Philosophy in Movies

Posted by Anti Citizen One on April 14th, 2015

Interesting article: I watch therefore I am: seven movies that teach us key philosophy lessons

Walk on the Wild Side: Aronofsky’s Black Swan and the Dionysian

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 8th, 2012

Disclaimer: plot spoilers below and I don’t know anything about the original swan lake. I am talking about Aronofsky’s interpretation of swan lake when I discuss the characters.

I watched Black Swan, and while it’s not the best of Aronofsky’s movies, it is certainly thought provoking. A technically accompished but meek ballet dancer, Nina, is cast as the Swan Queen. This requires the ability to dance two roles: the white swan and the black swan. While she can perform the white swan brilliantly, she has difficulty “losing control” to portray the sultry black swan. The film is primarily about her preparation and opening night to dance as the Swan Queen. The style of the movie is psychological/thriller/horror as she battles with her over protective mother, her paranoia about potential rivals for the role and anxiety about her body.

The roles of the white and black swans are mirrored by the concept of Apollonian and Dionysian aesthetics. The Apollonian artistic impulse is for plastic (visual) beauty, perfection, rationality, goodness. The Dionysian impulse is for instinct, earthly experiences, chaos, intoxication, the orgiastic. Usually, artistic works contain elements of both, since these are two aesthetic extremes and are not mutually exclusive. Nietzsche explored these two standards in The Birth of Tragedy, 1872 and argued that Greek tragedy formerly contained a synthesis for these traits, but this gave way to Apollonian impulse dominating. This change reflected a shift in Greek culture, which also gave rise to Socratic and Platonic philosophy, and move away from the earlier Greek philosophers such as Heraclitus.

My problem with Black Swan is, while Nina attempts to connect with the Dionysian, it is both pretty tame and also filled with either regret or fear. The tameness is partly her actions are almost always socially acceptable and common place – drinking, arguing with her mother, taking drugs once, staying up late, arguing with rivals, masturbating and incinerating her soft toys. Her more extreme actions of sex and murder are revealed to be dreams or hallucination and are basically nightmarish. Critically, she never is seen really throwing herself into these activities without regard for consequences. She is always worrying about how it will compromise herself or make herself imperfect. But this is central to the Dionysian – it is done with a good conscience. If you can imagine combining sexuality with innocence and joy: that is a step towards the Dionysian. The point of the Black Swan character is she seduces the prince in order to destroy the white swan – and enjoys doing it! At no point does the Black Swan regret her actions and neither should Nina, if she actually had an experience that informed her about that character.

Another problem with her coming to understand the Black Swan character is her increasing mental health problems. At no point is insanity linked with the traits of the Black Swan. In the movie, all instincts are self-destructive (although artistically useful). When the previous star walks into traffic, it is a “dark” impulse. The Dionysian is not madness and self annihilation, but rather raw instinct of both darkness and light. However, her mental problems are linked with her metamorphosis into the character (by her sensation of sprouting wings) but are actually contrary to what the Black Swan character needs… unless we subscribe to the view that evil is only a form of insanity.

A final objection: the movie is very predictable. I didn’t have any serious doubt that she would perform the role at the finale of the movie. However, the film was well executed and watchable. As a “walk on the wild side”, it fell flat. Some other movie examples in which a character explores the Dionysian:

Apocalypse Now – of course! The characters are struggling with “good” and “evil”, rationality and instinct, but the battle occurs within a person. Captain Willard is shown to have serious issues in the first scene but he can keep these thoughts to himself and can still function as a soldier. He is sent on a mission to “terminate the command” of Kurtz, who is said to be operating with “unsound methods”. Kurtz, or the jungle itself, represents the Dionysian in letting its instincts totally overcome social norms and rationality. And when Willard and Kurtz finally meet, Willard finds himself on the same path as Kurtz.

Willard: [voice-over] “Never get out of the boat.” Absolutely goddamn right! Unless you were goin’ all the way… Kurtz got off the boat. He split from the whole fuckin’ program.

Fight Club A perfectionist, consumerist office drone rebels against the system with the help of a new friend, Tyler Durden. Although Tyler is in many ways Dionysian, he is also committed to self destruction. This is more of an act of rebellion and in that way he is not Dionysian but more anti-Apollonian.

Tyler Durden: Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let… lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may.

Collateral, A perfectionist taxi driver, Max, is forced to drive a hit man, Vincent, around Los Angeles. Vincent explains his views on personal development by adaptation. Max has to become more like Vincent in order to survive…

Vincent: Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.
Max: I Ching? What are you talking about, man? You threw a man out of a window.

American Beauty – the Burnham family has the public appearance of perfection but they are privately miserable. Each family member begins to rebel against conformity and perfection and act more on emotional and instinctive drives.

Carolyn Burnham: Uh, whose car is that out front?
Lester Burnham: Mine. 1970 Pontiac Firebird. The car I’ve always wanted and now I have it. I rule!

And other films and TV touch on related themes: A Clockwork Orange (Alex is brain washed to stop being Dionysian), Requiem for a Dream (Aronofsky), Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, The Brave One, Withnail and I, Lord Flashheart in Blackadder (“And always remember – if you want something, take it!”).

Anti Citizen One

Saying Yes to life even in its strangest and most painful episodes, the will to life rejoicing in its own inexhaustible vitality even as it witnesses the destruction of its greatest heros — that is what I called Dionysian […] Twilight of the Idols.

Plato’s Cave vs. Inception

Posted by Anti Citizen One on September 8th, 2011

I was blown away by Nolan’s Inception. I thought the themes in the movie took Plato’s cave and extended the idea, but at the same time also subverted the original meaning so as to be critical of Plato’s position. If you have not seen the film, my discussion is likely to be totally meaningless or possibly contains spoilers – so I suggest you stop here.

From the point of view of upper and sub realities, the two most interesting characters are Mal and Saito. Of course the protagonist, Dom Cobb, is also philosophically interesting, but this is beyond the scope of what I want to discuss. At the time of her apparent death, Mal’s views on waking reality are reminiscent of the cave prisoner who is aware of the nature of the Cave and wants to return to the upper world. The difference between Plato and Nolan is that the cave prisoner’s view is justified, but Mal’s view is likely to be mistaken. In both cases, bystanders try to dissuade them of their beliefs. The bystanders, of course, do not have experience of an upper would and, empirically speaking, this is enough to question the existence of an upper world but not enough to rule out it’s existence.

Inception also considers nested realities: a “dream within a dream”. I am not aware of much previous philosophical work on this matter, but it is interesting and extends the Allegory of the Cave. I am also interested in the phenomena of lucid dreaming – the awareness of being in a dream. As in Inception, this tends to be an unstable state which often ends in waking or a false awakening. A false awakening is the experience of waking from a dream but still actually being in a dream. Lucid dreaming also tends to be accompanied by having complete control over the dream world – this is usually… entertaining. I have personal experience of all this, as well as a “dream within a dream”, which I experienced as (incorrectly, inside a dream) believing I was awake, then experiencing falling asleep and dreaming but being aware that it was a dream (I could still remember the pre-lucid dream), then false awakening back into a normal dream (while remembering the both previous stages).

This possibility of layered reality throws a question to Plato’s cave: what if the upper world is in some sense another cave, that could be transcended? And what if there were an infinite chain of upper worlds? An extreme possibility, not discussed in any media I can think of, is the possibility of more than one branch of upper worlds? These might exist completely independently and be mutually inaccessible, except through a dream? With no definite way to address these possibilities, the message of Plato’s Cave is nullified. So what if there is an “upper world”? Without knowing it is the final objective reality, it could be said to be just as self-deceiving as the cave dwellers view of reality.

I have tried to express the different stages of Mal’s awareness of realities in the same form as my previous posting on Plato’s cave.

Unspecified Upper world
Dreams within Dreams
Early life 0
Dream Experiments 0 1 2
Lost in unstructured dreaming 0
After first inception 0?
At time of “Death” 0? 1


Early life – before personally using dream sharing technology
Dream experiments – Dom said he and Mal were “exploring the concept of a dream within a dream”
Lost in limbo – Dom and Mal grow old together in the dream. Mal forgets they are dreaming, possibly as a coping mechanism. Presumably they are sedated in the upper world and can’t escape until the drug wears off – a duration which they perceive as about 50 years.
After Inception – Mal begins to question her own perception of what is “real” and what is a dream.
At time of here death – Mal is convinced that Dom’s waking world is also a dream.

Waking – including the Boeing 747/Anniversary Hotel
Dreams – Kidnapping/City streets/Van chase,Saito’s Flat
Dreams with Dreams – Hotel with “Mr. Charles”,Young Saito’s fortress
Limbo – Old Saito’s fortress, Dom and Mal’s city

According to Plato, the biggest problem we face is the lack of awareness of the true world: “idealism” while falsely taking the apparently world as reality. In Nietzsche’s philosophy, one of the greatest contemporary issues we face is the destructive belief that there is a metaphysical world and that it is more significant than the apparent waking world. Mal’s tragic death is caused by both of this issues. Firstly, she willingly forgets that limbo is not real. This is symbolically shown when she puts her spinning top in a safe in her dolls’ house. Dom “rectifies” this with his first inception. Secondly, she succumbs to the idea that waking reality is a dream – resulting in her suicide by jumping from a window.

In the film, extraction and inception only seem possible when the target is not aware of being in a dream. When Mal alerts Saito of being in a dream, he can quickly block their plan. When “Mr. Charles” informs Fischer of being in a dream, the hostile projections are more alert. Arthur had previously warned them of this, based on a previous failed attempt to use the “Mr. Charles” gambit. Conclusion: in the reality of the film, loosing grip of what is “real” opens the mind to be manipulated. Perhaps the director intended that this message might be applied outside the film.

With a story as subjective as this, it is hard to make any firm arguments or draw certain conclusions. From my experience, belief in metaphysical realities is “waiting for a train”. Semiotically, this is the will to devalue our apparent reality and to want to escape to an upper metaphysically world. Given there is no “upper world”, waiting for a train is nihilistic. Morality and religion is “waiting for a train”.

Anti Citizen One

PS I hardly need mention Yusuf’s customers, for who the dream has become their reality…

The Wicked Witch is Dead

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 5th, 2011

With the US killing its most recent enemy, I am reminded of some obscure pop culture, the game Red Dead Redemption. (I often think the philosophical aspect of computer games is under rated!). The protagonist is forced to hunt down the state’s public enemy number one: Dutch van der Linde. When cornered, the Dutch states:

When I’m gone, they’ll just find another monster. They have to, because they have to justify their wages.

And so it continues…


PS “I’m not a great intellect, but…the metaphysical leap from liking the flower to shooting a man in the head because he doesn’t like the flower…is a leap too far.”
PPS I like this “football” t-shirt

Carl Sagan: Billions and Billions, Contact (the Movie)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on October 6th, 2010

I finished reading Billions and Billions, a collection of essays by Carl Sagan. I was already I fan of his, from the movie Contact. In “Billions”, the book has three sections – wonder at the universe (as reflected in various popular science issues he addresses), environmentalism, and social issues. The scientific issues are slightly historic, being published back in 1997. The style is very optimistic. He seems the polar opposite of Dawkins. Both are good popular science writers. But Cagan is very “glass half full” and Dawkins is known as a “glass half empty” writer. (Although this doesn’t apply to his real work on evolution, just that atheism is a denial (ish) and therefore somewhat negative. Of course, destruction is a form of creation but moving on…)

His writing in both Billions and Contact on contrasting views is notable for its optimism. For instance, pro-life and pro-choice with respect to abortion, he points out that these are two extremes and that most people and most legal systems fall into some compromise. In other cases, he points out the commonality in beliefs, e.g. environmentalism is in part driven by science and he compares it to the religious attitude of stewardship of the Earth. Sometimes, his totally constructive attitude is not quite to my taste. I guess in cases when he might refute his opponents’ views, he simply declines to comment (in a similar way to Nietzsche’s advice: “where one can no longer love, there should one – pass by“).

There are a few disparate scenes in Contact I want to mention specifically. I thought about trying to tie them together coherently, but I have been unable to do so, or too lazy. In most of the scenes I mention, two world views are contrasted. Many involve the protagonist, Ellie Arroway, who is passionate about SETI (that is the search for “little green men” aka extraterrestrial intelligence). In the first example, which provides an important illustration of Ellie’s character, teleological explanations are contrasted to mere physicalism (not to mention atheism).

Priest at the Funeral of Ellie’s Father: I know it’s hard to understand this now but we aren’t always meant to know why things happen the way they do. Sometimes, we just have to accept it as God’s will.
Ellie Arroway: I should have kept medicine in the downstairs bathroom. Then I could’ve gotten to it sooner.

Another interesting exchange is when one character justifies his actions on an essentially pessimistic or Machiavellian basis. Ellie counters with some Saganistic optimism, which is almost existential.

David Drumlin [after metaphorically stabbing Ellie in the back]: I know you must think this is all very unfair. Maybe that’s an understatement. What you don’t know is I agree. I wish the world was a place where fair was the bottom line, where the kind of idealism you showed at the hearing was rewarded, not taken advantage of. Unfortunately, we don’t live in that world.
Ellie Arroway: Funny, I’ve always believed that the world is what we make of it.

There are loads of interesting themes that could be endlessly analysed, particularly the problem of religious extremism and the reductionism/commercialism trend in science. Both prove major antagonistic factors in the film.

Ellie quoting Palmer: “Ironically, the thing people are most hungry for – meaning – is the one thing science hasn’t been able to give them.”

Gratuitously I mention a slightly existential question, which connects to Babylon 5. The question “why am I here?” is once of the key themes of the series. The exchange has a large non-verbal element, which makes it hard to state here (which is of course appropriate for existential questions):

Ellie: [sincere but baffled] What am I doing here?
Haddon: [quietly laughs to himself, notices she expects a verbal response, then suddenly becomes almost menacing] The powers that be have been very busy lately positioning themselves for the game of the millennium. Maybe I can help deal you back in.

The response of Sagan to conflict seems to be to approach it with delicacy, subtlety and intellectual modesty. There is perhaps an echo of Spinoza trying to “understand” human actions above all. A perfect example of this attitude is given as the “last word” in the move. A kid on a school trip asks Ellie a question she KNOWS the answer to, but the way she deals with it is telling:

Kid on school trip: Are there other people out there in the universe?
Ellie Arroway: That’s a good question. What do you think?
Kid: I don’t know.
Ellie Arroway: That’s a good answer. Skeptic, huh? [glances knowingly at her colleagues] The important thing is that you all keep searching for your own answers. One thing about the universe, though. The universe is a pretty big place. It’s bigger than anything anyone has ever dreamed of before. So if it’s just us it seems like an awful waste of space. Right?

I’d say that is a healthy altitude!

Anti Citizen One

PS Another review which is good.

I ♥ Huckabees, The Wire (Series 2 and 3)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on June 20th, 2010

I have been watching the idiot box (the TV) recently. I saw “I ♥ Huckabees” (aka I Heart Huckabees), a comedy film about characters trying to find existential answers in their lives. I probably need to watch it again because it covers many topics in existentialism, almost too many – it discusses them without dwelling on them. And although many ideas are discussed, the characters barely have time to act on their situation based these ideas. Still, it has many funny moments. This film is philosophically self-conscious and tries very hard to be very existential (jargon is sometimes used to blind and confuse the audience) – this is almost the opposite of movie “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”, which does not try hard enough to capture the philosophy of the original work!

Vivian Jaffe: What do you think would happen if you didn’t tell the stories? Are you being yourself?
Brad Stand: How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: [musing on the question] How am I not myself?
Vivian Jaffe: [musing] How am I not myself?
Bernard Jaffe: [musing] How… am I not… myself?

Two main existential interpretations are presented: “everything is interconnected” optimism and “the world is full of pain” pessimism. The film doesn’t come to any firm conclusion on existentialism, which as appropriate for the topic, except to hint a middle way between the two extremes is a solution (rather like Aristotle’s golden mean, or Hegel’s synthesis). The topics discussed in the film tend to be late existential ideas (Sartre, Camus), while I have a personal preference for the early existential period (you know: Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, etc.). “I ♥ Huckabees” is jargon heavy (almost it enjoys the sounds of the words rather than the just the concepts), while understanding the jargon is actually irrelevant to having an existential approach to life – although I guess the audience probably would not notice unless it was made explicitly clear. “Are not all words made for the heavy? Do not all words lie to the light ones?”

I recently finished “The Wire” series 2 and 3. It is a TV drama revolving around police work and organised crime in contemporary Baltimore – rather like LA Confidential meets Traffic. It is hard to overstate the quality of the series – intellectually and as a story. As William Julius Wilson said:

“[a]lthough The Wire is fiction, not a documentary, its depiction of systemic urban inequality that constrains the lives of the urban poor is more poignant and compelling [than] that of any published study, including [my] own.” Slate

Series 2 was notable in having multiple tragic characters that are worthy of a Shakespeare play. Tragedy as entertainment is a very interesting philosophical area – how does an audience derive pleasure from watching a sympathetic character’s downfall? and what does that tell us about the world? And after all the hard work of the police, are peoples lives any better? is the actual crime rate significantly changed? The Wire can be bleak on occasion! (“Listen carefully”)

Series 3 is more preachy than previous series, but it happens to be advancing an idea I agree with: drug legalisation (or pseudo-legalisation in this case). A senior police officer, approaching retirement with nothing to lose (or so he thinks), attempts a social experiment by tolerating drug dealing within certain limits. In the series, this reduces overall crime in his district, since the police have more time to solve other socially harmful crime while drug dealing is relocated outside occupied neighbourhoods. When the top level police and politicians find out, there is trouble… (If people think this wouldn’t work, remember the end of prohibition.)

Anti Citizen One

Existential Films: The Thin Red Line

Posted by Anti Citizen One on May 16th, 2010

Continuing my haphazard series on existential films, there are a few movies that deserve a special mention. One of the foremost in artistic and philosophical scope is Malick’s The Thin Red Line (TTRL). It might be superficially considered a war film, but it is very distinct in its genre. I am hesitant to even label it a war film for that reason. The closest comparison might be made to Apocalypse Now with its examination of good and evil in each person (a la Heart of Darkness). TTRL strikes a different chord – one of life and death, creation and destruction, friendship and estrangement, loss of innocence and the value of individual people. The wandering style of the movie meant it never received much popularity and it was overshadowed by the much less interesting Saving Private Ryan (ok fans of TTRL are still bitter over that!).

The start references the beauty of nature and also the existence of suffering and death. This motif recurs thorough out the film. The camera often cuts in an action scene from fighting to an injured bird or an interesting plant. This links the moral evil in war with the natural evil in nature (and makes it the same thing, twice named).

[First lines] What’s this war in the heart of nature? Why does nature vie with itself? The land contend with the sea? Is there an avenging power in nature? Not one power, but two?

Aesthetic and moral considerations are shown as independent of life and death, as both are shown to have both ugly and beautiful, good and bad aspects. It reminds me of the beauty of seemingly trivial things and of death, as used in American Beauty. The beauty of death is also central plot point in TTRL, it is first verbally discussed and then directly experienced by a main character.

The value of individuals and organisation of individuals is an important theme in TTRL. The character Witt is shown to be a free spirit but also stating he loves his army company. “They are my people.” His commanding officer, Welsh, is generally a stone cold, pragmatic soldier – and a philosophical collectivist and pessimist. Welsh threatens Witt with punishment for is insubordinate behaviour. But even Welsh has moments of emotion, heroism and intimacy. Through the convoluted plot, these two repeatedly meet and trade a few words from their respective world views. Welsh argues, in a world gone mad, only institutions can make any meaningful difference. Witt’s diametrically opposite view is one man can make a difference, even in war – but personal relationships are also key.

Welsh: In this world, a man, himself – is nothing. And there ain’t no world but this one.
Witt: Your wrong there, Top. I’ve seen another world. Sometimes I think it was just my imagination.
Welsh: Well then you’ve seen things I never will.

Welsh: What difference do you think you can make, one man in all this madness?

Welsh: [looking down on grave] Where’s your spark now?

Welsh: They want you dead… or in their lie.

The film contrasts finding existential meaning with the arbitrariness of war and life. Welsh is a material pessimist, but unlike most other pessimists, he does not believe in an afterlife where justice will be done. This makes evil in the world without meaning, from his perspective. And evil is doubly unfair, as it harms people independently of circumstances, rather than as punishment for previous sins. “Every great pain, whether bodily or mental, states what we deserve; for it could not come to us if we did not deserve it.” Schopenhauer. With good and evil events seemingly having no teleological purpose, the characters are forced to independently find meaning to their actions.

Welsh: There’s not some other world out there where everything’s gonna be okay. There’s just this one, just this rock.

Storm: It makes no difference who you are, no matter how much training you got and the tougher guy you might be. When you’re at the wrong spot at the wrong time, you gonna get it.

TTRL examines themes of loyalty, friendship and love with several relationships being important to character and plot. Welsh, being an anti-individualist, makes this ironic observation:

Witt: Do you ever feel lonely?
Welsh: Only around people.

Witt: Everyone lookin’ for salvation by himself. Each like a coal thrown from the fire.

I have only scratched the surface of this film in this post, but it is worth multiple viewings. I love it and regard it as the greatest existential film (tied with Lost in Translation, at least from among those I have seen).

Anti Citizen One

PS Optical Illusions, seeing isn’t believing…

PPS Another top 10, completely different to my preferences. The Matrix is not really an existential film IMHO (except for about 2 lines, including “the matrix cannot tell you who you are”). And another top 10.

Can Anyone Can Really ‘Win’?

Posted by Anti Citizen One on February 8th, 2010

MIAMI—As the Super Bowl captures the country’s attention, excitement over the NFL’s championship game is muted somewhat by the persistent question of whether winning, or losing for that matter, holds any absolute value—a question that has many football fans pondering the meaning of the game itself. The Onion

Existential Films: Characters Explicitly Facing Existential Choices (3 of n)

Posted by Anti Citizen One on January 27th, 2010

Previous part

Three Colours Blue A woman’s family are killed in a car crash. Being of independent means, she decides to exist without any personal attachments. They say “no man is an island” but she attempts to simply existing without desire or pain. A fine plan, at first, but she is faced by repeated, unintentional entanglements with people and she begins to lose her apathy. She is also haunted by a musical theme that her late husband (possibly) was composing for the unification of Europe and probably represents fraternity (of the French motto Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité). The film is themed on “liberty”, in opposition to fraternity and the tension between these conflicting goals is played out through the film. Philosophically, this story is attempting to avoid existential choices by escape into nihilism. (This film might be the polar opposite to Taxi Driver.)

Julie Vignon: Now I have only one thing left to do: nothing. I don’t want any belongings, any memories. No friends, no love. Those are all traps.

High Noon A recently resigned sheriff (Kane) gets married to a pacifist, only to discover that his nemesis Miller (and his goons) are arriving shortly by train. The town, although grateful for him bringing peace and order, tells him this is not his fight and giving him every opportunity and excuse to leave. Although his usual allies are originally keen to help, they equivocate and eventually beg to not be forced to assist the sheriff. Kane is forced to make a choice: to step away from the town he helped create, or to suicidally fight Miller’s gang alone. The choice is made existential as it is without public support, potentially risky/fatal and motivated by personal values. I hear the film is also an allegory of McCarthyism and the failure of Hollywood to stand in solidarity.

Martin: You risk your skin catching killers and the juries turn them loose so they can come back and shoot at you again. If you’re honest you’re poor your whole life and in the end you wind up dying all alone on some dirty street. For what? For nothing. For a tin star.

See also: 13th Floor, eXistenZ

To be continued…

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