TYRANNOSAUR, Paddy Considine, 2011

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Tyrannosaurus Redemptor

In Christopher Deacy’s book Screen Christologies we are introduced to the idea of film as a ‘fertile site of religious significance’, and as one in which redemption narratives are commonly played out.[1] For Deacy, film has co-opted traditional religious themes and acts to (in some sense, and only so far) ‘fill the void’ left by the disappearance of traditional mass religion in European culture. It is in this context that I wish to discuss Tyrannosaur and in particular its themes of redemption and atonement. I’ll be explaining what exactly I mean by this, and then I will be arguing in favour of a secular ethics of redemption on that basis.

Tyrannosaur follows two characters, and it is clear from the frankly devastating opening scene onwards that Joseph is an angry, damaged man unable to connect in a meaningful way to others. Hannah, meanwhile, appears as a mild-mannered and devout Christian woman, although we soon find she has problems of her own – her husband is abusive and cruel, and, as with her Biblical namesake, she cannot conceive.

The plot of Tyrannosaur stems from the recognition by Joseph that he is out of control, and needs to change. But his attempts to do so are frustrated when he tries to do so on his own: immediately following his revelation and what at first sight appears to be a Damascene conversion, he lashes out at Hannah, and soon afterwards we see him frustratedly turning his anger in on himself in a desperate bid to change his ways. And this is the first insight into redemption: it is not, at least in the Christian tradition, something which one can confer upon oneself. Redemption is rather something given by somebody to someone else: whilst we talk about such and such a character ‘redeeming themselves’, what we really mean is that they have helped somebody else in such a way that it somehow makes up for their past misdeeds, and that this has been recognised. So Joseph’s ‘redemption’ can only begin in earnest when he has the chance to atone for his own bad actions. This happens when Hannah comes to stay with him: it is hinted that Joseph, like James, was an abusive husband, and that he was a negative influence on his best friend, to the point where the friend’s daughter barely tolerates his presence. In other words, Joseph is presented with a choice: to either continue to act in his habitual way, or to become a ‘new man’ by caring for the vulnerable and scared woman who has appeared on his doorstep. This conflict – which is played out throughout the second half of the film – is nothing if not a traditional narrative of redemption, salvation, sin and grace.

But what do I mean by these words? You may have noticed that I have not just been using the word ‘redemption’ in a talk supposedly on just that topic. Rather, things like ‘atonement’, ‘reconciliation’, ‘salvation’ and ‘grace’ have come into the picture, along with that very unfashionable word, ‘sin’. So I had better explain what I mean here. I am going along with Paul Tillich, the great existentialist theologian, who declares that ‘sin’ should best be understood as ‘separation’ – we might say also ‘estrangement’.[2] Tillich claims we are separated in three ways: firstly from others; secondly from ourselves; thirdly from the ‘Ground of Being’, which is God. But this separation is not merely passive: instead, we ‘actively participate’ in upholding it, and the knowledge that we do so causes us guilt and suffering. Indeed, separation is inherent in the very act of existing: it is perhaps the most profound state of our being. Grace – which is the state in which Christians are supposed to find themselves when in Christ – is therefore to be understood as reconciliation, the ‘reunion of life with life’ which happens despite the estrangement that is our natural condition.[3] With this in mind, we can understand what Tillich means when he interprets ‘salvation’ as ‘healing’.[4] The healing of Christ consists in our coming into the ‘New Being’, the ‘conquest of estrangement’ through his saving power.[5] What we may notice here is that, so far at least, there has been no moralistic overtone in what Tillich says: salvation is not a moral question but an ontological one. It is only once we feel the effects of the New Being that we begin the process of atonement, which is for Tillich the human reaction to the ‘divine act’ of reconciliation by which we are transformed. ‘Redemption’ therefore expresses this process of atonement, forgiveness and absolution, through which we achieve a change in our being. This includes a change in our moral character and outlook.

One important point is that salvation is not, for Tillich, an all or nothing process, just as one is never either completely healthy or terminally ill: rather, we are all incompletely healed, and as such never free from estrangement, sin or sickness. This much should be clear; at least, the perils of the opposing viewpoint which in extremis posits the infallibility of the elect were summed up in James Hogg’s novel Confessions of a Justified Sinner.

This redemption narrative, as I have said, is played out in Tyrannosaur. Joseph is nothing if not estranged; at the beginning of the film, the only real relationships he has are with a dying man and a small child, and in the course of the film we learn that he feels responsible for his best friend’s death and guilty for not protecting the child Samuel. He is otherwise unable to form meaningful relationships and frequently lashes out at other people. He is largely contemptuous of Tommy, the only other person who could be called his friend; his interactions with other characters, Hannah aside, are characterised by mistrust and violence. Again, Joseph is not merely a passive victim, but – whether consciously or not – reinforces his alienation from others with his erratic behaviour. But Joseph is given the opportunity to change through his meeting with Hannah. She actively attempts to connect with Joseph, and prays for him, which moves him to tears and helps him to realise that he needs to change. Despite this, he continues to battle against his former self – for example, in his changing attitudes towards letting Hannah stay with him, and with his brutal murder of the dog which attacked Samuel. Nonetheless, Hannah represents the possibility of redemption for Joseph. Through her, he is able not only to connect with another person on a fundamental level, but also to admit his former mistakes. We can see this when Hannah asks Joseph more about his wife:

Hannah: Do you wish she was still here now?
Joseph: No. I’d have still treated her like a dog.
Hannah: Why?
Joseph: I’m not a very nice human being.
Hannah: Well, I don’t agree. I think you are a good person.
Joseph: You know nothing, girl.
Hannah: I feel safe with you.
Joseph: Nobody’s safe with me.

But this exchange comes when Joseph has already begun to atone for his mistakes. Even at this stage he has helped Hannah, despite the force of his habitual aggression and self-isolation. And indeed Joseph is able to overcome his ‘old self’: on this view his assault on the dog is almost a sacrificial offering which symbolically represents the death of his old self and the birth of the new Joseph, who lays flowers on his wife’s grave and who connects finally with Hannah at the very end of the movie.

This is not to say that Joseph is now ‘free from sin’. Nobody does no wrong. Nor is it to suggest that Joseph’s actions somehow negate his former sins; rather, he has come to terms with them and, through the process of reconciliation and healing, has become a ‘new’ person with a different and better moral outlook. In a word, his sins are forgiven by Hannah in the moment of love (agape) and the formation of a connection between them.

This reading is by no means decisive, or exhaustive, and there is another story to tell about Hannah’s journey, which I have unjustly neglected in this talk. But what I want to discuss now is whether these concepts can be of use to us in our ethical discourse. Tyrannosaur does not, after all, present the redemption narrative in exclusively Christian terms: Joseph is redeemed not (or not only) by Christ but by Hannah. The film therefore suggests that there may be a secular way in which we can understand redemption.

In fact, what I want to argue is that such an understanding of redemption is not only possible but would be of great benefit. First, though, I want to clarify what I mean by a secular idea of redemption. Here, the ‘redeemer’ is not God, or Christ, but each other: the process of healing and reconciliation is something which we must actively engage in for the sake of another as well as for ourself. This will, of course, necessarily be incomplete and imperfect, as we are ourselves, but it is nonetheless valuable. Valuable because of the form our redemption must take, the only way we can possibly be healed: through love and forgiveness.

Love itself implies absolute acceptance of the beloved. Whatever they have done, whoever they may be, however they act. This is not to say we might not wish those we love to behave differently, or that they can do no wrong: but when we admonish those we love we do not thereby stop loving them. This acceptance plays the key role in Tillich’s account of Christian Justification: human beings are saved in spite of their guilt and de facto hostility towards reconciliation, once they ‘accept that they are accepted’ having been born into the New Being of Christ.[6] In the secular terms I want to put it, we are redeemed despite ourselves by the love shown to us by others. The love which lets us change our very life. This, I believe, is suggested to us in the final scene of Tyrannosaur.

One might reasonably object at this point that what I am talking about seems to be exclusively eros, that while we might be able to do this for someone we are passionately in love with we are hardly likely to be able to do it for everybody. It is true that I have expressed the above in those terms. I would argue, however, that we are able to have the same effect through agape. Joseph and Hannah’s relationship begins as an act of kindness, not as in any way erotic, and it is at best ambiguous as to whether it ever moves beyond agape. Nonetheless, their relationship is strong enough that by the end of the film both Joseph and Hannah are healing and arriving towards reconciliation with themselves and with the world. But this reconciliation is only possible because of the compassion they have been treated with and the compassion they have had to learn to treat themselves with.

The second element of redemption is forgiveness. I do not mean a glib, easy ‘forgive and forget’-style forgiveness of actions which have not affected you in any way. True forgiveness is much harder. It does not involve forgetting that which another has done; you must forgive despite the pain they have caused. Forgiveness in this sense is perhaps the cardinal Christian virtue, displaying as it does compassion, agape and the recognition that nobody is irredeemable. Everybody can turn their life around.

At this point we are talking from the standpoint of the ‘redeemer’, who must show love and forgiveness. Redemption and reconciliation, however, is a two-way process. For us as ‘redeemed’, it is a chance which we are given, and not a state bestowed upon us. The secular redemption of love and forgiveness is ill-used if it just salves our conscience whilst we continue to act in a way to reinforce our separation. The chance we get is to atone: to admit and come to terms with our past actions and the worse parts of our nature, but to accept the love and acceptance we are offered anyway and to begin a process of healing and reconciliation.

The value of this should be apparent: we are presented with a solution to the separation and anxiety which can consume us; we are offered the chance to make up for our mistakes; and the cultivation of an attitude of love and forgiveness will improve our own character and outlook on life. The valorisation of redemption would create a more caring and connected society, one in which we are less likely to ignore the pain and suffering caused every day by natural disasters and by the injustices of our economic and political system. My final suggestion, then, is this: that in our ethical conduct and relationships with others we do all we can to heal and redeem rather than scorn and condemn, and that after two thousand years of Christianity we begin at last to listen to the lessons of Christ.

Jack Price

References:

[1] Christopher Deacy, Screen Christologies: Redemption and the Medium of Film (Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2001).

[2] Paul Tillich, The Shaking of the Foundations (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), p156.

[3] Ibid., p158.

[4] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology Volume Two (Welwyn: James Nisbett and Co, 1957), Chapter XXI.

[5] See Ibid., pp.144-155.

[6] Ibid., p206.

BIGGER THAN LIFE, Nicholas Ray, 1956


Nicholas Ray was the son of a lumber magnate and grew up in rural Wisconsin. He enjoyed a middle-class upbringing, coming from a wealthy and ostentatiously, at least, strictly religious family. However Ray’s father was excommunicated from the local diocese for his many affairs and his heavy drinking. Despite performing well at school, Ray had an unconventional childhood: he began drinking at the age of ten, becoming involved in the seedy underworld of a seemingly idyllic village and even tried to seduce one of his father’s lovers at the age of thirteen. Ray was arrested at seventeen for allegedly trying to run over Doc Rhodes, the physician who had attended his dying father, and the person he blamed for administering medication which caused his death. Ray’s main biographer Bernard Eisenschitz claims that this event sowed the seeds for his later scepticism towards medicine and the medical establishment as whole, which is expressed in Bigger Than Life. Also, this chaotic family upbringing can be interpreted as being the reason behind Ray’s scathing attacks on middle-class American lifestyle and morality, something which is also present in Bigger Than Life.

Ray became interested in theatre at an early age, and moved to Chicago to study it there. Here he met the architect Frank Lloyd Wright and the writer Thornton Wilder. The former invited him to his artistic and intellectual project the Taliesin Fellowship.  Named after the Welsh bard (Lloyd-Wright identified himself as Welsh-American, and aimed to forge this into a stable ethnic and cultural identity), its aim was to propose a new way of thinking about the world and a new approach to learning, one which (in the words he used in a self published circular) would ‘develop a well-correlated human being: since correlation between hand and the mind’s eye in action is most lacking in modern education.’

The fellowship was based on an isolated farm in the same Wisconsin countryside Ray knew well from his childhood. Spending nearly a year there, he was asked to leave thanks to his heavy drinking and drug taking. According to his ex partner Jean Evans, a ‘vindictive and moralistic’ Wright also took issue with Ray’s bisexuality and they severed contact when Ray left for Mexico in 1934. Thorton Wilder’s existentialism was something which attracted Ray, who himself kept books by writers like Dostyevski, Camus, and Satre, alongside works by modernist writers like Joyce and Thomas Mann, and the theatre of Brecht. However, the confines of university education also proved too much for the rebellious young director, and he lasted six months at the University of Chicago before moving to New York to work in radio and begin his professional involvement with drama.

In the ‘Big Apple’ Ray made the acquaintance of Turkish director Elia Kazan, who at this point was striking success with his own theatre company, and ‘Gadge, as he was known to friends, introduced Ray to the NY theatre scene. This period of his life, spent in the heart of Greenwich Village, was a raucous one. Through his work in broadcasting and his involvement with theatre groups inspired by the works of Marxist writers like Brecht and Shaw, Ray met figures like the folk singer and political activist Woody Guthrie, the self styled founder of jazz Jelly Roll Morton, as well as the musician Duke Ellington with whom he worked on what was to be Ray’s only Broadway production.

The cosmopolitan New York, with theatres and nightclubs which were beginning to defy segregation norms and allow entry to non white people, saw the emergence of African-American voices in popular culture and also the establishment of a working-class identity in the mainstream. This captured Ray’s imagination, and led to a social consciousness and political awareness which was to determine his next career move: Ray became involved with government art projects ushered in by Roosevelt’s New Deal. Ray was placed in charge of an unprecedented and never repeated move by the federal government: to support and fund theatre, painting, independent film, and even the plastic arts. This task led him to travel the country and experience firsthand the effects of the depression, and the anger felt by many towards the government’s failure to deal with the problems incurred by the economic slump seen in the wake of the 1929 crash.

This also led to a brief spell as a member of the communist party, something that would later threaten his career as a filmmaker during the ‘Red Scare’ of the fifties. Ray himself claims that it was only thanks to the efforts of the eccentric millionaire media mogul and celebrated aviator Howard Hughes, who was at that time owner of RKO Pictures, the production house that Ray was contracted to during the fifties, that he was able to avoid being called up in front of the House of Un-American Activities and risk being blacklisted as a Hollywood director. Even so, a brutal decade of producing nearly a film a year took its toll on Ray and he collapsed on set of the Charlton Heston vehicle 55 Days in Peking, and this ended his career as a commercial filmmaker.

Nicholas Ray’s life was full of paradoxes, like the America in which he lived. A brawler, heavy drinker and playboy, he seemed to epitomise on the one hand a certain ideal of American masculinity. However, on the other hand, his drug taking and bisexuality defied his becoming an all American caricature. And his socialist ideals, held even whilst he worked in an aggressively conservative and rampantly capitalist film industry led to these paradoxes being weaved and spun into the films he made. Ray was able, alongside filmmakers like Samuel Fuller and Douglas Sirk, to adhere to the rules of the conservative motion picture production code, otherwise known as the Breen or Hayes Office, yet at the same time subtly subvert these same rules which sought to promote a Christian and conservative view of the nuclear family and of an American society strongly committed to consumerism. Bigger Than Life is a great example of how a director is able to, with clever use of the medium, tell two stories at once, and is able to celebrate and criticise his subject matter simultaneously.

Shortly before his death on 15th June 1978, Nicholas Ray was quoted, after a screening of his last film, a collaborative project with the German New Wave director Wim Wenders, as saying that he had ‘dreams of being able to tell all of Dickens in one film, all of Dostoevsky in one film. I wondered if it was possible for one film to contain all of the aspects of human personality: needs, desires, expressions, wants…’ Does Ray achieve this ambitious project in his in his films? Perhaps one can think about this as one watches Bigger Than Life. Like his contemporaries Fritz Lang, Elia Kazan, and Howard Hawks, Ray, working in the Hollywood studio system’s Indian summer, was able to exercise an incredible amount of control over the content of his films. Also, given his background in theatre, Ray is clearly aware of the potential that cinematic techniques hold in producing meaning.

What is interesting about Nicholas Ray, and in particular this film is how it attracted the attention of a school of French critics writing for the influential film journal Cahiers du Cinema. Founded in 1951 by theatre critics André Bazin, Jacques Doniol-Valcroze, and Joseph-Marie Lo Duca, the journal wanted the relatively new medium of film to be recognized as an art, rather than simply filmed theatre. This became Cahiers du Cinema’s mission. Those who wrote for it tried to define new ways to discuss, criticize, and write about film, often analyzing films from big directors like Hitchcock, Capra, Welles, and Huston in terms of their technical qualities. Famously, this led to many of the Cahiers critics becoming filmmakers themselves, utilizing the concepts which they had created in their critical endeavours, and famously spearheading the 60s film movement the French New Wave: Francios Truffaut, Jean-Luc Godard, and Claude Chabrol all wrote for Cahiers and are only three names amongst many who successfully made the transition from film criticism to film production. Indeed, after the war, the embargo on Anglo-American culture in Paris was lifted, often leading to whole evenings showing works by one director. This perhaps can serve as an explanation for the rise of theorists who successfully identified signature touches by certain director’s, like Welles’ deep focus, or Max Ophul’s distinctive use of lighting.

Two things are important to note here. One, that in trying to gain respect for the new medium of film, these early film theorists gave the director the bulk of the credit for the production of meaning in a motion picture. Two, the director was viewed, rightly or wrongly, as having complete control over the set, the casting, the cinematography and all the other factors within the text which help to produce meaning. As earlier mentioned, this is perhaps not an incorrect assumption, because the studio system was created and structured in such a manner that allowed the director to have a large amount of creative control over the content of the film. Whether we can make the simple comparison between a director and the writer of a novel or a philosophic treatise is not easy to answer, but I have followed the lead of these auteur theorists in assuming that the director is responsible of the lion’s share of meaning within a film, especially within a film produced in the controlled environment of a Hollywood studio.

Furthermore, the Hollywood melodramas of Nicholas Ray attracted the attention of the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze. His work on film is split into two volumes: one dealing with the movement image and one which deals with the time image. For our purposes, we are concerned with the movement image and with two specific types of movement image: ones which express thoughts and feelings, and ones which are mimetic, that is to say, ones which attempt to be objectively, or purely representational. It is easiest to understand Deleuze’s distinction as the difference between the close-up and the mid shot: the close-up is deployed by a film maker to stir up feeling in an audience, whilst the mid shot depicts action, distances the audience from the image and enables a viewer to take in action with more of God’s eye view. They are no longer immersed in the feelings of the characters they perceive, but are more concerned with the distances between bodies which enables actions like those seen in fight scenes or shootouts to be understood in spatial terms.

According to Deleuze, Ray’s development as a filmmaker can be understood as a progression from the representational to the expressive, from a form of cinema which attempts to be mimetic to one which is lyrical. This is why he claims that Ray’s films shift from the naturalist tradition seen in theatre, which is constantly viewed by an audience in a static mid shot, and utilised by directors like Sirk and Kazan who began treading the boards before becoming directors, towards lyrical abstraction which comes with Ray’s later work, of which Bigger Than Life is a prime example. Thus, Bigger Than Life can be viewed as a film which attempts to break from naturalist representationalism towards a more complex use of the visual image, one which is aware of itself as medium and furthermore, one which is able to, like the lyric, express extremely complex meaning.

Deleuze’s two volumes on the ontology of cinema are heavily influenced by auteur theory, and thus on the assumption that the director, in this case Nicholas Ray, is the locus for the production of meaning in a film. We can draw a conclusion from this: film is a controlled world, like that an author creates in a novel, and reading it as simply being mimetic is a perhaps a naïve mistake.  Rather, the film, like the written text of a fiction writer, addresses certain concerns that the director has, and even though the director may be constricted by a production environment, a screenplay which he hasn’t written, and even a hostile political landscape, he is, through the clever use of the medium, able to work these concerns into the work he is in charge of producing – even if those concerns are unpalatable to the audience it addresses. I think Bigger Than Life is an excellent example of this.

I’d like to say a few things about the iconography ­and one major issue which seems to have divided critics about the film, and couch this in terms of the existential philosophy that Nicholas Ray was aware of and which remained a major influence upon him throughout his career. A synopsis of the film will help us here: Ed Avery is a schoolteacher who moonlights in the evenings as an operator at a taxi firm in order to support the suburban lifestyle that his family enjoys. His life seems to be the realisation of the fifties American dream. One evening he collapses, is whisked to hospital and quickly diagnosed with a terminal condition whose only cure is a new drug which is still in its experimental stage, the painkiller cortisone. Avery and his family are warned that this drug has side-effects, one being a risk that it could lead to erratic behaviour. Faced with the choice between certain death and cortisone, Avery takes the drug and so begins his change.

The film’s script is based on an article by New Yorker staff writer Berton Roueche, warning about the dangers of cortisone. His story was adapted into a script, and Bigger Than Life was released almost a year to the day after the story’s publication.

So to begin with, if we look at Fig. 1 from the film, we see a broken mirror, a favourite icon deployed by directors of this era to depict derangement, a fractured personality, and mental instability.

Fig.1

Another famous example of this can be seen in Orson Welles’s The Lady of Shanghai (Fig. 2).

Fig. 2

In Bigger Than Life, this is given an extra twist when we consider that it is the mirror to the medicine cabinet which is shattered by his wife, exasperated by the demands of her husband. The cortisone is affecting him, bending his personality and he has changed from the aloof, yet cheerful and seemingly content figure we see at the beginning of the film, to something much more sinister. Indeed, Bigger Than Life was released in France, Italy, and Spain as Behind the Mirror, which is in direct reference to this scene. The implication here is that it is the cortisone which is behind the mirror, and it is this which is shifting his personality, a la Jekyll and Hyde.

The aloof figure who is presented at the beginning of the film, before he has taken the cortisone, as being dissatisfied with suburban life, socializing with bourgeois middle-class colleagues and ‘keeping up with the Joneses’, to quote the film, is unleashed as a menacing tyrant who terrorizes his family and local community with paranoid hectoring and eventually a blood-lust which sees him come close to committing filicide. The question which divides critics then is this: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, or has it unleashed some part of his personality, a drive perhaps, which has lain dormant, suppressed by the social glare and the pressures of the American culture in which he lives?

Discussion of another pair of images can also help answer this question.

Fig. 3

In Fig. 3 we see Ed with his son Richie and his wife Lou in a gloomy scene in Ed’s study. After missing lunch as a punishment for not catching an American football pass, Avery’s son Richie struggles to complete a maths problem. His father tells him not to get flummoxed, and implores him to ‘use his reason’ to work out the calculations. He will not allow the child to eat his evening meal until he has completed the work set for him. We see Barbara Rush, as Ed’s already beleaguered wife Lou, pleading with her husband to let the child go. What is interesting here is Ray’s use of the low key light which creates the long and menacing shadow behind the actor playing Ed, James Mason. It casts a long shadow on the door behind. Ed’s shadow is big and looming, dwarfing that of his wife. We see the child, Richie, right at the front of the screen, making him seem disproportionately small.

Indeed, size is often used during the film, both in terms of image and text: note the scenes in the garden in which the father and son play American football, and in particular the shot in which Avery, in what the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch describes as being a ‘disgusting’ shot, towers over the school, taking up the whole of the screen. In the lead up to this shot, Avery tells Lou, who drives him to work on his first day back at school after being hospitalised, that the first sight of her and his son after he regained consciousness at the hospital made him feel ‘ten feet tall’. Apart from the obvious name drop of the Berton Roueche article that the script to this film is based on, this scene is significant because it seems to suggest that the sense of superiority which comes to manifest itself later on in the film is already a deeply rooted feature of Avery’s personality. It also seems to come with his status as the male patriarch in the nuclear family. In the poster in Fig. 4 below we see the corny tagline by the face of the medical practitioner saying “I prescribed it…He misused it!’ This could easily lend anyone to think that they were watching a moral panic tale like Reefer Madness (see Fig 5), however Ray’s clever insertion of this shot before Avery starts to overdose on the cortisone poses the question: has the cortisone completely transformed Avery, and if not, why does he become what he does become as the film progresses?

Fig. 4

Fig. 5

This has split critics, and which way one goes will affect how one sees the film: if one thinks that Bigger Than Life presents us with a melodrama, one which tries to warn us that even the most honourable pillars of society can be warped into hideous monsters thanks to taking drugs, then so be it, I will not disagree with this, on one level at least. On the other hand, the change in Avery’s behaviour can be seen as something which is always there, the sickness he feels is a malaise brought on by a culture which celebrates mediocrity and is paranoid of the other, one which does not subscribe wholeheartedly to the sort of consumerism which characterized this decade. The cortisone has simply served to amplify this frustration and unfettered it from his emotional ties to his family and to the economic ties to his profession.

Finally if we look at Fig. 6 we see Ed Avery in a state of delirious happiness after cheating death thanks to the ‘miracle drug’ cortisone. He takes the family shopping, and splashes out more than the family can afford, spoiling his wife and child in a frenzy of consumer spending.

Fig. 6

We have previously seen Ed worry about the family’s finances to such an extent that he has taken up a second job moonlighting as a telephone operator, yet here we see him spending money on expensive clothes by Christian Dior and Jacques Fath. This is after he has forced Lou to parade up and down in dresses he has selected. Visibly uneasy with this false display of wealth and expressing reservations about the purchases, Ed exercises economic power over her by asking her to ‘remember who is paying for all this’, and we see a blatant exertion of his economic and social power as the patriarchal figure in the family. However, in this instance, and in much the same way as in the scene described in Fig. 3 above, we see Lou challenge Ed. I think that this is interesting because it shows that the previous power which Ed inevitably had as the patriarch in the family is only challenged when it is exerted to despotic measure. In the daily life of the family this power goes unchecked and unchallenged, allowing Ed to be the dominant economic force out of him and Lou. It also allows him to make the major decisions for the family. It is only with the taking of cortisone, and the emergence of a socially unacceptable form of power that this is flagged up.  Therefore the drug acts as a catalyst which warps his behaviour beyond socially accepted norms of power.

The results of the drug upon Avery’s behaviour are interesting to think about, and perhaps can serve to show us, as viewers, how we are trapped, or to be more optimistic, kept sane, kept from performing monstrous actions on the ones we love, our contemporaries and our colleagues, by our ties to the community in which we live, be they emotional and/or economic ones. Perhaps  the jargon of authenticity that blights some existential works can lead to a belief in a chimerical realm of genuine existence which in fact merely brings suffering and wreaks a path of destruction, a rejection of all that fails to shape to a, by necessity, nebulous and ill-defined realm of the authentic, genuine, or true way to live.

However, here’s the sting in the tail: is the drugged Avery completely wrong? Are his criticisms of the church, the education system, and his society the ravings of a cortisone addled mind? I’m not sure. While his character becomes an arrogant tyrant, he is at the same time charming and even charismatic, an anti-hero whose ridicule of the church is comparable to Marlowe’s Faustus. He is an ambitious intellect, dissatisfied with those around him who seem to be content bumbling through life with no aim other than to work and gain pleasure in their spare time. Should we vilify him for taking a drug which enables him to think he is a king amongst men, and gives him escape from his dreary existence as an underpaid schoolteacher? This is one of the many questions that this film poses, questions which have no simple answer and questions which make Bigger Than Life a rewarding film, a film which stands up to repeat viewing more so than much of the cinema produced in the sunset of the Golden era.

Kevin Jones

References

Andrew, Geoff. The Films of Nicholas Ray, Charles Letts and Co, London: 1991

Deleuze, Gilles, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson, The Athlone Press, London: 1997

Eisenschitz, Bernard, Nicholas Ray: An American Journey, Faber and Faber, New York: 1992

SYNECDOCHE, NEW YORK, Charlie Kaufman, 2008


In Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, we follow theatre director Caden Cotard as he struggles his way through an existential crisis. As his relationships fail and his health begins to deteriorate, Caden becomes increasingly anxious about capturing the “brutal truth” of existence before his time is up. Death – or rather, the way the personal significance we attach to our own deaths, affects how we experience life – is therefore a central theme of the film, and it is this I want to explore. I want to consider two questions: Can philosophical analysis provide us with a meaningful interpretation of death? And is there, perhaps, a way of understanding death which can help us better relate to the basic nature of our mortality – to accept that to be is ultimately to die?

Such questions are prevalent throughout the whole of Western philosophy. Epicurus, for example, argued that to fear death is ultimately irrational, because whilst we are alive we cannot be dead, and then when we do die, we won’t exist to be bothered about it (1). After all, we are not bothered about the fact that we did not exist prior to our conception. Yet although this argument is undeniably persuasive in its logic, I think that Epicurus’s conclusion that death “is nothing to us” is somewhat hasty. His position is important in emphasising that for us to experience and understand our own deaths in the same way that we experience and understand any other sort of event is impossible. But even if we do not experience death as such, it is a fundamental and unavoidable fact of our mortal existence. It is hard to imagine Caden Cotard, for instance, finding consolation or satisfaction in these Epicurean insights. Perhaps it is the case that the significance of death can only be interpreted if subjected to a different form of analysis.

Unlike Epicurus, Martin Heidegger argues that an appropriate understanding and attitude towards death is fundamental to our own self-understanding, and essential if we are to work out the meaning of Being itself.  Heidegger’s project in Being and Time is to work out the meaning of Being through a study of that sort of being for whom Being is an issue for it; in other words, he presents us with a concrete phenomenological analysis of our form of existence, which Heidegger terms Dasein (literally meaning ‘being-there’). To sum this up somewhat crudely, we could call this an attempt to analyse what the ‘being’ in being human consists of.  Essential to this analysis is the awareness that the possibilities of existence for Dasein are delineated by temporal boundaries: our Being begins in a state of “thrown-ness” at birth, and from then on we exist not only as a (thrown) Being-in-the-world, but also as a Being-towards-the-end. Crucially for Heidegger, death is constantly constitutive of our Being – it permeates our everyday existence as the possibility – the “not-yet” – which any Dasein will one day have to be, whether we acknowledge it or not.

If we are to live “authentically”, according to Heidegger, we must continually project our existence towards the horizon of our death. We need to acknowledge that we are essentially finite; that our death, as the complete loss of Being-in-the-world, is something we must face totally alone because it can never grasped by a Being-still-there. Even when we experience the deaths of others, we are brought no closer to an understanding of what death means for us. To be authentically we must recognise that death is our own unavoidable potentiality (2). We must confront the fact that we are always thrown towards possibilities which are ultimately our own because only we can be responsible for facing up to death and making sense of our existence as a Being-towards-death.  Heidegger argues that this entails cultivating a mood of “anxiety” – a mode of living founded upon an anticipation of death which fully recognises one’s finitude and individuality, and refuses to conform to the common attitudes – the idle talk of “the they” or the consolations of religion – which tranquilize us about these facts.

Whilst some aspects of Heidegger’s position may not be entirely convincing – his rejection of the significance the death of others may have for our own self-understanding, for example – the idea that an acknowledgement of our finitude can profoundly affect our self-interpretation strongly resonates. In Synecdoche, New York, the character of Caden is painfully aware of his own mortality. His body seems to be turning against him and talk of or references to death abound in his world. This raises an important point – although the Epicurean imploration not to fear death is most probably sound advice, to cast death from our minds as “nothing to us” seems an even more difficult feat for the ill person who is acutely aware that the end may come sooner than hoped. Caden quite readily acknowledges that he is a Being-towards-death. However, this does not mean that he is leading what Heidegger would call an authentic existence. It seems that rather than cultivating a mood of “anxiety” and anticipating death in a way that leads him to an appreciation of life as transient, towards recognition of the temporality of Being, he desperately clings to the ‘reality’ of the everyday by representing and recreating it again and again as a piece of theatre. Caden even hires an actor, Sammy, to play himself in his life-drama, deferring the responsibility of honestly confronting death onto another person.

“We’re all hurtling towards death,” Caden says, “yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.” It seems that although Caden is able to accept that death is the horizon towards which we all are thrown, he fails to appreciate that all our living moments are unique, irreversible and leading us closer to the end. In the film, months and years seem to pass Caden by without him noticing that life has moved on. In his attempt to capture a moment of absolute truth in art before it is too late, he neglects to project himself into a future which cannot be held back. The result is that as he nears his death, he is radically alienated from his mode of existence. He realises that in life, unlike in theatre, there are no rehearsals, there are no second chances, and there is no director or audience there to validate your performance.

Synecdoche, New Yorkhas quite a reputation for being divisive in the responses it provokes. Some find it depressingly bleak.  One film professor, Daniel Shaw (3) argues that as a film it is ‘profoundly deadening’. For Shaw, the character of Caden – desperate for meaning yet embittered by the world – represents the passive nihilism which Nietzsche so derided. Professor of philosophy and religion David Smith disagrees (4). He sees Kaufman’s mix of tragic insight and comic farce as a platform to inspire reflection upon strategies for a sort of ‘naturalistic transcendence’ in our ways of relating to the basic limits of human existence; namely, death and the impossibility of adequately representing our world linguistically. Personally, I would say that to experience the film as ‘profoundly deadening’ suggests that one has missed out on its invitation for us to think about our lives differently. Although Caden may fail to form what Heidegger would term an authentic existence, this need not be the fate of everyone. If we follow Heidegger on this point, death is something we must confront. But the way we interpret our existence as Being-towards-death is ultimately down to us.

Natasha Wynne

(1). Epicurus: ‘Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist, death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist. Therefore, it is relevant neither to the living nor the dead, since it does not affect the former, and the latter do not exist.’ (Quoted in Havi Carel, Illness, p.90)

(2). Heidegger: ‘Death is a possibility-of-Being which Dasein itself has to take over in every case. With death, Dasein stands before itself in its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. This is a possibility in which the issue is nothing less than Dasein’s Being-in-the-world. Its death is the possibility of no-longer-being-able-to-be-there. If Dasein stands before itself as this possibility, it has been fully assigned to its ownmost potentiality-for-Being. When it stands before itself in this way, all its relations to any other Dasein have been undone. This ownmost non-relational possibility is at the same time the uttermost one.’ (Being and Time, trans. Macquarrie and Robinson, p. 294)

(3). Daniel Shaw: ‘The impact of this film is like what Nietzsche condemns in artistic expressions of romantic pessimism: rather than invigorating us to act in the face of the deplorable superficiality of the world, Synecdoche, New York is profoundly deadening. Characters such as Cotard embody the deer-caught-in-headlights powerlessness that is symptomatic of what Nietzsche calls passive nihilism […].’ (‘Nietzschean Themes in the Films of Charlie Kaufman’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 265)

(4). David L. Smith: ‘The film is a study in self-defeat; it envisions no way out of this bind [i.e. the sense of falling short created by our reliance on language as expression] short of death, and death is hardly a solution […] There is no other world from which help can be expected, and ever “elsewhere” we build for ourselves out of words turns out to be fatally flawed – a fool’s paradise. Nevertheless, there is a way of seeing our current circumstances that may deserve the name transcendence, if only because this view allows us to live on terms surprisingly adequate to our desire […] Synecdoche, New York evokes transcendence by oblique means and inspires reflection on strategies by which transcendence is pursued.’ (‘Synecdoche, in Part’ in The Philosophy of Charlie Kaufman, ed. Mark Conrad, p. 244-245)

‘The ordinary confusion of life itself becomes a scene of transcendence, as when fate is transformed through amor fati. Nothing changes, and yet everything changes its aspect, as when tragedy modulates into farce. Some significant mystery is revealed, and one is left with the sense, if not that all manner of things shall be well, then at least that life deserves our grudging but genuine fondness.’ (Ibid., p. 249)

And some quotes from the film…

Caden:
‘Try to keep in mind that a young person playing Willie Loman thinks he’s only pretending to be at the end of a life full of despair. But the tragedy is that we know that you, the young actor will end up in this very place of desolation.’

Caden:
‘I will be dying and so will you, and so will everyone here. That’s what I want to explore. We’re all hurtling towards death, yet here we are for the moment, alive. Each of us knowing we’re going to die, each of us secretly believing we won’t.’

Caden:
‘I won’t settle for anything less than the brutal truth. Brutal. Brutal. Each day I’ll hand you a paper, it’ll tell you what happened to you that day. You felt a lump in your breast. You looked at your wife and saw a stranger, et cetera. […] I’m not excusing myself from this either. I will have someone play me, to delve into the murky, cowardly depths of my lonely, fucked-up being. And he’ll get notes too, and those notes will correspond to the notes I truly receive every day from my god!

Sammy:
‘I’ve watched you forever, Caden, but you’ve never really looked at anyone other than yourself. So watch me. Watch my heart break. Watch me jump. Watch me learn that after death there’s nothing. There’s no more watching. There’s no more following. No love. Say goodbye to Hazel for me. And say it to yourself, too. None of us has much time.’

Minister:
‘Everything is more complicated than you think. You only see a tenth of what is true. There are a million little strings attached to every choice you make; you can destroy your life every time you choose. But maybe you won’t know for twenty years. And you may never ever trace it to its source. And you only get one chance to play it out. Just try and figure out your own divorce. And they say there is no fate, but there is: it’s what you create. And even though the world goes on for eons and eons, you are only here for a fraction of a fraction of a second. Most of your time is spent being dead or not yet born. But while alive, you wait in vain, wasting years, for a phone call or a letter or a look from someone or something to make it all right. And it never comes or it seems to but it doesn’t really. And so you spend your time in vague regret or vaguer hope that something good will come along. Something to make you feel connected, something to make you feel whole, something to make you feel loved. And the truth is I feel so angry, and the truth is I feel so fucking sad, and the truth is I’ve felt so fucking hurt for so fucking long and for just as long I’ve been pretending I’m OK, just to get along, just for, I don’t know why, maybe because no one wants to hear about my misery, because they have their own. Well, fuck everybody. Amen.’

Millicent:
‘What was once before you – an exciting, mysterious future – is now behind you. Lived; understood; disappointing. You realize you are not special. You have struggled into existence, and are now slipping silently out of it. This is everyone’s experience. Every single one. The specifics hardly matter. Everyone’s everyone. So you are Adele, Hazel, Claire, Olive. You are Ellen. All her meager sadnesses are yours; all her loneliness; the gray, straw-like hair; her red raw hands. It’s yours. It is time for you to understand this. As the people who adore you stop adoring you; as they die; as they move on; as you shed them; as you shed your beauty; your youth; as the world forgets you; as you recognize your transience; as you begin to lose your characteristics one by one; as you learn there is no-one watching you, and there never was, you think only about driving – not coming from any place; not arriving any place. Just driving, counting off time. Now you are here, at 7:43. Now you are here, at 7:44. Now you are…Gone.’

WAKING LIFE, Richard Linklater, 2001


Waking Life
is an animated story about a nameless young man, played by Wiley Wiggins, who finds himself trapped in a continuous series of dreams. He moves from one scene to another, listening to a wide array of theories that range from the sublime to the ridiculous from a varied cast of philosophers, intellectuals, and crackpots. The text to the film states that: “Waking Life features a complex interweaving of conversations with professors, artists, writers and performers. There is no single theory behind the film. Rather the film is an exploration from many points of view of past and current trends in philosophy.”

As a result the content is ostensibly anecdotal. In effect, much of the film hangs on whether one feels that the anecdotes work or not, and this means that it has a propensity to infuriate and obfuscate as much as it has to enlighten or to entertain.

Director Richard Linklater states in commentary that all of the ideas expressed in the film should be accessible to viewers, even though the dialogue is conceptually dense. Many of the exchanges in the film were generated from the actual views of the professionals or intellectuals who appear.

The film explores questions about personal identity and the nature of consciousness and asks whether we can ever section off definitively the meanings that we apportion to our waking life and give them priority over the meanings we apportion to our dreams?

This gives rise to a whole host of philosophical questions that are addressed throughout the film. Some of these questions are outlined below and can be found in full through the following link:
http://www.philfilms.utm.edu/1/waking.htm.
Please ignore these questions if you feel you want to watch the film without the burden of any prior commentary. Alternatively, you may want to keep these questions in mind as a general guide whilst you watch the film. The choice is yours.

1. The man in the boat/car states that his vehicle is a window to the world, in which every moment is a show. He glides along, remaining in a state of constant departure, while always arriving. The ride, he states, does not require an explanation, only occupants. This scenario parallels Hume’s problem of personal identity: our identities seem to consist of fleeting perceptions. Hume was troubled by this problem and felt that our minds in fact construct a more lasting notion of the self. The boat/car man, though, seems to live out Hume’s worst fears. What’s so bad about how the boat/car man approaches life?

2. Wiley attends a philosophy lecture by real life philosophy professor Robert Solomon, at the University of Texas at Austin. Solomon is lecturing on existentialism, presenting it optimistically as a philosophy of creative freedom. After class Solomon tells Wiley that he disagrees with postmodernist philosophy since it views humans as social constructions, the mere confluence of forces, fragmented, and marginalized. This gives people excuses for their behaviour. Existentialists, on the other hand, feel that we are responsible for our actions, and this responsibility stems from human freedom. We should not, Solomon argues, see ourselves as victims of various forces. Do we really need notions of freedom to give us a sense of responsibility?

3. Wiley visits the home of Kim Krizan, a screenwriter who discusses the nature of language as a system of signs. The fact that we can create words that refer to tangible things, such as a tree, is not really remarkable. What is remarkable, she explains, is how words convey abstract concepts such as love or frustration. When we say these words, and people understand us, it amounts to a kind of spiritual communion. That feeling might be transient, but, she thinks, it is what we live for. Is the conveying of abstract notions as rewarding as she contends?

4. Wiley visits Eamonn Healy, Chemistry professor at Austin. Healy discusses human evolution and the values that are associated with it: parasitism, dominance, morality, war, and predation. In this scheme “the individual is at the whim of the collective.” He then states that we are beginning a new kind of evolution, which involves bio-technology (artificial intelligence, neuro-biology), which will occur much more rapidly, and involve a new set of values: truth, loyalty, justice, freedom. Here the individual becomes more valuable in its own right. Healy seems to be somewhat optimistic about futuristic human-robot life forms. Are there some grounds for his optimism?

5. The man who sets himself on fire argues that society hasn’t given us an opportunity to voice our opinions beyond the rather meaningless voting process. He feels this way in particular since his particular message is destruction and chaos. The issue isn’t one of censorship but of audience access. What’s so important about having an audience for our opinions, especially if we’re ignored – just as bystanders ignored him as he was burning to death?

6. The couple lying in bed together discuss a version of Chuang-tzu’s dream paradox: a man dreams he’s a butterfly, but he might really be a butterfly dreaming that he’s a man. The young woman thinks that her waking life might be the memories of an old woman in the last moments of her life. The young man suggests that recent studies of the brain activity of sleeping or dying people show that a lifetime of experiences can be condensed into a few actual minutes of activity. If this is true, does this make the “all is a dream” hypothesis any more compelling?

7. The couple also discuss the notion of collective memory, a view articulated by Rupert Sheldrake, which involves a large pool of knowledge that we all draw from. The young man states that this would explain seemingly spontaneous world-wide innovative leaps in science and the arts, prompted by people working independently of each other. “Once the answers are out there, we can all pick up on them; it’s like we’re all telepathically sharing our experiences.” Is there a more simple explanation to such world-wide innovative leaps?

8. Wiley visits UT Austin philosophy professor David Sosa, who argues that there’s not much room for free will. Classic philosophers believed that God set things up in advance. More contemporary philosophers maintain that humans are just a system of molecules. The big bang set up the initial conditions, and our human lives are just the playing out of the subatomic particles. This picture, he argues, threatens the idea that humans have a special dignity. Does determinism necessarily undermine human dignity?

9. Sosa argues that the indeterminacy of atomic particles does not give us a model for acting free: this at best explains random behaviour. Sosa says that he’d rather be a gear in a big deterministic machine than some random swerving in a probabilistic system. What are the grounds for deciding either way?

10. Libertarian talk show host Alex Jones appears driving through the city speaking through a PA system mounted on his car. He argues that we are being conditioned on a mass scale to give up our freedoms, which society does by making us feel powerless. Instead, Jones argues, we should embrace the “creativity and the dynamic human spirit that refuses to submit.” Is this too simplistic? Is it ever worth giving up some of our creative freedom in exchange for security?

11. English professor Lisa Moore sits in a restaurant with author Carole Dawson discussing the problem of human identity over time. They discuss a theory by Benedict Anderson that we need to construct a story in order to connect, for example, a photograph of ourselves as an infant with who we are now. Anderson seems to have in mind fictional stories that we create. Suppose that I attempt to create a fictional story about my past in which I would be the forgotten heir to the British throne. Wouldn’t historical reality keep my fictional account in check?

12. The monkey in the classroom expresses the views of Steve Fitch, a photographer and musician. According to Fitch, art is the language that humans created to distance ourselves from our empty and degraded human past and reach for a new world. Is art progressive in this manner, or is it just as easily a tool that can be used for regression?

13. The second half of the film, which focuses on lucid dreams, explores the philosophical issue of appearance/reality; much the same way that Descartes in the Meditations raises the question of whether he is dreaming. One character argues that, “to the functional system of neural activity that creates our world, there is no difference between dreaming a perception and an action, and actually the waking perception and action.” Descartes raised the issue as a matter of theoretical doubt about the real world. Does the above scientific theory make the dreaming/waking problem any less theoretical?

14. A gang of intellectuals roam the streets, spouting philosophical one-liners. They see an old man who was on a telephone pole for no apparent reason. One of the gang comments “he’s no worse than us; he’s all action and no theory, and we’re all theory and no action.” Is there any way to determine what the best balance is between theory and action?

15. Wiley bumps into a red-haired women in a stairwell, who laments that people behave like they’re part of an ant colony – acting out of efficiency and politeness – with no real human engagement. D.H. Lawrence calls such engagement the confrontation between souls. This also parallels Martin Buber’s distinction between I-It and I-Thou relationships. As with Buber’s theory, we can ask this woman: do we really want to live in a society in which all of our encounters with people involve genuine human engagement?

16. Poet Timothy “Speed” Levitch meets with Wiley on a bridge and states that self-awareness consists of discovering that one is a dream figure in another person’s dream. Taken literally, this has implications for Wiley’s current dilemma. For the rest of us, who are not dreaming, what is the more metaphorical meaning of Levitch’s point?

17. Wiley’s last encounter in the film is with a man playing pinball who relates a theory by Philip K. Dick (author of Blade Runner and Total Recall) that it’s really 50 AD, but there’s an evil spiritual force trying to make us forget that the kingdom of God is immanent. Time, according to Dick, is just a continuous distraction. He then relates a variation of Dick’s theory that he once had in a dream: the year that we’re stuck in is not really 50 AD; instead, there is only one instant, and in this instant God is asking us whether we want to be one with eternity. Time, then, is just our constant saying “no” to God’s invitation. Do these theories have any merit beyond their initial shock value?

Bash Khan