Sometimes learning involves the introduction of new facts. At other times, it is a matter of noticing what is already in front of your nose; a change of perspective and a bringing to attention. The preponderance of nihilism in many modern movies is a case of the latter.
Nihilism in fiction will usually be a matter of degree. Complete nihilism: the assertion of absolute meaninglessness and pointlessness; means the abandonment of hope and the embracing of despair. The depiction of characters or situations with no redeeming features at all is a lie. It is a slander of reality and encouragement of depression and even suicide. Good fiction comments on and depicts the human condition in interesting and thought-provoking ways, though the events themselves are invented. Nihilism, however, is simply a travesty and a temptation to reject life in toto. It does not add to human experience, it repudiates it.
Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist, pointed out in Man’s Search for Meaning that even in the German death camps of World War Two, which he experienced himself as a prisoner, there were certain rare individuals who remained cheerful and upbeat, kind and considerate, sharing their food with others. These saintly people were nice to be around for the other prisoners who were otherwise only exposed to communal misery. Most of us would be defeated, sinking into depression at our situation and imminent murder, but these unusual people proved that human dignity can be preserved even when the Nazis were trying to kill what makes them human and to reduce people to some animalistic, subhuman state. Starving in a famine will not have quite the level of horror as starving because someone is preventing you from eating and actually wants you to suffer. Not giving in to depression and sheer hatred is going to be particularly difficult when the prisoners know that their misery is being actively engineered by people who hate them; that their dire cold, dirt, and starvation were being intentionally inflicted on them by people who intended to torture, experiment on, maltreat, and kill them. The mimetic tendency is to adopt another person’s attitude to us; we tend to be friendly if someone is friendly to us, and hostile if they are hostile. Not to do this typically takes a conscious effort.
By his own account, Frankl was not one of these exceptional prisoners. He was awed by and grateful for the existence of these undefeated individuals. He, however, focused just on staying alive, asking himself, “What do I need to do today to still be alive at the end of it?”
Frankl comments that goodness and light are not always found where it might be expected. There are kind guards and cruel fellow prisoners, such as kapos (prisoner functionaries) who were recruited by the guards to supervise fellow prisoners, reducing the need for non-Jewish soldiers.
If moments of light and goodness can be experienced in a death camp – perhaps the closest thing to hell on earth – then they can be experienced anywhere. Any suggestion otherwise is a malicious lie. Even in something as miserable and horrific as children dying of cancer, the children often exhibit real dignity and acceptance, sometimes comforting their weeping parents.
Often in movies the nihilism can involve being expected to overlook grossly immoral actions of the main characters all in the name of “fun,” or entertainment. The nihilism is not complete – the hero falls in love, pets a puppy, and refrains from hitting someone – but it is still so conspicuous that in real life it would never be overlooked or forgotten.
The symbols for ying and yang seem apropos. A little white dot in the darkness and a little black spot in the white. A little light in the darkness and a little darkness in the light. Pollyanna-ish syrupy sentimentalism removes the dark spot from the joy and creepy, despairing nihilism paints over the white. Both have their nauseating aspect.
Some movies are so revolting that their trailers make a point of demonstrating just how disgusting the audience can expect the experience to be. A movie like Legion would qualify. Seeing that trailer while waiting for another movie to start really made it seem that the moral apocalypse must have taken place quite some time ago. A granny crawling on the ceiling and then sinking her teeth into the neck of the waitress was sufficiently illustrative of the horrors likely to come. Or there is the sadism of the movie Saw where people are set up in nightmarish scenarios, such as having to saw off a body part in order to escape from a room. These movies are intended to be explicitly revolting.
It should only be necessary to remain conscious of nihilism with movies that might be expected to be better, such as A Serious Man by the Coen brothers who are serious filmmakers. The movie traces the life of a physics professor left by his horrible wife for someone equally abysmal. When the new lover dies, the professor’s wife makes him pay for the funeral. At some point we meet the kids who turn out to be even worse than the parents – pitiless, lying, monsters. The professor’s students are represented by a conscience-free cheat. No one has a redeeming feature. Such a picture of things is simply false. Most people are a mixture of good and bad. And in any scenario some people will be better than others.
It is important that most critics say nothing about the nihilism of all this. Like fish swimming in water, they remain oblivious to the medium in which they exist. An exception can be found in Joe Morgenstern of The Wall Street Journal who points out the misanthropy of A Serious Man. The Coen brothers themselves are apparently very well aware of nihilism as a concept and have a group of self-described nihilists in their terrific movie, The Big Lebowski. Everything they say about nihilism in this very funny comedy is philosophically apropos, including its contradictions.
They kept saying they believe in nothing.
[Walter looks haunted]
Say what you like about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.
KIEFFER (a nihilist)
His girlfriend gafe up her toe! She sought we’d be getting million dollars! Iss not fair!
Fair! Who’s the f…g nihilist here! What are you, a bunch of f…g crybabies?!
Strangely enough, the Coen brothers seem to alternate between nihilism and a modicum of hope from one picture to the next. Hail Caesar? Uplift. No Country For Old Men? Very nasty nihilism. This was obvious from the trailer, but a student had written a paper on the movie for another class and especially wanted me to see it in order to evaluate her paper.
A sociologist friend described a study he had read concerning crack dealers where the social scientist lived with the criminals for two years. It turned out they had many redeeming features. They laughed and told jokes. My reply was – of course! They are human beings. Nearly everyone is likely to have some redeeming features but that does not mean that dealing crack is not pathological.
No matter what culture or subculture one looks at there will be something good about it. Friendship and loyalty, care for others and delight in life. Overall, one may want to condemn it, but a depiction of pure negativity will be a lie.
The next example is The American, a European-style quasi-art house movie starring George Clooney. The movie is not as consistently nihilistic as A Serious Man, however George Clooney’s hitman shoots his girlfriend in the first two minutes of the movie. She does not know that he is a hitman and witnesses a shoot-out with another gangster. Now that she knows, she poses a major inconvenience. He tells her to go call the police and when she turns around he shoots her in the back of head. The killing involves no particular malice. It was neither the result of high emotion nor careful planning. He is not depicted as suffering any particular angst over what he has done. He is so morally reprehensible as to qualify for sociopathy – a conscience-less monster. The film continues on as though nothing in particular has happened. We are expected to care about this man and to wish him well. We are supposed to hope he gets together with the prostitute he loves. Yet, this one action should nix any well-wishing hopes audience members might entertain.
It was clear that the director did not expect audience members to dwell on this heartless killing. He was so successful in this intention that a search of the internet revealed that critics did not find the murder worth mentioning. It did not alter their view of the main protagonist in any significant way – as though it were a neutral unremarkable event. Ask yourself if your view of a good friend would change if you found out he had cold-bloodedly killed a girlfriend who became inconvenient. This kind of thing is so prevalent in modern cinema that it is sometimes necessary to be reminded to notice nihilism, even though most critics and audiences are not sociopaths themselves.
The American could be compared to watching a movie about a death camp commandant’s romantic pursuit of a woman where the commandant’s day job is unremarked upon. It is morally intolerable to be asked to forget about and bracket off this aspect of the central character. It throws such a shadow over the character that it would be obscene to care about whether his delicate little yearnings get reciprocated or not. The American’s murder of his girlfriend casts a similar shadow, making every other event in the movie irrelevant, just as a diagnosis of cancer will suddenly make many other things in your life that you had been worrying about appear trivial.
Next is Looper. The premise is that the main character kills hooded, kneeling, handcuffed, anonymous and helpless men two seconds after meeting them on a daily basis– shooting them in the chest. He has no particular problem with his job and is not a distraught self-loathing mess. The kind of person who could kill in this way, in such a cold-blooded fashion, would again be a sociopath. He would have to be a heartless villain. And yet the movie makers expect the audience to sympathize with his adventures; to give him its blessing and to wish him well. It is not even supposed to notice or think about what sort of person it is supposed to be rooting for.
Like The American, the movie is not literally one hundred percent nihilistic. One man loves his wife. That’s nice. He loves her so much that he is willing to go back into the past to kill seven children because ONE of the seven children will grow up to be his wife’s killer. These are very young children and he will murder seven of them with six being entirely innocent of his wife’s future death. In real life, any person confronted with a spouse surrounded by the corpses of little children who the spouse had killed “because I love you” should call the police, leave and never come back. That spouse is a psychotic, murdering nutcase. What would happen in the future if the person left them? The younger murdering thug seems to care a bit about people he is not cold-bloodedly shooting and he does something rather nice in the last two minutes of the film. But those two minutes do not make up for two hours of dank moral nihilism.
Again, it is not so much that every element of the movie is nihilistic, it is that the audience is expected to overlook the main character’s actions. It is intended that the audience members not think too deeply about what it means that he is willing to do this for a job. It is the moral blindness/nihilism expected and required of the audience that is the troubling part as much as anything else.
The next time you watch a movie, do not check your moral compass at the door. Remember to make your usual assumptions about what it means to be a decent person worth rooting for. Cold-blooded merciless girlfriend killers in a movie that pays no especial attention to this salient event and hired killers of helpless victims who suffer no particular remorse for doing this are repugnant villains. The nihilism comes in the films failing to pay any real attention to these aspects of their main characters and in the expectation that you too will gloss over these little “technicalities.”
On this view, never, on any account watch any movie by Lars von Trier. His movies are conspicuous in their overt nihilism. His stated reason for making the movie Melancholia, for instance, was to make the viewers feel like what it is to suffer from depression by which he is afflicted. That is about as humane an idea as a drunk who has thrown up on himself and defecated in his pants sharing that with everyone also.
The movie goes from one bleak nihilistic scene to the next. Near the end von Trier even introduces unexplained magic to artificially ramp up his miserable people and world-hating view. A central character says she knows exactly how many beans were in the jar at her wedding, 678, demonstrating some kind of supernatural ability to know things. Having been fictionally endowed with some kind of unexplained semi-omniscience, she then states categorically, using her supposed psychic abilities invented solely for this purpose, that we are alone in the universe and that the existence of life is evil. Thanks, Lars!
The movie does not otherwise contain magic or supernaturalism. Introducing it just to make a nihilistic claim is a cheat. It is like watching a regular movie only to find out right at the end that the main character is bulletproof for completely unexplained reasons. How convenient!
I have encountered people recommending this movie and praising it. These fans of the movie seem to think that its gloomy tone means it is serious and profound. The cinematography has a certain appealing glossy sheen to it, qualifying it as “artistic,” but it is utterly putrid.
The movie can be contrasted with a wonderful Australian movie called These Final Hours where, like in Melancholia, the end of the world is about to occur. The central character decides to leave his girlfriend to go party and revel in debauchery for the final few hours he has left to live. Along the way he sees two men attempt to rape a young teen. He is torn between his nihilistic debauch and helping the girl. The non-nihilism of the movie is entirely plausible as he is torn, but reluctantly makes the right decision and even agrees to help her unite with her parents before she dies. However, the cinematography is downright rudimentary, seemingly shot on videotape, and seems unlikely to appeal to the European aesthete types who love Lars von Trier.
The only other movie I have watched by von Trier, Dancer in the Dark, I made the mistake of finishing because I thought not turning away from bleakness might be good for my soul. I was mistaken. Sometimes imagined to be “feminist” in flavor, the movie depicts a helpless, blind woman being relentlessly persecuted and finally hanged. Von Trier appears to relish misogynistically punching this character in the face over and over again, piling misery upon misery, grinding her into the dust. Björk, the singer turned actress for this role, the annihilated woman, so hated the experience of working with him that she vowed never to make another movie.
This kind of nihilism hits you over the head. It is not as insidious, perhaps, because it is, or should be, impossible to miss.