This essay will discuss two of my favorite films about wilderness survival, Carnahan’s The Grey and Iñárritu’s The Revenant, using the lens of Absurdism. While they’re two very different films, they share complementary perspectives on the existential place of man. I’ll explain some the symbolism and conflicts of each, and discuss why they offer strong lessons on Absurdist philosophy. As with all my analyses, I’ll stick mostly with the source material, but will reference other evidence when needed. There is a huge range of themes these two films have to offer, but this analysis will focus on their unique existentialism.
For me, what makes these films great is their Absurdist tone. To start, let’s define Absurdism as the philosophical view that because it’s a human need to find meaning in life, and because the universe is inscrutably complex or chaotic, we’re bound to fail in that endeavor. Hence, the pursuit of meaning is ultimately “absurd”, in the sense of being ironically futile. This isn’t to say the universe is meaningless, rather its secret logic is inaccessible to our minds.
In these two films, nature is the proxy for the universe, indiscernible to the “rational” (read: civilized western) man. To attempt to apply the rational (i.e. domination) of the modern man to the irrational and ancient natural world is to invite failure. As I’ll discuss later, in The Revenant this is ultimately a criticism of man’s unempathetic relationship with our environment, and each other. For this analysis, nature allegorizes a challenge for both film’s protogonists John Ottway and Hugh Glass. In the arc of their relationship to nature, they suppress their human mores and attune themselves to its secret logic.
Each film centers around a specific human weakness that nature is unsympathetic to. In The Grey, it is Ottway’s depression. In The Revenant, is it Glass’ vengefulness. For each, taking that human weakness to its logical conclusion will not mend their spirits. They seek an answer, which comes as a new different perspective on purpose and justice. In that perspective is salvation. It will help them embrace the Absurd. Let’s discuss the symbolism and existential crisis of each film separately, and come back to this salvation.
Mad Max: Fury Road has been divisive of public opinion. One faction wants to see it as an emasculation of their iconic wasteland epic by feminist forces in Hollywood. The other wants to glorify in how it seizes themes that seem near and dear to the causes of female empowerment as if George Miller himself was taking a stance in the combative zeitgeist of the post-Gamergate era. Neither, I think, are grasping the core message of Mad Max and the audience it speaks to: all of us.
Is Mad Max a feminist film? Arguably. But that’s missing the greater point, where Miller makes an aggressive critique on the state of environmentalism, on the disastrous trajectory of humanity, and challenges us with the solution. Max may not be the “hero” of the story, but he is the most important agent in Furiosa’s character arc, which underscores the movie’s message, and that’s why the its title is a worthy namesake to his character. Max, despite his personal insanity, is a beacon of the true but trying path. Before I continue, consider this critical question:
What is the single most pivotal moment / decision of the film?
After just one stunning theater viewing, Cartoon Saloon’s Song of the Sea became one of my favorite animated films of all time. From an island nation with a daunting pound-for-pound cultural legacy, this fiercely Irish modern folktale embodies both the intellectualism born in their poet-king pubs, as well as the supernatural climes of their landscapes.
The comparisons to Miyazaki masterpiece Spirited Away have run a bit rampant; I’d like to expound on why this film, while indeed similar in tone, art style, and theme, is more than mere Celtic Miyazaki-esque.
In this article, I’ll discuss the visual and cultural themes of the movie, and explain its message for viewers today. Despite superficial similarities, it is these themes that make it quintessentially Irish. To quote the great Irish novelist John McGahern:
“Everything that we inherit, the rain, the skies, the speech, and anybody who works in the English language in Ireland knows that there’s the dead ghost of Gaelic in the language we use and listen to and that those things will reflect our Irish identity.”
I’ll show that SotS flavors well-known tropes with directed, intentional nuance that makes it more of a continuation of the worldview posited in The Secret of Kells (Moore’s first film). You could almost consider SotS to be a chronological sequel, diving deeper into the schism between spirit and human worlds that began in TSoK. Both reflect the Irish psyche that is the product of a transformation from the island’s Celtic paganism to its inevitable assimilation of Christianity. Where TSoK indulges in the intrigue of that transition, SotS grounds it in a modern story of loss, and offers folkloric lessons as an answer.
Before we begin, I want you to take a moment and consider the single most important question to answer about SotS: Why does Saoirse choose to stay in the end? Answering this will reveal the meaning of this movie, and is the goal of this analysis, so you should have your own ideas before reading this.
James Cameron is a visionary director, which is not to say Avatar was a flawless movie as much as I loved it. We use the word “visionary” because it’s not “sight”- “vision” was defined in the old days to mean a “sense of sight”, or the ability to see into the supernatural. To see the supernatural, one must see and understand the meaning behind the sight; the word “vision” may come from the Sanskrit veda- meaning “I know.”
I’ll spare you what you already know about how great the Wall-E movie and how its strong theme is about the ravages of commercialism. I wanted to talk about the secondary theme in Wall-E, the thread of symbolism that enriches what seems like simple story-telling fabric. Forget the “hypocrisy” that one (of the very few) soulless critics pointed out about the commercial viability of the slickly designed cast against the wholesome message. That critic has forgotten his job is to review movies, not corporate greed, unless he’d prefer the movie to NOT have its message and JUST be a vehicle for Disney’s marketing.
Check out this amazing short film from Aardman Animations, who were previously responsible for much light fare like the lovable Wallace and Gromit. This short film, directed by Luis Cook, is their first non-commercial film, surpasses all attempts I've ever seen at merging the fluidity of 3D with the dynamic of hand-drawn graphics. Usually, the two blend about as well as teflon on cast-iron, but I couldn't take my eyes off this piece:
After reading many reviews of P.T. Anderson’s seminal new film There Will Be Blood, I am disappointed to see how much misinterpretation there is. Where the themes of greed, godlessness, capitalism, hatred, and revenge are certainly present, they are peripheral, and recent oil politics have led critics to miss a central theme that ties all those issues together: the loneliness of godhood. I will explain the four different meanings of the film’s title to show that that loneliness is what drove anti-hero Daniel Plainview to his tragic end.
I finished up Bioshock and it was quite a tour-de-force in game narrative, and deserves the kind of critique usually reserved for film and literature, even from the most ardent anti-“game-as-art” critics (read: Ebert). So I gave it a shot. Here is my effort at deconstructing the meaning of Bioshock.
Read it, would you kindly?
Having never seen his other movies, I still should have realized Robert DeNiro was going to be a perfectionist as a director, as he is as an actor. It’s been so long that I had almost forgotten the pleasure of watching a film as nuanced and rich as The Good Shepherd. There wasn’t a wasted sequence in the three hours it ran, and the irony didn’t escape me that half the theater walked out on a movie whose title implied the blissful masses were the CIA’s sheep.
DeNiro’s character, based on Gen. “Wild Bill” Donovan, once said that conservatives were those who believed people were flawed, and liberals were those who believed people could be changed. DeNiro’s film, particularly in this war, is a daring discussion about the motives, good or wrong, for sacrificing liberties (and how much!) at wartime.
Wild Bill, who ruthlessly hired socialists, liberals, and even communists in his intelligence battle, was a viciously pragmatic man, and he defended his men to the end when the OSS was investigated by the McCarthyists. He said “We face an enemy who believes one of his chief weapons is that none but he will employ terror. But we will turn terror against him…”
We hit up the rather obscure Hitchcock movie Rope, and I was elated at how it reminded me of those simple, "one" act plays like The Boor and Twelve Angry Men. It begins with the murder of a third man by two educated, east-coast students who find it intellectually stimulating to then put him in a box and serve a dinner party on his coffin. The entire movie takes place in this one apartment.
1948, Hitchcock gave us what is still one of the most challenging films about homosexuality today. The students repeat a misunderstood Nietzchian ideology of ubermensch who are privileged with the right to kill those inferior to themselves, and execute the perfect murder and use its vain and morbid soiree as a testament to their superiority, even so far as inviting the perceptive professor that seeded their work. But as we watch them make judgment on their victim, and justify their act with intelligence, we mirror our own judgments on a film about two less-than-ambiguously gay conspirators. Hollywood would have "killed" the film had it not been toned down from the far more flamboyant play it was based on. The fetish of the murder weapon, a rope, works as well as an amorally erotic fetish.
As one of the first famous directors to understand the technical side of film-making, it's little wonder he is the greatest uncredited influence to camerawork today. At a time when others were blindly filming movies like plays, he was filming a play like a movie.