From ‘Looking-Into’ to ‘Living-Into’: Theorizing Existentialism in Cinema

In the early scenes of L’avenir (Things to Come) we see a French artist resting in peace at a place where he wanted to consume himself to the music of winds and sea till the eternity. Commenting on the same, Heinz tells Nathalie that music is not only felt, it is seen. As the movie progresses, we see Nathalie experiencing the same contradiction, a semiotic rather, in her own self. We see her exploring and experiencing the various interpretations of herself, a development of an empathy she creates with the space and circumstances. In a cinematic construction that enables it, we see Nathalie oscillating from a life which she ‘thinks’ of being hers and the life she somehow indulges herself into. It is the fascinating movement of her identity from the past to the present to the future and the constant divergence of it all that made me question the idea of linearity and unity of life and identity.

 

Extrapolating Nathalie and contextualising her to the actress who ‘played’ that character on screen – Isabelle Huppert, I see an extension of this idea. In her interview to Stephen Colbert, when she was asked with a cliché of what is acting, she quite resolutely replied that it is anything but ‘acting’. She said that it is the denial of oneself as one exists in order to be someone else. This is something way more than merely method acting. This is a more psychological and physiological process of ‘looking-into’ the object of consideration. As the German Romantic philosophers or English Aesthetic School might call it active empathy, I would partially agree to that construction, only to extend it to a more complex idea of ‘living-into’.

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I begin with the question of ‘self’. It’s an existential question that requires understanding of the two components or elements that are in a dialogical relationship in order to raise this doubt in the first place. Rachael Corbett raises this point while asking that if we work on an assumption that we consist of something self then what makes us think that the other is devoid of that self? In the present case the two components that I shall consider are – the actor and the character.

The uniqueness of cinematic empathy is that the object and subject are both representational of an interconnected signified. For instance, what it means to be a human is not only reflected in the artist but is also extended to the character. So, it would be a woman playing a role of a woman, or a man, so on and so forth. This nature of duality separates it from the Man and Nature duality of Johann Gottfried Herder. Unlike Herder’s association of ‘human elements’ such as consciousness to non-human elements such as nature; the characters possess humanness in themselves and the same is not artificially extended. This shall also be distinguished from David Hume’s concept of sympathy because there is no recognition of the ‘beauty’ of the character in either relative or absolute terms. Rather the nature of the character is not adjudged by the actor from any representational signifier. There can be slight similarities of this idea with the anthropomorphosis effect as elaborated in Friedrich Theodor Vischer’s operational symbolism, although the presence of magical-symbolism thinking in his theory is the one that frictions the synonymous relationship between the two.

Moving away from Vicher, there isn’t a consciousness of ‘self’ completely present during a cinematic process of acting. As Isabelle Huppert herself confessed in her interview to The Hollywood Reporter, ‘the moment and space of acting is not completely conscious or unconscious in the actor’s head. It is characterised by the state of mind where one is halfway lost of oneself and halfway in gain of someone else.” So Ms Huppert believes that an actor, during the process of acting, occupies a space (both physically and psychologically) that is separate from the socio-temporal space of the actor’s existence.

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Desiree Navab (2004)

The idea that an actor can escape the ‘existence’ that is often synonymous to having a body and be someone else, it itches me to question this very synonymy. Occupation of a space would require some magnitude of mass in the thing that is occupying it. Therefore, it would be safe to say that the fact that a thing occupies a space, that it possesses mass, it henceforth exists. Since, an actor escapes to possess a space which is separate from the space occupied by her when she is not enacting a scene, it could be a plausible extension to say that she goes on to occupy a space that her body (body that she carries when she’s not enacting) does not occupy. So, the process of acting associates some sense of mass in the non-material existence of the idea of the character. It is this mass which is transferred to the actor when she escapes from the mass of the original body. The presence of mass in the non-material idea of the character would now lead us to believe that such an idea exists. Thus, the character itself exists. It may be non-material (devoid of body) but it exists. So much so, that it would safe to say that the character’s existence is independent, and perhaps, predates the existence of the actor.

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Annegret Saldau (1976)

So, why did I recognise the existence of a non-material idea that possesses mass? Well, let’s talk about Descartes here. In his Meditation II, the French philosopher says that the reason that I doubt is because that I think. Therefore, there should be a thinking thing that exists. Since, I think, I am a thinking thing. Therefore, since I think, I exist. When it came to the question of body, he said that the only reason that I know the existence of body is due to perceptible sensations, which can possibly be the deception of the demon. But the fact that he thinks that whether his body exists or not shows that thinking thing (mind) exists. Thus, it is possible for him to exist even when he does not have a body because he has the thinking thing (mind). This duality between mind and body get further detailing in Meditations V and VI where he states that he knows that clear and distinct ideas are true. Therefore, every idea that he can conceive clearly and distinctively shall be true. Since he perceives mind and body to possess clear and distinct ideas, that is ‘thinking thing’ and ‘extension’ respectively, mind and body are two distinct things. Since, these are two different things; the existence of one does not depend on the existence of another.

I’m not saying that this theory completely follows the duality principle of Descartes, because saying so would mean that Leibniz’s Law of Indiscernible Identities would be a perfect criticism to it. On the contrary, The Leibniz Law is a plausible ally of this. The idea that two things that are completely distinct cannot resemble each other satisfies me to create a distinction between the character and the actor. Since there exist distinctions in the characteristics or properties of these two objects, we cannot say that the actor resembles herself or continues to carry the identity of herself while providing material existence (physicality) to the character. Although, the fact that the humanness of both the entities is not affected at all, or sometimes the language, voice or inhibitions continue to persist in the transformation, we cannot fixate the aforementioned Law of Indiscernible Identities here without certain meticulous reservations.

While pondering upon Leibniz, I went further ahead to the concept of ‘bringing about materialism or physicality to the idea of the character’. When the actor escapes the materiality of her original being, she goes on to provide the character her material existence. Well, how does this happen? I believe that the actor’s original body is a mere carrier of the identity that the actor represents. The idea of representation that works here is similar to the one present in the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. He says that language is a system of signs where each sign is a combination of a form (signifier) and a particular meaning (signified). Moreover, the relationship that occurs between the signifier and the signified, that goes on to produce a linguistic sign, is created by a convention (usage). Let’s see this in the context of what we use to define ourselves? Or how we define ourselves? We don’t say that I am a particular person because I have a pair of legs and limbs. Perhaps, we don’t say that so as to reemphasise our understanding of identity which is something more than the animalistic existence and distinctive from others in some way.

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Ferdinand de Saussure

The aforementioned argument proves that we have a perceived understanding of ourselves, of who we are, of our existence, which is based on the way we represent ourselves through language. So for instance, if I begin to think about my friend or a colleague in their absence, I would use representational signs of a language to make sense of their existence. ‘He’s very funny’, ‘she’s quite witty’, all of these sentences reduces our existence to a representational system based on language that focuses more on how we ‘come across’ than what we ‘consist of’. This further enables me to think that if it is our representation that defines our existence, then such existence can be understood beyond the presence of the body itself. Therefore, it can be concluded that the body is a mere carrier of an actor’s identity and when she enters the process of ‘becoming’ a character, the same body becomes a material representation of the identity of the character.

Since, I have established the duality of identity and body and the transformation of material representation from the actor to the character, there is not much left for me to deliberate upon but to reckon.  So this is what I think it is – when an actor chooses to take up a certain character, she enters a process of becoming where she moves away (hence denies) from the existence (if existence depends on recognition of itself) of her original identity in order to give existence to the identity of the character. The spacio-temporal existence and reality of the transformed actor (character) is separate from that of the original actor (we can probably say that it replaces the space occupied by the actor for that moment of enactment). The now existent mind of the character gets its body with the material transfer of mass from the actor to the character (since body is nothing but a carrier of identity). Therefore, during the process of a scene, it is the character that exists and not the actor. The reality is associated with the cinematic construction and not the contrary.

Since everything has been said quite contently, I cannot help but raise few questions by keeping this theory as a premise. One of the most prominent of them being that if it is the character that exists during the shooting of a scene, and not the actor then who should get the remuneration that flows from the aesthetic appreciation of that art? Is it justified to create a personality cult around the original figure of the actor when it is the figure of the character that created that psyche among the masses? This, and a lot more triggers my mind for further deliberations and inquiry.

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Isabelle

I haven’t lost myself in a life

Called work, not chained

To impersonal commitments, I

Have just shed a skin

Of life, out of many

That I’ve been wearing for so long

I thought I lived once,

A life, a person, an

Inescapable unity,

All this, until

I saw myself no more

And found everything of me

In else

Words of Viola Davis: Crossing the ‘Fences’ of the Great Man Tradition

“…The fact that we breathe, live a life and are God to our children means that we have a story and it deserves to be told…”

There cannot be a contention to a thought that Viola Davis offered a memorable performance in the cinematic adaptation of August Wilson’s iconic play Fences. Even though her performance underlines her underappreciated presence in Hollywood, the subject matter of her character in the movie is a more fascinating discourse to delve into. Starting from the very decision of adapting a play into a movie to the definitive selection of screenplay and uncoloured construction of dialogues, the presence of this movie and especially of Viola Davis’s interpretation of the idea that it represents comes across as a major challenge to the established traditions of storytelling in American cinema.

When Viola Davis began to deliver her winning speech at Screen Actors Guild Awards (2017), she quite distinctively mentioned the word ‘history’. While expressing what this recognition means to her and to the idea that this film stands for, she said that it is not often that a movie is made to display the story of an average man who happened to be a man of colour. The speech delivered by Viola Davis is a direct attack to the concept of theorizing prevalent practice in both literary and historical studies known as the Great Man Tradition.

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Credits: Huffington Post

Coined by the 19th century historian and commentator Thomas Carlyle, the Great Man Tradition in historical studies is a concept that chooses to understand history from the existence of the ‘great men’ who had occupied decisive and substantially prominent or heroic positions in the society. Such was the conviction of Carlyle that in his book titled On Heroes, Hero-Worship and Heroics of History, he goes on to comment that the ‘history of the world is nothing but the biography of great men’. This idea resonates in Machiavellianism as well which stands of inculcating duplicity and cunningness in general conduct or statecraft. The idea of looking at history from the lens of who is termed as a ‘hero’ focuses on making a retrospective study an instrument for guiding the socio-cultural development of future actions and psyche. The understanding of the nature of history itself has been shortened at one hand by focusing the subject matter on certain prominent figures and on the other hand it has been displayed to be widened by associating it with the understanding of present dogmatic trends and the construction of some kind of future course of action.

There have been many criticisms to this tradition mainly coming from the realms of feminism and Marxist studies. However one that mounted the most was the one given by scientist and sociologist Herbert Spencer who refuted to see these ‘heroes’ in an isolated form. To Spencer, these cult personalities do not occupy these positions on their own or do not exist outside the social relations of their society. It is the social factors prevailing at that time that create a favourable or enabling environment for certain figures to occupy influential positions. So, when Hollywood period dramas celebrate Jackie Kennedy or Lincoln, they get quite deferential by not focusing much on the role played by sociological forces in the construction of personality cult around these figures. However, the practice of building a climax and anti-climax in the narrative of the art has somehow pushed the movies slightly away from the great man practice, but only procedurally and not substantially.

It is in this backdrop that Viola Davis, in front of the entire fraternity, proclaims that the stories of an average man or woman deserve to be in the canon of any narrative that has been built out there. She is reiterating the process of alleviating the common person to the books of history or probably the democratization of the discourse on history itself. The character that she plays is a prejudiced class within a class that has been systematically prejudiced. The slow or ‘real’ movement of her body and corresponding emotions in the space of performance represents the plight of dialectic of sex that has haunted the fight for gender equality since generations. She is painstakingly ‘natural’ and she wants us to know that how unfair this ‘naturalization’ is. This plight and the outburst that followed is a political statement in itself. Through Rose, Viola Davis brings drama at the doorsteps of a minority household; a set of cinematic expressions to the unexpressed desires of a coloured woman.

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Credits: Vanity Fair

As Viola Davis went on to thank her husband and her daughter, and as crowd was left with no choice but to applaud, I could not help myself but think what we have done to deserve an actor like her. Even before Fences, her Oscar nominated performances in The Doubt and The Help reflect her sheer commitment to break away from the great man tradition of storytelling. And as the recognition comes ridiculously late, I hope the very coming of it will also bring the change in the way cinema chooses to represent itself in the cultural industry.