Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 6 February 2010

Existentialism in a movie

Up in the Air, the latest George Clooney film, is only the third movie I’ve reviewed on this blog, and the only common thread they share is that they all deal with philosophical issues, albeit in completely different ways with totally different themes.

Man on Wire was a documentary about a truly extraordinary, eccentric and uniquely talented human being. It’s hard to imagine we will ever see another Philippe Petit – certainly what he did was a once-in-a-lifetime event.

Watchmen was a fantasy comic-book movie that captured an entire era, specifically the cold war, and consequently brought to the screen the contradictions that many of us, on the outside at least, find in the American psyche.

Up in the Air is an existentialist movie for our time, and, even though it is marketed as a romantic-comedy, anyone expecting it to be a typical feel-good movie that promotes happily-ever-after scenarios will be disappointed. It is uplifting, I believe, but not in the way many people will expect. It has had good reviews, at least in this country, and deservedly so in my opinion.

Firstly, I cannot over-emphasise how well-written this movie is. When I ran a writing course, I told my students that good writing is transparent. Even in a novel, I contend that no one notices good writing, they only notice bad writing. The reader should be so engaged in the story and the characters, that the writing becomes a transparent medium.

Well, in a movie the writing is even more transparent, because it comes out of the mouths of actors or is seen through the direction of the director. To give an example, there is a scene in this movie where two different people get two different reactions from the same person in the same scenario. This scene could easily have appeared contrived and unconvincing, but it was completely believable, because all the characters were so well written. But, as far as the audience is concerned, all credit goes to the actors, and that’s what I mean when I say the writing is transparent.

Now, I know that, according to the internet, part of this movie is unscripted and they used real people (non-actors) who had been laid off, but their participation is seamless. And, paradoxically, it’s the script-writing that allows this to happen invisibly.

Personally, I felt some resonances with this movie, because, when I was in America in 2001/2, I was living the same type of life as the protagonist (George Clooney’s Ryan Bingham): living in hotels and flying or driving around the country. No, I wasn’t a high-flying executive or a hatchet-man; just an ordinary bloke working in a foreign country, so I had no home so to speak. I also wrote half a novel during that period, which, in retrospect, I find quite incredible, as I now struggle to write at all, even though I live alone and no longer hold a full time job. I digress and indulge – two unpardonable sins – so let me get back to my theme.

The movie opens with a montage of people being sacked (fired) with a voice-over of Clooney explaining his job. This cuts to the core of the movie for me: what do we live for? For many people their job defines them – it is their identity, in their own eyes and the eyes of their society. So cutting off someone’s job is like cutting off their life – it’s humiliating at the very least, suicidally depressing at worst and life-changing at best.

The movie doesn’t explore these various scenarios, just hints at them, but that’s all it needs to do. A story puts you in the picture - makes you empathise - otherwise it doesn’t work as a story. So sitting in the cinema, we all identify with these people, feel their pain, their humiliation, their sense of betrayal and their sense of failure. It’s done very succinctly – the movie doesn’t dwell on the consequences – it hits us where it hurts then leave us to contemplate. Just how important is your job to you? Is it just a meal ticket or does it define who you are?

In another sub-plot or 2 or 3, the movie explores relationships and family. So in one film all the existential questions concerning 21st Century living are asked. Getting married, having kids, bringing up the next generation – is that what it’s all about? There’s no definitive answer; the question is left hanging because it’s entirely up to the individual.

Recently (last month) Stephen Law tackled the Meaning of Life question from a humanist perspective. Basically he was defending the position against those who claim that there is no meaning to life without religion, specifically, without God. God doesn’t get a mention in this movie, but that’s not surprising; God rarely gets a mention in the best of fiction. In a recent post of my own (Jesus’ Philosophy) I reviewed Don Cupitt’s book on that very topic, and Cupitt makes the observation that it was the introduction of the novel that brought humanist morality into ordinary discourse. And he’s right: one rarely finds a story where God provides the answer to a moral dilemma – the characters are left to work it out for themselves, and we would be hugely disappointed if that wasn’t the case.

In one scene in the movie, Bingham tells a teary-eyed middle-aged man that he can finally follow the dream he gave up in his youth of becoming a pastry chef or something similar. Existential psychology, if not existential philosophy, emphasises the importance of authenticity – it’s what all artists strive for - it’s about being honest to one’s self. How many of us fail to follow the dream and instead follow the path of least resistance, which is to do what is expected of us by our family, our church, our society or our spouse.

For most of us, finding meaning in our life has very little to do with God, even those of us who believe in a god, because it’s something internal not external. Viktor Frankl, in his autobiographical book about Auschwitz (Man's Search for Meaning), contends that there are 3 ways we find meaning in our life: through a project, through a relationship and through adversity. This movie, with no detour to a war zone or prison camp, hints at all three. Yet it’s in the context of relationships that the real questions are asked.

On Stephen’s blog, another blogger wrote a response which was drenched in cynicism – effectively saying that anyone seeking meaning, in a metaphysical sense, is delusional. And that Stephen’s criteria about what constitutes a ‘meaningful’ life was purely subjective. I challenged this guy by saying: ‘I don’t believe you’; everyone seeks meaning in their life, through their work or their art or their relationships, but, in particular, through relationships.

At the end of one’s life, I would suggest that one would judge it on how many lives one touched and how meaningfully they touched them; all other criteria would pale by comparison. To quote one of my favourite quotes from Eastern antiquity: If you want to judge the true worth of a person, observe the effects they have on other people’s lives.


larryniven said...

Hey Paul - I'd say something about the actual post but I haven't seen the movie yet, so I'm trying to avoid reading spoilers about it. At any rate, here's a section from Hesse (although not the original one; this conversation takes place in a side story between two ascetics who've just heard the confession of a heretic):

"'Why didn't you try to refute this man, to strike down his errors and convert him to faith in our Lord?'

...[The other replied,] 'Those stories from mythology, which the stranger chatted about so gracefully, are by no means benighted. They are the ideas and parables of a religion which we no longer need because we have acquired faith in Jesus the sole Redeemer. But for those who have not yet found our faith, perhaps never can find it, their own faith, deriving from the ancient wisdom of their fathers, is rightly deserving of respect. But because our faith does not need the doctrine of constellations and aeons, of the primal waters and universal mothers and similar symbols, that does not mean that such doctrines are lies and deception.'"

That's on page 474-475 of my edition, which is about ready to fall apart. It's not exactly the same as what you've said, of course, but it bears certain similarities.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Larry,

I like it. It's effectively saying that if you have religious beliefs yourself, you need to respect others even if their beliefs are differently based or premised.

It's about what people find within themselves, which is the way I look at it.

Regards, Paul.

larryniven said...

Okay - now that I've seen the movie, I think this is a very apt review of it. If you don't mind (well, or even if you do, cause this is the internet and everything is free) I'm going to cite a few of your points in an upcoming post.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks for the kudos, Larry.

You can cite me any time you want; after all, I do it to you, often in fact.

Regards, Paul.

Dale said...

Nicely done, Paul. I just got around to seeing this movie -- believe it or not -- and while it's still stewing a little in my head and some things need to settle up there, I plan to post on it soon.

Paul P. Mealing said...

Thanks Dale,

I appreciate your comment. I'll keep an eye out for your own post.

Regards, Paul.