During this essay, I will Identify and critically articulate basic philosophical concepts and themes in two films, one from the lecture programme and another of my choice. I will also undertake independent study using appropriate resources and summaries and communicate my findings.
A post second world war movement, mainly centered around artistic and creative intellectuals. A difficult concept to define if indeed concept is the correct term. Existentialism seems to come from the human nature and how individuals deal with there own existence, indeed one of the most famous questions which perhaps describes the movement is “if a tree falls but no one is there does it make a sound?” converting this to man kinds philosophy “if we do not have a marked existence then do we exist?” as a human being we have to create values by living life which intern creates cause and effect.
Socrates described philosophy as “The pursuit of basic truths about human nature, to thine own self be true” (Existentialism - a brief insight by Thomas Flynn) Humans exist in – situation, we are part of the universe and as such have our own parts to play, quite simply the actions of one person can influence whether another tells the truth or lies, lives or dies, otherwise known as cause and effect. Two of the most important thinkers in this movement Martin Heidegger and John-Paul Sartre have differing views, both reasoned arguments, Heidegger is concerned with knowing, how you know and that you know it. Sartre is much more concerned with acting, the end result would appear to be that we make our own assumptions. In his journals another member of the existentialist,, movement Kierkegaard says, “The thing is to find a truth which is true for me, to find the idea for which I can live and die” (Flynn, p5).
Existentialism “One flew over the cuckoos nest”
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s nest (1975) Directed by Milos Forman. The story is about the character Randall McMurphy (Jack Nicholson). He has a criminal past and has gotten himself into trouble with the law. To escape labor duties in prison, McMurphy pleads insanity and is sent to a ward for the mentally unstable. Once here, McMurphy both endures and stands witness to the abuse and degradation of the oppressive Nurse Ratched (Louise Fletcher).
The premise of this film seems to rely heavily on this quote from John Locke, “The dread of evil is a much more forcible principle of human actions than the prospect of good” (John Locke – Philosophyquotes.tumbir.com) the patients in the psychiatric ward have more to fear than fear itself. Nurse Ratched appears to rule with a calm voice and placid demeanor when in reality her quiet voice and knowledge of the characters history gives her the upper hand, as with Billy It becomes apparent that she is friends with Billy’s mother and therefore she holds the rod to beat him with. Billy does not want to talk about his suicide attempts and in a sudden show of comrade ship Mr. Cheswick jumps to Billy’s Defense. This seems to show that although the characters are portrayed as being insane they still know from right and wrong. “Underlying such conceptions is the thought that there are kinds of understanding which transform a persons stance towards reality and hence his life. How he lives, or is, there by becomes a test of what he knows.” (David E Cooper, Existentialism, A reconstruction second edition, 1999, p21).
The character Randall Patrick McMurphy does not appear to be a complex individual he does by his own admission state “Now they’re telling me I’m crazy in here because i don’t sit here like a god damn vegetable.” He is telling the governor that they are crazier than he is, he is in a no win situation. McMurphys ideas on his existence are based on the fact that he wont let the bastards grind him down. As the film progresses the patients are no longer collective they take on a new persona and begin to question the word no, which comes from Nurse Ratched so often, instead of accepting no, they question.
It seems every character suffers with angst, the deep and dreadful feeling that they are not in control of there lives in the way they would like or thought they would be. Except perhaps McMurphy, in the beginning he believes he can make his own circumstances, before realising they can detain him as long as they wish. Sartre uses the word “Anguish” in a lot of his writing but essentially the same thing, he describes it as “a sense of complete and profound responsibility, fully realising that he is not choosing what he will be, but… deciding for the whole of man kind” (David E Cooper – Existentialism, second addition, 1999, p133). The burden of carrying so much angst increases in the scene where McMurphy tries to lift the wash stand, it beats him as he knows it will but some how comes out the victor with the line “But I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that” a message to the others that, it is better to try and fail than never to have tried at all.
“To remain at home because it is raining, and to remain at home because one has been forbidden to go out are by no means the same thing. It is not mere caprice which causes us often to do, without annoyance, what would have irritated us if another had commanded it. It is because the order and the prohibition cause us to experience the others freedom as our own slavery”. (Warnock - Existentialism, 1970, p117)
“It is impossible seriously to consider the feeling of inferiority without determining it with regard to the future and my possibilities. Even assertions such as ‘I am ugly, ‘I am stupid’, are by nature anticipations. We are not dealing here with the pure establishing of my ugliness, but with the apprehension of the coefficient of adversity, which is presented… to my enterprises”. (Warnock – Existentialism, 1970, p122). The character of Chief Bromden (the silent giant) appears to be nobody’s ally, he wanders through the film not affecting any of the characters daily lives. Billy tells McMurphy “He-he-he can't hear you. He's a d-d-deaf and d-d-dumb Indian”. However McMurphy speaks to him constantly even though he gets no response its as if he is just someone to talk at, silence means no madness, no insanity just a sounding board. Chief is the ultimate non-existentialist; he has ceased to exist in other people’s Existence, he is invisible.
A relationship between McMurphy and Chief is established in the scene where they are sat in the corridor with Mr. Cheswick after Nurse Ratched punishes them for rebelling against her authority when she tells Mr Cheswick he will have his cigarettes when she says so, basically another way of saying I control every part of your life in here even the tiny things. After Mr. Cheswick is taken away, he offers chief some gum, where chief accepts, after a pause he quietly says “mmmmm Juicy fruit” the friendship is cemented.
We come to the final scenes, which are dark and disturbing, a man who starts a journey believing the psychiatric ward to be a better and easier place than prison and work detail, he started a ball rolling one which would be impossible to stop, he believed he could influence anyone or any situation but his liberty is taken away and all decisions are taking out of his hands. He ceases to exist in his own right, freewill is gone. The moment when chief throws the washstand through the window to escape is testament to the earlier scene when McMurphy said “But I tried, didn't I? Goddamnit, at least I did that”. “When I am gripped by fear at the sight of a face at the window, it is because I see the face as belonging to someone who could get at me and destroy me immediately, even though in fact I may be safely locked into my house. When I stamp my foot in rage, it is because I cannot really, in the real world, trample my enemy under foot, but I believe for the time in the magical world in which he will be destroyed by my stamping”. (Warnock – Existentialism, 1970, p107)
Existentialism “The Shawshank Redemption”
The Shawshank Redemption (1994) Directed by Frank Darabont. The story is based on two imprisoned men, Tim Robbins (Andy Dufresne) and Morgan Freeman (Ellis Redding ‘Red’) who bond over a number of years, finding solace and eventual redemption through acts of common decency.
A film dedicated to hope and the power of being able to accept the situation for now and regroup. One definition of redemption is “to make good, another to find salvation”. The character of Andy Dufresne does not need to follow this train of thought as we later discover him to be an innocent man.
Shawshank Redemption surly follows the Latin motto carpe diem, roughly translated as “seize the day” a motto Andy Dufresne certainly takes seriously. Sentenced to two life sentences for murders he did not commit he manages to go from rock bottom to the top of the tree in a world not meant for him. In the opening scene Andy is in court standing accused of murder “ill see you in hell, before I see you in Reno” the prosecution offers we are led to believe he is capable of the up most evil and would murder his wife rather than agree to a divorse.
As the film moves on we find out quickly that he is a quite, thoughtful, kind and above all highly educated in a way that he can create a better environment for him and his friends. The Worden Norton is a highly religious man, “put your trust in the lord…. your ass belongs to me” Andy carries a bible on his person “salvation lies within”. Later in the film we find the humorous connotations of this statement by the Worden, he memorizes parts to find common ground with Worden Norton and thus not stay working in the laundry. Kierkegaard writes “it is perfectly true, as philosophers say, that life must be understood backwards. But they forget the other preposition, that it must be lived forward” (Flynn – Existentialism, 2009, p101).
Andy has his past life as banker to draw upon and to help him move forward, he knows his sentence is long and means to make it easy on himself, making it easier for others along the way. Getting the guards to give them beers in return helping them with taxes, finances and such. Throughout the film Morgan Freeman (Red) meets the parole panel several times, the long standing joke “im up for rejection next week” should not be amusing, but the characters, Red, Heywood, Floyd and the others laugh amongst themselves throughout, living a more and more normal existence as the film progresses, this is primarily due to Andy’s get up and go way of thinking “Get busy living, or get busy dying“ Essentially be master of your own destiny and do something!, anything!
We are introduced to the character of James Whitemore (Brooks) the elderly mild mannered librarian of Shawshank, We see the way in which the prison is his whole life, nothing exists outside of it. Brooks has a job he has friends he even raises a family (Black Bird Jake) whom Brooks gives freedom to just before he gains his own. The philosopher De Beauvoir writes “it is for man to establish the reign of liberty in the midst of the world of the given. To gain the supreme victory, it is necessary, for one thing, that by and through their natural differentiation men and women unequivocally affirm their brotherhood” (Flynn – Existentialism, 2009, p126).
Brooks keeps this brotherhood and belonging sacred, when he is released, tragically he looses his sense of being and feels desperately lost and alone. No longer to go on he takes his own life. In his letters to the others he write “it is a terrible thing to live in fear and I have decided I no longer want to be here”
Flynn, T.R. 2009, Existentialism, Sterling, London.
Cooper, D.E. 1999, Existentialism, Second Edition, Oxford
Warnock, M. 1970, Existentialism, Oxford