The Battle of Algiers provides a very clear and distinct interpretation of the clarifying oppression arguments given by de Beauvoir in Section 2, Chapter III of The Ethics of Ambiguity. Battle of Algiers provides the story of a revolutionary group in Algeria during the French colonization. The story follows a few different characters but focuses on the revolutionary Ali la Pointe and the French paratrooper commander Colonel Mathieu (played by Jean Martin who interestingly enough was a signatory of the Manifesto of 121 which denounced the Algerian War and was signed by both Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre). The film provides perspectives from both sides of the conflict. The main appeal to this storytelling method, I think, is the surprisingly reasonable insight given by Colonel Mathieu in observance of the Algerian people and their revolution. Colonel Mathieu seems to understand the reason for the resistance, perhaps because of his involvement with the French resistance during WWII.
The reading of oppression in de Beauvoir’s Ethics of Ambiguity is best summarized by “a situation [of oppression] is never natural: man is never oppressed by things … he does not rebel against things, but only against other men” (87). This entails the situation in which Ali is rebelling as a part of the oppressed. This is the conflict that Colonel Mathieu is called to settle, although he seems to recognize the futility in his efforts. When oppressed people, in this case the Algerians, rebel against their oppressors, the French, the revolution often turns violent as it does in this case with the systematic bombings of French areas. This is a common response to oppression and it indeed can lead to the oppressed becoming the oppressors, however, in this case Colonel Mathieu recognizes that that is not the problem when he asks the journalists “Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences.” He also states that the problem is simple, “the FLN want to throw us out of Algeria, and we want to stay” which sounds like simplifying the issue however it is merely attracting the idea that the French soldiers are not inherently bad people but their duty, as soldiers, is to win the fight. This is the importance of Colonel Mathieu’s character, providing the French perspective that is not immediately malicious. Oppressed people have only one solution according to de Beauvoir, “to deny the harmony of that mankind from which an attempt is made to exclude him, to prove that he is a man and that he is free by revolting against the tyrants” (89). Thus, is the importance of the contrast between Ali la Pointe and the tyrants that Colonel Mathieu represents, the French aristocracy. We see that this representation of the French situation provides an understanding of the unpopularity of the Algerian War from a large number of French people which is embodied in the Colonel Mathieu character. This character provides a realistic aspect of humanity in situations of oppression.
Many times the oppressors, despite the recognition of their wrongdoing, find it very difficult to change their ways due to a variety of factors that have to do with the complacency of their lives being upset a bit. However, the complacency will always be so long as the oppressed are people and people recognized that they are being oppressed as such. De Beauvoir speaks of this when she recognizes that humans cannot be oppressed by things that are not other humans. Colonel Mathieu likewise recognizes this when he comments on the French occupation of Algeria as being expectedly violent. In both cases, oppression fails to end until both parties refrain from oppressing. Problem occurs when the oppressed become the oppressors, however, that is a whole other paper.
One thing that particularly struck me while watching The Battle of Algiers for the first time is the way each death in the film--and, in truth, there are many--has a sense of heaviness. Ben M’Hidi, the intelligent, charismatic leader of the resistance is only in a couple scenes and his death doesn’t even take place on-screen, but still, upon hearing about it, the audience feels an unexpectedly deep sense of loss. Even when bombs are set off in the French district by the Algerian resistance group, director Gillo Pontecorvo fills the space between the bombs being planted and their detonation with shots of the different people occupying the space that is about to be destroyed. We’ve seen the horrible things happening to the people of Algiers, so the attack doesn’t seem unjustified, but we are still left with a few moments to look at individual characters who are about to be killed. However, this focus upon individuals is complicated by the death of Ali La Pointe, the character we have been following over the course of the film. After Ali’s death, The Battle of Algiers does not end, and we see more people carrying the mantle that Ali left behind. Individuals are given a great importance, but we also see the ways in which they work towards something larger than themselves and that the struggle does not end when they are lost. De Beauvoir, in The Ethics of Ambiguity, writes, “[I]f individuals recognize themselves in their differences, individual relations are established among them, and each on become irreplaceable for a few others. And violence does not merely provoke in the world the wrench of their sacrifice to which one has consented; it is also undergone in revolt and refusal” (116). This kind of recognition of individuality is at work both for the audience, as well as for the characters in the film. Each character who is a part of the resistance believes that they are part of something larger than themselves. At the same time, by virtue of the structure of the resistance group, in which each person is selected by one person to join the group and themselves selects two others, they also feel personally connected to the mission by virtue of these three other people. If one of these three people is lost, it will not feel like an anonymous death, but like the death of an individual that one has a connection to. Each time someone in the NLF dies, it is felt deeply and personally by three others. It is by harnessing this sense of personal connection and recognition of individuality that makes the revolution in Algiers so successful.
Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) provides us with characters that are trying to prove something to the world. For example, we have Naomi Watts’s character “Lesley” trying to prove she is a worthy Broadway actress, Emma Stone’s “Sam” trying to show her father that she is no longer an unstable addict, and Zach Galifianakis’s character who is determined to be a formidable theater producer. The most recognizable example of this and perhaps the most important theme of the movie is Michael Keaton’s character, Riggan Thomson, striving for genuine recognition as an elite actor that can work beyond the limitations of a blockbuster superhero movie character. Inhibited by his past as Birdman, he hopes to gain sincere appreciation from the acting world by returning to its roots, the theatrical stage. By doing so, Riggan Thomson is striving to regain his own genuineness which is embodied by the mental struggle he has with the fictional Birdman character that brought him fame and recognition in the first place. By replacing the movie set with the theater stage, he effectively limits his audience to those who, at least pretend to, care about acting. This cuts out any sort of post-production editing and any ability to overwhelm the audience with mere visuals, allowing the actor to be naked in their form.
Riggan’s struggle nearly causes the play to be cancelled on multiple occasions. These occasions tend to be when Riggan is questioning his ability to maintain himself as an actor as opposed to merely his role as the superhero character Birdman. Riggan is directly affected by the discontent and pressure that critics and peers place on Riggan as an actor. He is surrounded by a variety of positive characters (Lesley, Brandon, Sylvia, and, at times, Mike) who keep the play together throughout its previews. However, key to Riggan’s struggle with genuineness, there are numerous negative characters (Sam, Birdman, Tabitha, and, at times, Mike) that tend to spark the moments in which the play nearly implodes. The negativity and positivity struggle of Riggan with himself and others is an inherent part of his striving for genuine recognition. Per de Beauvoir, “In order for the return to the positive to be genuine it must involve negativity, it must not conceal the antinomies between means and end, present and future; they must be lived in permanent tension” (144). Thus, is the struggle of the genuine Riggan in his attempt to regain his freedom from the grip of the Birdman and whatever past experiences haunt him. We are given little background to Riggan’s life before the movie, however, we know he is divorced with a daughter who didn’t receive enough attention from her father as a child and we can at least assume he was a heavy drinker at some point. Furthermore, the struggle of positivity and negativity in his striving towards his personal goals is most effectively exemplified in his relationship with his producer (positively motivating Zach Galifianakis) and the interactions with the theater critic (the notably negative). Positivity and negativity abound, this idea comes full circle when Riggan Thomson shoots himself in the face on stage. He is finally praised as an actor and receives the positive recognition he had strived for, yet, he still receives a little negative backlash from, particularly, his ex-wife.
The idea of human transcendence, in which de Beauvoir comments “it has to found itself, though it is prohibited from ever fulfilling itself” is also commented on here (140). Riggan’s escape from the Birdman past is nearly transcended in his moment of theatrical greatness, however, he is only to be reminded of his past by the beak-like bandage over his new nose and a urinating Birdman in the hospital bathroom. The outpour of love and recognition from people has his producer reeling, yet, it is unclear how Riggan himself feels. As a sort of toast to ambiguity, we are never given full resolution to Riggan’s struggle thanks to the relentlessness of filmmaker Alejandro Iñárritu.
Birdman: or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance explores the lives of a messy cast of characters who are all struggling to put on an adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk about Love. But they’re also struggling to live genuinely, a task that, for each of them, presents unique challenges. I want to focus, specifically, on Mike Shiner (Edward Norton), an esteemed stage actor who has the exceptional ability to memorize lines without effort and to embody his characters in a way that immediately elevates the quality of every scene he’s in. However, this incredible ability to be genuine does not extend to his off-stage life. This is immediately interesting, because the stage is where one would be expected to be less genuine and true to themselves since, of course, they are literally not being themselves. One way this lack of off-stage genuineness is characterized is through his recurring erectile dysfunction. Even his sex life is only “real” when he’s onstage.
Also worth examining is his relationship to Riggan Thompson’s daughter, Sam (Emma Stone). They have two noteworthy scenes that occur on the roof of the theatre, which is significant, because almost all of the action of the movie occurs within the theatre’s walls. Therefore, that they were outside of this setting--which potentially represents acting and inauthenticity--is significant. During the first of these scenes, Sam, clearly interested in Mike, suggests a game of truth or dare, trying to get him to suggest, through daring her, or answering one of her truths, that he wants her. Mike doesn’t comply and rejects her advances. His walls are up, and he’s being defensive, either uninterested, or unwilling to express any kind of attraction.
However, things are decidedly different during their second rooftop encounter. Between these two rooftop scenes, Mike has been worn down by Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Sam. Lesley, hurt and angered by the fact that Mike wanted to have sex on stage, rejected him, making it clear that he can’t do whatever he wants without consequence. And, of course, his previous encounter with Sam made an impact because of the way she so doggedly encouraged him to seize his freedom. Mike wants both to be more responsible towards Sam after having hurt Lesley in the way that he did, but also feels drawn to engage in freedom off-stage. He’s realized the consequences of fully exercising his freedom, and is learning how to balance that freedom with a newfound sense of responsibility. Through these encounters, he is able to better understand himself as de Beauvoir’s genuine person--that is, someone who realizes the necessary balance between freedom and responsibility. Because of this, this time on the rooftop, Mike becomes vulnerable with Sam, expressing to her that she’s important to him. It’s not perfect and eloquent, it’s messy and a little campy, but that’s what makes it genuine. He tells her: “You’re hanging around here trying to make yourself invisible behind that fragile little f*ck up routine. But you can’t. You’re anything but invisible. You’re big. And you’re sort of this really great mess, a candle burning at both ends.” These probably aren’t the words a girl fantasizes about hearing, but it’s a true representation of his feelings for her. His offstage clever asshole persona has disappeared. There’s an implied sex scene between the two, and it’s suggested that Mike doesn’t experience his usually troubles with these kinds of scenarios, which is representative of his having found the ability to act genuinely off-stage. In the words of de Beauvoir, “[J]ust as the physicist finds it profitable to reflect on the conditions of scientific invention and the artist on those of artistic creation without expecting any ready-made solutions to come from these reflections, it is useful for the man of action to find out under what conditions his undertakings are valid. We are going to see that on this basis new perspectives are disclosed” (145). Mike is in the process of discovering how to translate the kind of artistic knowledge that he has mastered into his actual life, and understand himself in true relationship to others.
In her concluding analysis of ambiguity, Simone de Beauvoir reasserts the requirement for the genuine person to avoid positing the end of action as an absolute, and explains the uncertain outcome that attends any action or creative effort.
Harold Crick’s seemingly mundane life takes a drastic turn as he is faced with inevitable death. Although most of his actions and any meaning in life seem insignificant, his actions in the moments prior to a near death experience have lasting effects on the many individuals around him. As Sartre explains, existentialism relies heavily on the human beings that we interact with daily. Harold Crick’s near death saved the life of one boy and by association or proximity affected the lives of many others. In the same instance, the event was shaped by interacting with other individuals. If it weren’t for a narrator’s voice, an incorrect time given by a stranger, and the encouragement of others to live out his life as he was meant to, Harold Crick would never have had the chance to save the boy’s life. By risking his life to save the life of another, he contained the spread of pain and suffering, for which he was rewarded with life by some miraculous recognition of humanity. Harold Crick did not act rash, he knew very well he could avoid his immediate death. However, he understood that this was what he “must” do. He understood that these moments are the moments that define a life. Sartre quotes, “’Man is nothing else but what he purposes, he exists only in so far as he realizes himself, he is therefore nothing else but the sum of his actions, nothing else but what his life is.’” Upon meeting Ana Pascal and having his life narrated, the once meaningful parts of his life seem less significant and he begins to focus his actions toward the things he has always wanted to do, such as learn how to play the guitar. The other humans in his life give hope to Harold by creating meaning either through simple interactions, casual movie nights, talks about his imminent death or even through bleak talks with the one who is to end Harold’s tragic life.
With the realization and acceptance of the possibility of death as well as the understanding of the responsibility to act as he must, Harold Crick was able to live his life out as fully as he wished. With an understanding of the humanity of the other, Crick’s life is spared and the narrator’s (whom ultimately decided not to kill him) humanity flourishes. When watching or re-watching Stranger Than Fiction, it is difficult to deny the role of intersubjectivity as a key component to the plot. Intersubjectivity is the idea that something can exist between two separate minds, in this case the narrator’s voice is shared between Crick and the author. In the end this results in a series of events that bring many of the character’s lives together. Harold, our protagonist, or perhaps his wristwatch, are no doubt aided by the intersubjective nature of the story’s many characters. Without the realization of one’s humanity and the intersubjective understanding of other people’s humanity and the importance of their presence, the story would be flat. As beings able to understand the humanity of others through intersubjective experiences, the audience plays its own profound role in creating important meaning to the story and the personable characters within the story. All in all, a fine cinematic experience indeed.
Becky Vartabedian, Ph.D.
While Harold Crick (Will Ferrell) is busy reading the book of his life, Karen Eiffel’s Death and Taxes, the author’s assistant returns Karen’s apartment. There, Penny Escher (Queen Latifah) discovers chaos: the typewriter has been violently pushed off its table; a broken lamp has its pieces scattered on the floor; books and papers are open and strewn across the apartment. Karen Eiffel (Emma Thompson) lays motionless atop a table, her eyes red and puffy from crying. She asks Penny “How many people have I killed?”
The question is jarring in its significance; Karen is an author of fiction, but she has just learned that the subject of her newest book is an actual, living, breathing human being. She is confronted with the reality that her callous and ironic disposition toward the characters in her previous books – the teacher she killed off just before spring break, the civil engineer who dies in the traffic he worked to manage – could have somehow left the page and found its person. She wonders how much blood she has on her hands.
For me, this is the crucial moment of a film shot through with existential themes. It is the moment in which the gravity of human being is shown to us, and of course it is never a moment of private self-reflection. Our human being is revealed by and through others.
Late in Existentialism is a Humanism, Sartre responds to the objection that the existentialist position offers no grounds on which one might judge the actions of another human. Sartre says that for the existentialist, judgment is appropriate precisely because I find myself participating in community: “we choose in the presence of others,” he says, “and we choose ourselves in the presence of others” (47). This is an ideal expression – in other words, this is the person functioning at full existentialist ‘whack,’ with the requisite awareness of her own participation in community and the reflection of that community on her own self-definition. A balance, as Simone de Beauvoir will put it The Ethics of Ambiguity, between the recognition of our power to choose (subjectivity) and our responsibility to constrain those choices according to the subjectivity of others (responsibility). To arrive at this ideal condition, an awakening is required. Sartre says,
Consequently, when, operating on the level of complete authenticity, I have acknowledged that existence precedes essence, and that man is a free being who, under any circumstances, can only ever will his freedom, I have at the same time acknowledged that I must will the freedom of others. (48)
Up to Harold Crick’s arrival at her apartment, Karen Eiffel proceeds through her present with full attention given to her own needs, to complete the book, to “find a way to kill Harold Crick.” She is shaken out of this solipsism by her recognition that not only is Harold a real person, but that he is swept up in her story – and all this being ‘swept up’ entails. Furthermore, she finds herself now responsible to her character in a way she hadn’t previously; her responsibility for the way Harold moves through the world is revealed in its full weight. Karen understands her choices are inextricably bound to Harold’s life; this “acknowledgment” is precisely the awakening Sartre demands.
The significance of meeting Harold Crick further transforms Karen Eiffel’s own human project, her work as author. Jules Hilbert, he of the wise literary diagnostics and amazing office, confirms to Harold Crick that Karen Eiffel “only writes tragedies.” On his read of the novel and its original ending, Hilbert confirms that Harold Crick must die. It is Eiffel’s masterpiece, the expression of her creativity that makes her the kind of author she is known to be. Hilbert’s disposition cools when he reads the second ending, the one in which Harold is saved. Karen Eiffel can offer justification for her choices – she claims that precisely because Harold Crick is who he is he is a man worth saving – but her own authorial trajectory, that mechanism she uses to define herself, is adjusted because of Harold.
It’s in this context that we see ‘authenticity’ expressed fully in Karen Eiffel’s character. In Sartre’s phrase, she “(operates) on the level of complete authenticity” when she changes tack because she sees her actions are not hers alone. They land in a way that influences – profoundly – the movement of others through the world. Like Professor Hilbert, we may be distressed at the fairly toothless ending to Death and Taxes, but we understand its value is more than mere plot.
Our work this semester reads ideas from phenomenology and existentialism in popular films. While we are acquainting ourselves with the major tenets of these philosophical positions, we are also focusing our work on issues of freedom and moral responsibility as they arise in these contexts. We'll be writing short, conceptual "invitations" that interpret a scene or theme in a film according to an idea from authors and texts with which we're working. We'll post our work here as the semester proceeds.
While the list of films is evolving, the set of texts from which we'll be working includes:
Jean-Paul Sartre, "Existentialism is a Humanism" (1946). Full text available here.
Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "Freedom," from Phenomenology of Perception (1945).
Simone de Beauvoir, The Ethics of Ambiguity (1948).
John Russon, Human Experience: Philosophy, Neurosis, and the Elements of Everyday Life (2003).
Francisco Varela, "Know-How and Know-What: the First Lecture," from Ethical Know-How: Action, Wisdom, and Cognition (1999).
Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks (1952).
Sara Ahmed, "Orientations Matter," from New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, Politics (2010).
We hope it goes without saying, but the views and analysis expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not necessarily of the institution with which we're associated.