Back to Resources

And Existentialism Again

And Existentialism Again

By Drew Trotter


In our last “Of Note” we discussed the Academy Award winner for Best Picture, Birdman, starring Michael Keaton and written and directed by Alejandro Iñárritu. Most people believe that the only challenger to Birdman’s Oscar triumph was Boyhood, and the belief is well-founded. Famous because it was the product of an experiment that is unique in film history, Boyhood should also be respected for its quality as a piece of filmmaking. It was shot a few weeks a year over a twelve year period in order to allow its principal theme, the maturation of a boy from age six to age eighteen, to play out to some degree in real time.

Amazingly, the experiment, which could have gone awry in a thousand different ways, succeeded, and the film it produced will take a well-deserved place in the history of film. Superb performances by the parents, played by Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette (she won the Oscar for her portrayal of a harried, often single, mom) highlight a fascinating pastiche of vignettes of “normal” family life in the postmodern age. Moving three times, dad and stepdads moving in and out of life, encounters with girls, drugs and part-time jobs make up the life of Mason Evans—the stuff of most of our uneventful lives. This is the entire plot of Boyhood; no major event such as the death of a major character occurs. Yet the first time through, I was never bored because what was unfolding was mesmerizing, as the characters literally aged on screen before our very eyes.

This is not to say that it should have won the Best Picture Oscar. It shouldn’t have. Boyhood does not have the imaginative center that Birdman has, and it does not share its strength of dialogue, its vibrance of cinematography or its depth of thematic content. Interestingly, it does share a very important element with the winner, and that is the element we focused on in describing Birdman in our discussion. Boyhood is existentialist to the core in its philosophy.

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 best 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 at 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 Texan 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, ‘F**k 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 she/he is the one?” They look away, then look back at each other, 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’.” (Arcade Fire, “Deep Blue”, The Suburbs).

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. Birdman focuses on death in spades and may have won the Oscar because it did. Death provides a more realistic challenge for the existentialist in a world without God.



No Comments

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.