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Why I Love Existential Cinema


Since commencing my formal film review blogging schedule I’ve noticed something about the types of film I’m drawn to. Okay, so primarily my interest is in science fiction, fantasy, action and horror with a dash of war for good measure, but what I’ve noticed is that much of what I have seen this year in particular can be given the “existential” tag. That is, films which explore what it means to exist, the human condition and the things that make us tick. The main component of this for me this year has been the films of Werner Herzog, which explore the human condition in exquisite detail, mostly by throwing the short tempered Klaus Kinski into an inhospitable setting and watching the sparks fly.

There are many more to existential cinema than this, of course, but the Herzog/Kinski relationship is one of the better examples. There are many other directors who explore the human condition without being quite as obvious about it. Stanley Kubrick has always had an eye for this kind of narrative, whether it be in the guise of science fiction in 2001: A Space Odyssey, the threat of nuclear armageddon in Dr Strangelove, or violence in society in A Clockwork Orange. He was also a very exacting director, insisting that the performances and choice of shot were perfect before moving on, and it’s this that helps define both his style and the existential aspect of the production. You learn a lot about your own opinions and perspectives on the world depending on who you find yourself rooting for, more so if you are able to provide a reasoned argument for doing so.

Other films recently have taken existential cinema to a new extreme by focusing on just one character for the entire film. Life of Pi and All is Lost do this by isolating their characters in the middle of the ocean and, while they go off in completely different directions, they still have the unified theme of studying the human condition and the lengths we will go to in order to survive extreme conditions.

You could argue that all of cinema has an element of existentialism to it. One of the main points of the medium is to provide a window into another world, usually by using a specific character as our viewpoint into that world. If the characters weren’t relatable in some fashion then the majority of the audience wouldn’t make the effort to see it and the human connection would be lost. It is through these characters and their interactions with others that leads us to consider the themes and message of the movie, whether one was intended or not. In some cases, such as the documentary Room 237, that attention to detail can go a little too far, but in the case of most films it’s easy to pick out a few themes, more if you take into account the time period in which it was made. Few would argue the case, but I consider Godzilla to be another example of existential cinema, embodying the fears of the Japanese people of nuclear destruction following World War 2.

I consider existential cinema to have several layers to it. On the very first level are those with blatant existential themes – the aforementioned Herzog/Kinski films and the likes of All is Lost. Then as you travel further down the layers you have the rest of cinema – the Godzillas, the Kubrick pantheon, and so on. All the way down at the bottom you’ll probably find Ed Wood’s Plan 9 From Outer Space and other films of a similar quality. While there may be obvious cultural existential links there, they’re often so bad it’s both difficult to pick out any existential themes, and more often than not a waste of your time.

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