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Filtering by Tag: existentialism

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 3

Drew Trotter

20 Lilies In my last two blog posts, I have tried to show how both Boyhood and Birdman seem bent on resurrecting a philosophy popular in the 1960’s: existentialism. While Boyhood seems to give a hopeful spin to its form of it, Birdman presents a much darker picture, linking existentialism to what was commonly thought then was the only truly authentic act in the face of the death of God: suicide. Albert Camus fought this notion, but many under the influence particularly of Friedrich Nietzsche, embraced it thoroughly.

Now, I am a Christian theologian, and I believe that Christianity spends a lot of energy encouraging us to realize that the present is the only moment we have in which to act responsibly. We share this in common with existentialism, this focus on the present in the journey of our own lives. We can do nothing about the past because we cannot alter it, and we can do nothing about the future because we do not know what challenges it will bring. Therefore, following the Good Shepherd in the moment is what we are called to do, and it is enough.

One does not have to look far in Christian teaching for support for this way of living. I think of Jesus’s statement in the Sermon on the Mount about not being anxious for anything: “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Mt 6.34 ESV) or the ancient wisdom of Prov. 27.1: “Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring.” (ESV).

These two statements are about the future, but, similarly, the regrettable past is forgiven and forgotten in a very real sense for the Christian, and, while the memories of works of beauty and goodness that may have been done to us or by us, are great gifts, we cannot change those gifts, nor would we want to.

But—and it is a very large “but” indeed—all our understanding of both the past and the future takes place in a universe in which God oversees the past, the present and the future from His eternal stance outside of time. He bestows meaning to our existential moments in the framework of both an ethical structure based in the law, which in turn is based on His eternal character, and a metaphysical structure based in His revelation of Himself as creator, redeemer, and sustainer. All meaning flows from Him, and provides us a rich and satisfying philosophy by which to live and in which to believe. He gives meaning to both the past and the future, and so we, His creatures, can rest assured about both the reality of, and the significance of, both the past and the future. We may not be able to change them, but we look at them with very different perspectives than do the existentialists.

I do not see any alternative better than this. Camus’s notion of revolt in the face of the absurdism of a universe without God is purely a decision to go in a direction he wants to go. His attempt in “The Myth of Sisyphus” to answer in the negative the question of whether or not one should commit suicide in the face of an absurd universe is unconvincing. Even worse is his attempt ultimately to justify the embrace—happy embrace, I might add—of the fate of pushing the rock to the top of the mountain each day, only to see it roll back down to the bottom every night. He simply gives us no reason to feel that this is a better alternative than simply to end it all in despair.

But the greatest fault of existentialism is its premise that God does not exist. The much better hypothesis is that He does, and that He has revealed Himself in Christ for the good of the world. The hope of Boyhood is not wrong; it’s just misplaced given its premise. The craving for love in Birdman is not wrong; it’s just misdirected from looking for God’s approval to looking for man’s (John 2:23-25). The Christian can hope and can love because of their faith, the faith that the one true God exists and gives life and meaning to the past, the present and the future.

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 2

Drew Trotter

Michael Keaton as ‚ÄúRiggan‚Äù in BIRDMAN. (Courtesy Fox Searchlight Pictures) In last month’s blog, I mentioned that Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism. I wrote about Boyhood and its thoroughgoing, but hopeful, existentialism, and accused it of cheating since classic existentialism was anything but hopeful because of one single factor: death.

Birdman doesn’t make that mistake. In the film references abound to death, particularly suicide, as its main character, Riggan Thompson, played superbly by Michael Keaton in an Oscar-nominated performance, struggles with his celebrity, the emptiness of his power, his own hubris, the effect he is having on others, his need for love.

Birdman portrays Thompson as a popular but shallow superhero actor who wants to be taken seriously, so he writes, directs, and stars in a Broadway play based on a Raymond Carver short story. The film spans the few days between final rehearsals and opening night. Shot in the St. James Theatre in New York, Birdman is distinctive, if not unique, for its very long takes, sometimes as long as twenty minutes or more without a cut. This, and a constantly playing jazz drummer rasping in the background, adds hugely to the fast-pace of the dialogue and action to create a feeling of one long moment for the film. Small wonder, given the existential themes explored particularly in two scenes near the end of the film.

[Spoiler alert!] Riggan, unbeknownst to anyone else associated with the play, decides to commit the meaning-creating act of his life by committing suicide on stage, but messes that up either by accidentally missing his head and blowing off his nose instead, or by changing his mind at the last minute (or possibly, but I think unlikely, planning only to blow off his nose all along). What happens before that in two important scenes tells us what the filmmakers were intending.

The first of these takes place in Riggan’s dressing room on opening night near the end of the play, when his ex-wife, Sylvia, played by Amy Ryan, visits him to tell him how well she thinks he’s doing in the play. Riggan declares his love for her and for Samantha, their daughter, and their exchange brings together the themes of family, responsibility and what is actually real:

Riggan: I love you. …And I love Sam. Sylvia: I know. Riggan: I really wish I wouldn’t have videotaped her birth, though. Sylvia: Why? Riggan: ‘Cause… (sighs) I just missed the moment, really. I don’t have it. I should have just been there with the two of you. You know … just the three of us. But I wasn’t. I wasn’t even present in my own life, and now I don’t have it… and I’m never going to have it. Sylvia: You have Sam. Riggan: Not really, I don’t. I mean, she’s… Sylvia: Oh, no, no, no, listen, she’s just going through … Riggan: No, I get it, I understand. She needed a dad; instead she got this guy who was a …three day viral sensation. It is so pathetic, I can’t… Sylvia: No, come on. There are things more pathetic than that. Riggan: Yeah, like? Sylvia: That moustache. (Both laugh.) They kiss. He tells her to get back to her seat. He pulls down a real gun from a shelf, not the toy one he’s been using in rehearsals. He checks and makes sure it’s loaded.

Riggan regrets not actually living the moment of his daughter’s birth instead of trying to do so vicariously through a videotape. Note how he says, “I wasn’t even present in my own life,” a telling admission that he doesn’t really believe he exists because he did not act authentically. He doesn’t have that moment and he’s never going to. So much more could be said about the idea of cynically dismissing the medium of videotape in a movie about a play, but the key for us is this: Riggan does not exist because he has not acted authentically and with passion.

Even more important is the penultimate scene in the film, when Riggan is on stage. In the play, he is Eddie, who has just broken into a motel room where he discovers his wife (Naomi Watts) with her lover (Edward Norton). He brandishes a gun at both of them. She admits she doesn’t love him, and his answer forms the heart of the struggle of the “real” Riggan Thompson within the story of the movie: “Why? I just want you to tell me: why? …What’s the matter with me? Tell me what’s the matter. Why do I always have to beg people to love me? …I just wanted to be what you wanted. What you wanted. Now I spend every fucking minute trying to be something else. Something I’m not. …I don’t exist. I’m not even here. I’m not even here.”

Riggan points the gun at the Norton character and goes “Bang!”, like a very dangerous child playing with a real gun. Then he points the gun at the audience and does the same thing: “Bang!” The terror for the movie viewer is palpable; it looks like a real gun. It is a real gun! Riggan then shoots himself, blowing his nose off, but we don’t know that until later. It looks like he has committed some existentialists’ one authentic act: suicide. The audience stays silent for the slightest of moments, then they wildly applaud—a thumping, rousing standing ovation for the apparently dead actor on the stage floor.

What do we as Christians think of this? Riggan, not finding the love he so craves, a love that takes the form for him of gaining from the audience respect for himself and for his art, chooses to kill himself in order to win that respect. Albert Camus fought this conclusion in his famous essay “The Myth of Sisyphus,” opting instead for an acknowledgment of the absurdity of life and a life lived in revolt against that absurdity.

But why? Stay tuned for part three next month.

Boyhood, Birdman and the Problem of Existence, Part 1

Drew Trotter

20 Boyhood:existentialism Birdman and Boyhood shared more than the race for the Best Picture Oscar last year. Though the two movies were as different as can be imagined in tone, form, subject matter, pace, and just about every other movie-making category, they were unified in pushing to the forefront a philosophy that goes back some fifty years, but seems to be gaining momentum as a philosophy of life: existentialism.

Existentialism is known best at the popular level as the theory that the only meaning one can find in life is by living authentically, i.e. passionately and sincerely, in the moment. The “now,” not the “then” on either side of it on the timeline of existence, is the only part of reality that is relevant, and an existentialist is responsible for creating meaning in that “now.” That meaning, however, does not transcend the “now,” but rather requires the doer to live in a series of disconnected moments as authentically as possible to achieve significance. All of this is predicated on the universe being meaningless, there being no God, and therefore no revelation of where meaning for the human being is to be found.

The conversation that shows how serious Boyhood is about its existentialism comprises the last scene in the film. Mason, Boyhood’s main character, is on a hike on his first day of university. He has typically skipped orientation and has met a new girl, Nicole; they are hitting it off. At a beautiful moment of sunset with the rocks glowing that soft red they do in the Texas desert, Mason and Nicole are sitting together, enjoying a brief rest, awkwardly trying to continue the conversation they’ve been having during the walk. Suddenly Mason’s roommate, a crazy extrovert, yells out from down below: “This moment’s having a falsieful whoregasm! It’s like as if all of time has unfolded before us so we could stand here and look out and scream, ‘Fuck yeah!’ Wooo!”

This juvenile moment prompts the much more thoughtful, yet still feeling-her-way Nicole to turn to Mason tentatively and volunteer, “You know how everyone is always saying, ‘Seize the moment!’? I don’t know. I’m kinda thinkin’ it’s the other way around, you know, like, the moment seizes us.” Mason responds, “Yeah. Yeah, I know. It’s constant. The moments. It’s just, it’s like it’s always right now, you know?” She agrees. They look at each other, again in only that way two young people can, who aren’t sure of the future, but are thinking, “I really like this girl/guy; do you think he/she is the one?” They look away, then look back, and the movie cuts to black, ending.

As if this weren’t enough, as the credits roll, a lone voice begins singing, “Here, at my place in time, and here in my own skin, I can finally begin. Let the century pass me by. Standing under my sky, tomorrow is nothin’.”

One couldn’t find in modern film a more existentialist way of viewing life. “It’s like always right now, you know?” But Boyhood cheats because it ends hopefully. The viewer feels Mason has his whole life ahead of him and sees it as an adventure, filled with moments, some of joy, some of sadness, some of reward, some of punishment, but all to be embraced and simply lived until the next one comes. Classic existentialists, on the other hand, could not get over the loss they felt at the knowledge that we create our own meaning in every moment. It made life absurd, random, without any ultimate significance. This newer popular form of the philosophy simply chooses to ignore the consequences of the future, particularly the looming specter that so terrified Sartre, Camus, Becket and others: death.

That specter dominates, in some ways, the other movie, the one which won the big prize: Birdman. Stay tuned.