Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema
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Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema

A Sartrean Perspective

Jean-Pierre Boulé, Enda McCaffrey, Jean-Pierre Boulé, Enda McCaffrey

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Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema

A Sartrean Perspective

Jean-Pierre Boulé, Enda McCaffrey, Jean-Pierre Boulé, Enda McCaffrey

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About This Book

At the heart of this volume is the assertion that Sartrean existentialism, most prominent in the 1940s, particularly in France, is still relevant as a way of interpreting the world today. Film, by reflecting philosophical concerns in the actions and choices of characters, continues and extends a tradition in which art exemplifies the understanding of existentialist philosophy. In a scholarly yet accessible style, the contributors exploit the rich interplay between Sartre's philosophy, plays and novels, and a number of contemporary films including No Country for Old Men, Lost in Translation and The Truman Show, with film-makers including the Dardenne brothers, Michael Haneke, and Mike Leigh. This volume will be of interest to students who are coming to Sartre's work for the first time and to those who would like to read films within an existentialist perspective.

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Christopher Falzon
In Peter Weir’s The Truman Show (1998), Truman Burbank (Jim Carrey) gradually discovers that since birth he has been the unwitting star of a reality television show, watched by a global audience. His home town of Seahaven is in fact an enormous studio set filled with hidden cameras; all those around him, including his wife Meryl (Laura Linney) and best friend Marlon (Noah Emmerich), are really actors; and his life is being orchestrated from behind the scenes by the show’s producer and director, Christof (Ed Harris). A series of unusual events lead him to question his situation, and he makes increasingly bold attempts to escape. Finally he takes to the sea, and, surviving a storm that Christof throws at him, arrives at the edge of the huge sky-painted dome that surrounds his world. Christof announces himself and tries to convince him to stay, but the film ends with Truman walking through the door marked ‘Exit’ that leads to the real world outside.
Weir’s perhaps most widely praised film has been read in a number of ways. As an urban paranoia film it re-envisions the creeping fear that one’s social world has been taken over by strange forces, memorably articulated against the background of McCarthyite anti-communist hysteria in Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956). It does so in terms of a more contemporary anxiety, that we might be part of a media-engineered spectacle, being watched by an unseen audience. And while such thinking might be dismissed as delusional (there are even documented psychological conditions featuring such beliefs), it can also play a role in establishing truth. After all, doesn’t Descartes put forward the ultimate paranoid scenario – that there might be an all-powerful evil demon intent on deceiving us, such that everything we believe about the world could be false – as a step in his programme of critically assessing beliefs, in order to determine what he can be sure of? The Truman Show offers its own version of the possibility of systematic deception, with the all-powerful Christof standing in for the evil demon. Its challenge to unexamined beliefs about our situation has in turn informed the film’s reception as a critique of the media-driven fabrication of reality (see e.g., Frost and Banks 2001: 82–4); as well as an updated version of Descartes’ critique of what we take for granted in our thinking (see e.g., Blessing 2005).
This chapter is going to focus on another theme that has been associated with the film, the manner in which it engages with existentialist concerns, and Sartre’s existentialism in particular. At its heart is a Sartrean affirmation of individual freedom. This turn to the individual also has connections with the film’s Cartesian questioning of ordinary presuppositions about the world. Such questioning inevitably robs us of a stable framework for living, and throws us onto our own resources. Descartes himself finds that the only thing he can be sure of is his own existence, and has to use only what he can find within himself to rebuild knowledge. Sartre follows in Descartes’ footsteps by questioning whether there are any external grounds for the values we live by. In the absence of external support or justification, Sartre’s self has to determine its purpose, the meaning of its existence, through its own choices. At the same time, Sartre understands this lonely self-determination to be central to our humanity. An authentic human existence requires subjective isolation, the rejection of any attempt to subordinate individuals to external determination, authority or coercion. This means a rejection not only of a God who might provide our existence with purpose and direction, but also of social rules and constraints that might give our life an orienting framework. To submit to such constraints is to have security, but to lose oneself.
As Jonathan Rayner notes, an abiding theme in Weir’s work is this very idea, that integration into society amounts to a loss of personality and authority (Rayner 2003: 27). Weir’s American films in particular ‘predominantly remain narratives of individual struggles against authority, constraint, mundanity, and conformity’ (Rayner 2003: 229). These are struggles typically undertaken for the sake of personal realisation and self-affirmation. Thus in Dead Poets Society (1989), a constraining institutional milieu is challenged in the name of individual self-expression and a fully lived life. In Fearless (1993) the protagonist, having survived a plane crash, is moved to reject his old life, family and friends in order to find a new meaning for his existence. And in The Truman Show, the individual finds self-affirmation in determining the meaning and direction of his life, in the face of a constraining and repressive social situation. This affirmation begins with Truman’s questioning of everything he has hitherto relied on to structure his existence. His Cartesian-style questioning leads directly to the realisation that these forms are the product of external determination, through which his life has been controlled. It is a comfortable, secure life, but not ultimately his own. It falls upon him to reject these impositions, assert his freedom and establish a meaningful life for himself.
This is where the film reveals a strong, Sartrean commitment to the individual’s capacity for self-determination. Sartre is also recalled in so far as Truman’s rejection of external determination includes both a repudiation of God, or at least Christof now viewed as a God-like figure; and of social constraints and demands, with Christof in this case as locus of social control. We will be examining these Sartrean themes in the film in more detail. However, there are also aspects of the film that seem to undermine its own commitment to individual freedom, that pose questions concerning the extent of social situatedness and influence on the individual that the later Sartre himself was to pose with regard to his existentialism. This will be addressed towards the end of the discussion.

Individual Freedom

The first theme, then, is the film’s Sartrean affirmation of individual freedom, in the face of external influences and pressures to conform. As Rayner notes, the film poses existential questions ‘through its concentration on an isolated individual, who is subject to others’ demands but who seeks individual meaning’ (Rayner 2003: 243). It also offers an account of ‘existential awakening’, from a life of unthinking conformity to the requirements of one’s role and the expectations of others, to a recognition of one’s capacity for self-determination. Truman’s initial state of integration and conformity is emphasised in the opening scenes of the film. The setting in which Truman finds himself has the look of an idyllic fifties-style community, clean, manicured and orderly, but inevitably also self-enclosed, conservative and fixed in its ways. Truman’s first appearance is as an apparently ideal member of such a community. He is conservatively dressed, and his life is one of routine, reliability and responsibility. His greeting to his neighbours is evidently part of a routine that has been going on for a long time, he takes a set route to work, and his life is bound by the conventional requirements of house, marriage, car and desk job.
These routines and responsibilities effectively conspire to keep Truman tied down. The conceit of the film, that he is living in a huge studio set where it is important that he remain predictable and constrained, means that his confinement in conventional patterns of life is also a literal means of imprisonment, engineered to ensure his compliance. Yet even if his situation were not really one of large-scale imprisonment, it would still provide an ideal setting for existential rebellion. Such rebellion is by no means absent even at this stage. Truman already has misgivings about his situation, associated with dreams of travel and his yearning for Sylvia (Natascha McElhone), the object of a brief ‘unscripted’ college romance that ended with her apparent move to Fiji (in reality the actress has been banished from the set). But his current circumstances, including his marriage to Meryl, have been arranged to keep these yearnings in check. This confinement is successful to the extent that Truman continues to live his life within conventional patterns. It is only a series of external events, anomalies he encounters, that bring him to seriously question his situation and initiate the main action of the film.
Truman has something in common with Sartre’s protagonist Roquentin in Nausea (1938). Roquentin similarly finds himself in a small town, a closed, rather stifling setting. Certainly he is not as constrained by role, demands and expectations as Truman. He is not tied to family or friends, and he does not need to work for a living because he can rely on an inheritance. He does, however, have various presuppositions about the world, in terms of which the world and his own existence are seen as meaningful and justified, and which come into question in the course of the novel. Through Roquentin, Sartre invites us to shake off our ordinary presuppositions about the world and ourselves (see Falzon 2005). In Roquentin’s case, no specific event moves him down this path. There is simply a growing sense of unease about his environment, in which things and people around him, and eventually his own existence, come to appear strange, disturbing, nauseating. Ultimately he comes to realise that his feeling of nausea is the apprehension of the contingency of things and of his own existence, their utter lack of point and purpose, external justification or necessity (Sartre [1938] 2000: 188).
Both Roquentin and Truman, then, enact a kind of Cartesian questioning of their situation, through which the presuppositions that formerly structured their existence and gave it meaning come to be challenged. In Roquentin’s case, his existence turns out to be meaningless, in the sense of lacking necessity. His nausea represents an awakening from the illusion of meaning, a ‘revealing of the world’ (Beauvoir 1984: 207). For Truman, the most radical of Descartes’ sceptical considerations, the supposition that there might be an evil demon bent on deceiving him, turns out to be a reality in the figure of Christof who has been secretly orchestrating Truman’s existence. He finds that he has not only been labouring under an illusion, but has been in reality the plaything of external forces. His existence lacks meaning because it does not derive from him, because he has been playing a role scripted and determined by someone else (see Blessing 2005: 8). Both Sartre and The Truman Show also follow in Descartes’ footsteps in that this process of questioning leads to the affirmation of a sovereign self.
Sartre’s re-enactment of Cartesian doubt in Nausea at first seems to be simply destructive, robbing his existence of justification. He does encounter himself in the process, but not as the chastely disembodied Cartesian self, the ‘thinking thing’. Rather it is as an embodied being whose thinking is permeated by corporeal existence. Existence, as Roquentin puts it, ‘takes my thoughts from behind and gently expands them from behind’ (Sartre [1938] 2000: 148; see Manser 1966: 11), and ‘this is only to say that I too am infected by the nauseating lack of necessity that afflicts all existence’. However, what is primarily a destructive process in Nausea also clears the way for the human being to take centre stage as the sovereign source of meaning in Being and Nothingness (1943). Now, without any external support whatsoever, through wholly free choices, we choose our purposes and give meaning to our existence. As with Descartes, the self is affirmed as the starting point. It is worth noting, however, that Sartre still distances himself from Descartes in that the self is never seen as disembodied. It is situated in relation to the world (the ‘in-itself’), and to its own corporeal existence (its ‘facticity’). In addition, Sartre locates this self in a world of others, a social situation. Nonetheless, he also affirms the primacy of the free self, in the face of any kind of external determination or coercion. The self is never determined by the world or its own facticity. However constraining our situations might be, no matter how much they impact on us, we are always free to escape them, to transcend them and freely define ourselves (Fox 2003: 11).
This detour through Sartre’s development might seem to have taken us far from The Truman Show, but in fact Sartre arrives at a position quite close to it. Broadly speaking, the film’s trajectory is also a journey towards the affirmation of the sovereign individual, capable of self-determination, in this case directly in the face of any kind of external determination or coercion. Truman’s questioning of the forms that structure his existence involves the recognition that these have been determined by others, and ultimately by Christof. To that extent, Truman has been deprived of personality and identity. However, the film also affirms his capacity to escape these imposed forms, to exercise his freedom, and to determine the meaning and direction of his existence for himself. In this way The Truman Show embraces a Sartrean freedom of self-definition in the face of external determination and coercion. Nevertheless, there is also a certain divergence from Sartre here. Sartre insists on a self that although free always remains situated, and which also longs for determination even as it escapes it. The Truman Show’s affirmation of freedom is more straightforward; it involves a complete, and regret-free, repudiation of situation. Truman can escape entirely from his circumstances, and happily does so. As we pursue the film’s engagement with Sartrean themes in more detail, this divergence will be evident at a number of points.

Freedom and God

Roquentin’s questioning of the presuppositions that give meaning to his existence is also bound up with the rejection of a God, a being who might ‘overcome contingency’, provide ultimate justification, and give human existence purpose and direction (Sartre [1938] 2000: 188). That Sartre’s subsequent affirmation of the free self also presupposes this rejection is made explicit in Existentialism Is a Humanism (1946). There he argues that the notion of God stands in the way of freedom. For Christianity in particular, Sartre argues, there is a conception of what a human being essentially is that dwells in the divine understanding, and which is realised when God creates human beings – just as an artisan has a conception of a paper knife before bringing one into existence. Made to a formula, human beings would automatically have certain values and pursue certain goals. However, ‘if God does not exist there is at least one being in whom existence precedes essence, a being who exists before he can be defined by any concept of it’ (Sartre [1946] 2007: 22). In short, dispensing with God means that human beings, without a pre-ordained essence to define them, are free to make themselves.
In The Truman Show freedom is similarly construed in terms of rejecting God, or at least escaping from Christof in so far as he can be seen as a God-like figure. He certainly occupies a God-like position in the film. Sitting high above Seahaven in the ‘Omnicom Sphere’ that masquerades as the moon, he is the architect of Truman’s world, observing, scripting and guiding his life. The film does not miss the opportunity to allude to his elevated status. At the end of the film when he finally announces himself to Truman it is as a booming voice in the sky, and he tells him that he is ‘the creator … of a television show’. Christof’s role as the creator-artist behind the scenes recalls Sartre’s characterisation of God as a ‘superlative artisan’ in Existentialism Is a Humanism (Sartre [1946] 2007: 21). Christof wants to fashion Truman as if he were a kind of artefact, ‘designing’ him according to a pre-arranged script. In The Truman Show, God is a real presence, but this does not mean that freedom is excluded. Rather, Christof is a God who insists that ...

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Citation styles for Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema
APA 6 Citation
[author missing]. (2011). Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema (1st ed.). Berghahn Books. Retrieved from https://www.perlego.com/book/540724/existentialism-and-contemporary-cinema-a-sartrean-perspective-pdf (Original work published 2011)
Chicago Citation
[author missing]. (2011) 2011. Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema. 1st ed. Berghahn Books. https://www.perlego.com/book/540724/existentialism-and-contemporary-cinema-a-sartrean-perspective-pdf.
Harvard Citation
[author missing] (2011) Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema. 1st edn. Berghahn Books. Available at: https://www.perlego.com/book/540724/existentialism-and-contemporary-cinema-a-sartrean-perspective-pdf (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
[author missing]. Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema. 1st ed. Berghahn Books, 2011. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.