Existentialism: a philosophical theory or approach that emphasizes the existence of the individual person as a free and responsible agent determining their own development through acts of the will. A philosophy that emphasizes the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe, regards human existence as inexplicable, and stresses freedom of choice and responsibility for the consequences of one’s acts.
When I was a freshman in college my favorite class was Intro to Philosophy. The times also influenced my interest in the subject. It was the fall of 1968, and like most young adults of my generation, I was exploring the big issues of the day and asking questions: What is the meaning of life, why are we here, and is there a God?
In my twentieth-century literature class, I was reading books by existential authors such as Albert Camus and treatises by Jean-Paul Sartre and his life partner and early second-wave feminist, Simone de Beauvoir.
Later films would have a powerful impact on me beginning with French director Jean Genet, American filmmaker, Stanley Kubrick, followed by the works of Swedish director, Ingmar Bergman, and continuing throughout the late sixties and early seventies with a series of films with compelling existential themes that illustrated how the protagonists’ free choices determined the outcomes of their lives, They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, Bonnie & Clyde, Harold & Maude, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon, Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Five Easy Pieces, Taxi Driver, and Apocalypse Now. The list could go on.
Though I am a reader, especially of non-fiction, plays and biographies, it’s the darkened movie theater or my living room with lights dimmed that provides the setting for my most thought-provoking experiences that deal with some of the same questions I asked as an eighteen-year-old trying to make sense of the world and my place in it.
Contemporary films address the same issues, ask similar questions, and feature themes about survival and the powerful role of the will to live, and the individuals, real or imagined, who find themselves alone and adrift without a life raft, in free fall without a parachute, or must face imminent death unless they choose to do the unthinkable or challenge the mettle of their character.
A short list of recent films: Cast Away, Life of Pi, Touching the Void,and 127 Hours share the same story arc. These films share something else in common too, they are edge-of-your-seat storytelling, sometimes so much so that you’ll be tempted to look away. In each of these stories, the protagonist must answer the question of what length they are willing to go to survive. We are each alone, and though we may be supported by loved ones and family, by communities and allies, in the end we face death and life on our own and by our own terms. We each make decisions on what we need to let go, and what we need to hold onto, and take responsibility for our choices, actions and their consequences. It is a fundamental lesson that we hopefully learn at the beginning of our life and become practiced and prepared for before the end of our life. It is both a material and spiritual journey.
Two films, one in theaters now, Gravity,and one coming soon, All Is Lost, address these themes. I saw Gravity yesterday with my friend Terri, and it was moving. I often want to talk in length about the films I see. Today, I’m simply going to encourage you to see the film and let’s talk about it later. One of my favorite film critics, Andrew O’Hehir, offered the same invitation. Following is his review from Salon.com. Read it if you want to know more about the film. Also see it in 3D. It will be worth the cost of admission.