the worst part?
Phil: The worst part is that tomorrow you will have forgotten all about this and you’ll treat me like a jerk again. It’s all right. I am a jerk.
Rita: You’re not.
Phil: It doesn’t make any difference. I’ve killed myself so many times, I don’t even exist anymore.
Rita: Sometimes I wish I had a thousand lifetimes. I don’t know, Phil. Maybe it’s not a curse. It just depends on how you look at it.
Phil: Gosh, you’re an upbeat lady!

To be continued…

In other news: When religion and games intersect—and how it often goes badly

Existential Films: Thematic Examples (1 of n)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 25th, 2009

I have decided to attempt a series of articles on existentialism in film. There are few ways this movement can manifest itself in film, some are more obvious than others. It seems easier to group them by the way the existential issues are handled and in what manner the characters are aware of it. This is a necessarily incomplete list. The first group I will address are films with an existential theme.

Films Themes Raise Existential Questions

Taxi Driver being influenced by Dostoevsky (particularly Notes from Underground), its psychological examination of character is hardly surprising. Travis is a lonely person and throughout the film tries to overcome his lack of purpose in life and nihilism. The film ends violently and he enjoys being a hero for a day, but it is implied that he still is slipping back into insanity and nihilism. This is perhaps an example of a “failed” existential film.

A Scanner Darkly is the story of an undercover police officer Bob Arctor aka Fred. Due to drug use, he is becoming increasingly confused at his situation and his identities begin to disassociate. He also is a pawn in the larger picture of a “war on drugs”. His quest for self knowledge is a losing battle as his personality and grip on reality are destroyed. The only ray of hope of personal choice is in the ending scenes – but the cost Bob as paid is very high. (“A present for my friends…”)

Fight Club covers a great deal of ground and is better known for anti-consumerism and anarchism. For the unnamed protagonist (informally called “Jack” by commentators), he starts in a similar place as Travis of Taxi Driver – lonely, suffering insomnia, lack of meaning, etc. He fills this void for a time with being a “tourist” at support groups, “Fight Club” itself and its spin off movement “Project Mayham”. All these are collectively trying to deal with changes or loss in personal identity in a group setting. In the last scenes, he takes responsibility for his actions but at the same time repudiates them. The ending is left open ended but hints that he can experience healthy personal relationships (finally).

Apocalypse Now is a monument to moral relativism. Willard is a troubled covert operations soldier. This superiors tell him about Kurtz – a former model soldier who has being using “unsound methods”, which euphemistically refers to his going completely “insane”, having a private army that worship him as a god and practising human sacrifice. Willard’s orders are to “terminate” Kurtz’s command. On his way up the river, he sees the insanity of the Vietnam war. It is hinted that Kurtz actually is still effective as a soldier and is a fierce critic of the conventional American war effort. The question is who is insane: Willard, Kurtz, the generals running the war, or all of the above? When Willard meets Kurtz, he sees Kurtz is a haunted individual who is questioning his own identity. And the end of the movie, Willard is so isolated from conventional moral standard, he is faced with his own existential question of what to do next…

Other notable films: Magnolia, Ghost World, Eyes Wide Shut, The Unbearable Lightness of Being (the book explicitely deals with existentialism, the film less so), His Dark Materials, The Machinist, American Beauty, Adaptation


Posted by on December 20th, 2009

For a while now I have been working on a meta-ethical theory that revolves around the role of language as a signifier for language games/interest groups. It is by its nature a descriptive theory rather than a prescriptive one and is concerned with the way in which specific groups label and identify themselves and by definition their binary opposites using specifically value-laden coded language that signifies concepts such as them/us, right/wrong, good/evil, etc.

So I was delighted and slightly peturbed (the similarities to my own work is annoying) to find that American comedian George Carlin wrote/performed a piece on this matter.

I post an extract here from “Euphemisms: Political-Interest Groups – Choosing Sides”

It’s impossible to mention the word choice without thinking of the language that has come out of the abortion wars. Back when those battles were first being joined, the religious fanatics realized that antiabortion sounded negative and lacked emotional power. So they decided to call themselves pro-life, Pro-life not only made them appear virtuous, it had the additional advantage of suggesting their opponents were anti-life, and, therefore, pro-death. They also came up with a lovely variation designed to get you all warm inside: pro-family.
Well, the left wing didn’t want to be seen as either anti-life or pro-death, and they knew pro-abortion wasn’t what they needed, so they decided on pro-choice. That completed the name game and gave the world the now classic struggle: pro-choice vs. pro-life. The interesting part is that the words life and choice are not even opposites. But there they are, hangin’ out together, bigger than life.

George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?

Tony Blair Supports War for Regime Change in Contravention of Article 2(4) of the UN Charter

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 12th, 2009

Speaking on BBC One’s Fern Britton Meets programme, Tony Blair was asked whether he would still have gone on with plans to join the US-led invasion had he known at the time that there were no WMD.

He said: “I would still have thought it right to remove him. I mean obviously you would have had to use and deploy different arguments, about the nature of the threat.” BBC

In case any world leader reading this blog has forgotten what it says:

All Members shall refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the Purposes of the United Nations. Charter

Anti Citizen One

Welcome to the Future

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 7th, 2009

‘Fake fingerprint’ Chinese woman fools Japan controls

A Chinese woman managed to enter Japan illegally by having plastic surgery to alter her fingerprints, thus fooling immigration controls, police claim. BBC

Wow, it’s amazing. So called “fool proof” technology has human ingenuity applied to break it. Very cyberpunk.


“I warned the others but they didn’t listen. They never listen.”

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 7th, 2009

A senior British officer has told the Iraq war inquiry he urged Tony Blair to delay the invasion of the country two days before the conflict.

Maj Gen Tim Cross, who liaised with the US on reconstruction efforts before the invasion, said planning for after the conflict was “woefully thin”.

He said he briefed officials in the weeks before the war that Iraq could descend into chaos after the invasion. BBC


Take Power Back

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 6th, 2009

A agree with most of this, but not that we can ever “prevent it happening again”. That requires eternal vigilance. Oh yeah and if we gave power to the people, is that a good idea since they may be manipulated?

What I like about this video is the little heard idea that YOU HAVE THE POWER. (Well assuming a working democracy … or the possibility of political revolution.)


“I Think You’ll Find God Agrees With Me”

Posted by Anti Citizen One on December 2nd, 2009

This is hardly news worthy to people who know that “There are more idols than realities in the world”:

God may have created man in his image, but it seems we return the favour. Believers subconsciously endow God with their own beliefs on controversial issues.

“Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs,” writes a team led by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. New Scientist

I have started reading some Emerson. It is actually quite a good read!

Anti Citizen One