Cinephilia: Existentialism in 2014 American cinema

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Many movies of 2014 pondered the meaning of life and brought up explicit existential questions. Does it really matter whether you live nobly or criminally, whether you are full of pleasure or pain, whether you continue to live or die? These films seem to suggest that everything you do ultimately comes to nothing; you are not special, and you are not valuable. But can we live consistently and happily with such beliefs?

“This is the worst day of my life. I knew this day would come, except why is it happening now? First I get married, have kids, end up with two ex-husbands, go back to school, get my degree, get my master’s, and send both my kids off to college. What’s next? My own funeral?” These poignant comments from Boyhood come from Mason’s mother after he has grown up and is about to move out of her house.

Boyhood follows protagonist Mason over the course of 12 years and a series of milestones. The movie’s narrative is not based on the cause and effect of traditional storytelling, and often feels as though each individual sequence throughout the 12 years depicted is ultimately meaningless. The scene with Mason’s mother ends, and his life continues; he goes to college, meets a couple of new friends, and gets high.

Boyhood seems to propose that all we can do is live out the rest of our milestones. There is no way out except duping ourselves into believing in some overarching meaning.

What if you had cancer and only months to live? Augustus Waters in The Fault In Our Stars falls in love with a girl in his last days. At the beginning of the film he talks about how life is meaningless, but his character shifts when he finds meaning in love. Late in the film he says, “I am in love with you. And I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we’re all doomed. And that one day all our labour will be returned to dust. And I know that the sun will swallow the only Earth we will ever have.” 

Augustus passes away near the end of the film, and his labour does indeed “turn to dust.” We’re left wondering if love can truly conquer nihilism.

But the boldest attempt at addressing the ultimate meaning of life of all films in 2014 was The Zero Theorem. Qohen Leth is a computer hacker who is called “a man of faith” and yet lacks whole-hearted faith in God. His name is an allusion to Koheleth, the preacher in Ecclesiastes who uttered “Everything is meaningless.”

Qohen is working on proving the ‘zero theorem,’ an equation to demonstrate the meaninglessness of life. Qohen unsuccessfully waits for a phone call from God to instruct him on his life’s meaning. Outwardly, he looks like an impressive fortress of faith, but inwardly he is depressed, broken, and unfulfilled, all because of one question: what is the meaning of life? Only after he falls in love with a blonde call girl, adopts an existentialist philosophy, and forgets about God’s call does he really begin to experience life to the fullest.

All three films agree that we cannot live happily without meaning. Their implicit or explicit assumption is that God does not exist and, by consequence, neither does any inherent meaningfulness. They suggest that we should create our own meaning, but this raises an even more pressing question: can we really make meaning in a meaningless world?

3 COMMENTS

  1. It is important to note that existentialists don’t assume that the world is inherently meaningless. Instead, what they mean when they say “create meaning” is really to “discover it” through their projects and engagements with the world. They do not assume that we can create something from nothing. The point is that meaning is not necessary, but contingent.

    • Understood. My original article (the one I sent to be published) made it clear that it was nihilism that was the problem that proposes that the world is meaningless. Existentialism is the flimsy solution that these movies offered as a response to nihilism.

  2. One of the problems with using existentialism in film, is you miss out on the inner thoughts of characters that are expressed so well in novels. This results in movie’s essentially being similar and plot’s feeling repetitive. If you want the best existentialism has to offer, Read!