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.
Jean-Paul Sartre, in “Existentialism is a Humanism,” explored the possibility of existential philosophy as a way of genuinely living life, not just succumbing to the meaninglessness of that life. He explores the nature of making decisions not based on their morality, but rather on their authenticity. That is, whether the decision was born out of a genuine expression of self, or whether it was an action committed in bad faith, which is a betrayal to the self. Sartre tells his readers, “You are free, therefore choose, that is to say, invent. No rule of general morality can show you what you ought to do: no signs are vouchsafed in this world. The Catholics will reply, “Oh, but they are!” Very well; still, it is I myself, in every case, who have to interpret the signs” (9). In Stranger than Fiction, we encounter Harold Crick, who is able to hear signs more easily than most. When he finds himself the subject of a narrative that only he can hear, he discovers that this narrator knows intimate details about him. Sometimes she describes what is happening, but often she alludes to what will happen. Harold begins quite literally to attempt to read the signs that the narrator is delivering to him. On the advice of Jules Hilbert, a sometimes-helpful English professor Harold has sought out, he attempts to piece together whether his life fits better into a comedy or a tragedy, at one point announcing dejectedly, “This may sound like gibberish to you, but I think I’m in a tragedy.” Harold has to decide for himself whether he wants to follow the story being narrated for him or if he wants to try to fight against this voice that appears to be controlling his life. At times he seems willing to go along with the narrator, indeed, most of his interactions with Ana Pascal, his love interest in the film, are prompted by narration. However, we can also acknowledge that Harold’s decision to pursue Ana seems to come as a result of a growing commitment to authenticity. When, at the narrator’s request, he goes to her, all he is able to express is “I want you.” This is a reflection of Harold having at last deeply connected with what he wants, beyond what his job or any other external actor (including, even, the narrator) demands of him. He is, for the first time, acting decidedly in good faith. He knows what he genuinely wants, and he won’t let anything prevent him from expressing this simple, honest, vulnerable truth. Ultimately, Harold interprets the signs of his own life by following along with a narration that seems to lead him down the path of the tragic. Although Harold’s life seems at times to be completely controlled by the narrations, it is clear that, in the end, he does have the power to choose for himself the kind of life he wants to live and, in doing so, makes the decision that no one else is able to make.
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.