Nihilism in Film and Television

DownloadedFileWhile film and philosophy is a large and growing area within aesthetics, research that specifically addresses the role of nihilism in film is a much more specialized and focused field. There are a handful of scholars working on this topic and, as with the philosophical study of nihilism more generally speaking, the quality of research runs the gamut from insightful and profound to superficial and uninteresting. The main problem that I’ve found with the uninteresting body of work is  a tendency toward thinking of nihilism too conventionally; as something that necessarily needs to be “overcome” or that harbors no positive or affirmative properties. Certainly there is a history to this tendency. The term “nihilism,” beginning with criticisms of Kant, has commonly been deployed in a negative fashion, being used to designate philosophies and worldviews holding the Truth to be unattainable or nonexistent. Consequently, when leveling the charge of nihilism, authors often imply that the targets of their attacks promote ideas that are life-denying and that drain the world of sense and meaning. While this is part of the “problem of nihilism,” it is by no means the entirety of the phenomena, and the most astute and reflective writers on the subject have recognized (following Nietzsche) that nihilism is “ambiguous.” Like just about everything in the world, nihilism has both negative and positive aspects.

Nihilism in Film and Televisionby Kevin L. Stoehr, is a work that avoids the temptation to treat nihilism as an unequivocally negative phenomenon, instead recognizing both the active and the passive strains it contains. Stoehr examines the ways that these strains play out in a variety of motion pictures and television shows, and his treatment of the topic is often quite insightful. Of course, like everything in the world, the book has both positive and negative aspects, and there are sections that I felt could have been more polished and that could have been developed in more depth and detail.  However, when surveyed as a whole, Nihilism in Film and Television is an excellent contribution to the growing literature that focuses on nihilism and its relationship to popular media.

The opening chapter of Stoehr’s book, “Nietzsche, Nihilism, and Existentialism,” is an excellent and well stated account of the phenomenon of “nihilism as detachment.” (p. 5) In this section, the author writes about the various aspects of nihilism, offering a very clear and solid philosophical/existential explanation of its essential characteristics. It is here, in Chapter One, that Stoehr offers both his definition of nihilism, as well as his very important observations about the “ambiguous” character of nihilism:

In the broadest and most radical sense of the term, nihilism is the denial of the world’s intrinsic value, and not merely the intrinsic values of particular objects or events or persons in the world…(p. 9)

This is the aspect of nihilism that leads many authors to the conclusion that nihilism is, thus, a life-denying, negative and “pathological” phenomenon that needs to be “overcome.” Stoehr avoids this hasty conclusion, pointing out:

An “extremist” brand of world-negating nihilism is a rejection of the very possibility of intrinsic value per se. It results most often from the adoption of an unrelenting skepticism that becomes irrational and obsessive…

Nihilism as a completely negative or “pathological” stance presupposes this kind of irrational skepticism. But that does not imply that all forms of nihilism are completely negative or “pathological”…(p. 10)

It is a welcome opening to the book. Here Stoehr establishes that nihilism is a much more complicated thing to understand than many academics commonly recognize. To advocate nihilism does not require one to support the simple-minded argument that since nothing has value, life is thus miserable and should be destroyed. Stoehr carefully points out that nihilism has both “passive” and “active” forms. In its passive manifestations, nihilism occurs as a sort of life-denial. In this sense, the lack of value in the world is taken as a reason for negativity and despair. The passive nihilist gives up in the face of the void, despairing over the fact that meaning and value are not there to be discovered ready-made. However, active nihilism takes the same situation and interprets it as a liberating opportunity for creativity and affirmation. Since the world does not come to us ready-made with value, the active nihilist enthusiastically imposes meaning on the world, all the while remaining aware that the resulting significance is his or her own doing. The key point here is that the lack of objective meaning does not imply that there is no such thing as subjective meaning. The active nihilist accepts the world as objectively meaningless and valueless, and yet chooses to bring meaning and value into existence as an act of individual will. Stoer summarizes this insight when he writes, “And so nihilism can also be viewed in a positive manner as the necessary occasion for the emergence of a new type of individuality, on the personal level, or a new form of value system and even “humanity,” on the collective level.” (p. 22) This “new type of individuality,” of course, is the type that Nietzsche claimed was possessed by the Übermensch, or “Superman.” This is a higher, noble sort of individual who, as advocated in existential philosophy, is willing to fully accept responsibly for living, and affirming, life on his or her own chosen terms.

imagesStoehr uses this distinction between the passive and active forms of nihilism as the principle around which the rest of his book is organized. Chapter One, “The Nihilistic Vision of Film Noir and The Sopranos,” argues that Film Noir generally, and the television show The Sopranos specifically, embodies a vision of reality rooted in passive nihilism. The characters in these dark dramas find themselves living in a world filled with despair, dread, hopelessness, and – as in the case of The Sopranos –  a world in which traditional values have decayed. Under these circumstances the characters are overwhelmed and destroyed. Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), for instance, does not become a better man by struggling through therapy over the course of the show, but rather comes to “revel in his own resentment, self-loathing, and life-negation.” (p. 52) He, like most noir characters, cannot create new values in the face of the decline of old values. Rather, he passively “clings to the past, fears the future” (p. 47), exhibiting the most despairing and life-negating form of nihilism.

DownloadedFileIn Chapter Three, Stoehr switches to an examination of active nihilism in the film Waking Life, a quasi-documentary that features portraits of individuals who talk and philosophize about the nature and meaning of life. Philosophers like Robert Solomon and David Sosa appear as characters in this movie to discuss issues related to existentialism and the issue of human freedom. As Stoehr points out, the main thread that weaves through the film is the idea that in order to understand one’s place in the world, one must actively create a life story; it is not something that comes to you ready-made. In this way, Waking Life illustrates the key issues raised by the author in his introduction: 1) there is no intrinsic value in the world, but 2) each and every human being is in a position to subjectively create his or her own meaning. This is active nihilism; the positive, liberating and productive side of nihilism.

I was dissapointed that the chapter on Waking Life is so short, while the other chapters in the book, which all tend to focus mostly on the dark and passive forms of nihilism, are so much longer. One of my main criticisms of Stoehr is that he could have devoted more space to the discussion of films illustrating the active and affirmative aspects of the phenomenon. What about I (heart) Huckabees? The Matrix? Given that the book is organized around the passive/active distinction, it would have been more satisfying if the active side of this distinction had been granted fuller attention by looking at films such as these, which clearly illustrate the constructive, healthy and heroic nature of self-creation. As it is, the book feels skewed, despite Stoehr’s introductory comments, in the direction of films and TV shows illustrating the dynamics of passive nihilism.

DownloadedFileThe fourth chapter of Stoehr’s book offers an analysis of the classic Orson Welles’ masterpiece, Citizen Kane, focusing on how the film’s title character, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), fails to create a meaningful life due to his inability to mold the world’s ambiguity according to his own will.  Stoehr’s conclusion is that in this film Kane fails in his search for wholeness and authenticity precisely because he falls prey to the dangers of passive nihilism. Kane views the world as a collection of “things” that he wants to possess rather than to interpret and give style. He attempts, passively, to find value by virtue of the quantity of things that he owns, as if by merely hanging onto to lots of objects, and by banking lots of money, meaning and purpose will somehow magically appear into his life. The tragedy of the story is that this is a necessarily failed strategy, and after he dies his “relics” appear as a collection of impersonal and chaotic items that mean nothing at all.

DownloadedFileThe Crying Game is the subject of Chapter Five; a section that was among my least favorite in the book. The theme stressed in this chapter is the idea of human alienation as dramatized in the relationship between Fergus (Stephen Rea), a member of the IRA, and Dil (Jaye Davidson), a crossdressing man. Stoher uses these characters to illustrate how the initial alienation between subjects can be confronted – yet perhaps not overcome – through continued dialectal contact and respect for the “other.” My frustration with this chapter stems from the fact that Stoehr devotes only about two paragraphs to the connections between alienation and passive and active nihilism.  Instead, he introduces another theorist, Martin Buber, in order to discuss the “I-Thou” relationship; an idea that is the centerpiece of Buber’s well known masterpiece of the same name. The observations Stoehr makes in this regard are interesting and useful, however they also tend to scatter the focus. Nevertheless, the conclusion of this section – that human nature is characterized by a tension between “fixed” and “unfixed” aspects that lead us to be alienated from ourselves as well as one another – is important, though it could be more extensively related to the passive vs. active distinction.

The longest sections in the book are Chapters Six, which deals with the westerns of John Ford, and Seven, which deals with the films of Stanley Kubrick. I was absolutely fascinated by the chapter on Ford’s westerns. It is here that Stoehr addresses the western (like the Noir genre with which he began the book) as a kind of film that focuses on the nihilistic decay of values and cultural ideals. As Stoehr points out, initially it may seem to be a strange assertion to make about what otherwise seems like the most American of all film genres. However, a moment of reflection is all it takes to realize that the imagery and the way of life depicted in the western is one from a by-gone era, and the nostalgic look back to the days of cowboys and indians is an indication that, as Nietzsche articulated, “the highest values have devalued themselves.” In Ford’s films, such as The Quiet Man, How Green Was My Valley, and Stagecoach,   we find characters who, at the same time that they exhibit many of the stereotypical characteristics of cowboy culture, also come to exhibit a skeptical and doubtful attitude toward traditional conventions and values. As Stoehr writes:

It is Ford’s willingness to manipulate stereotypes and conventions, so as to raise questions about them, that makes his movies enlightening, simply because the act of questioning provokes skeptical doubt  as well as the possibility of moral indignation. And it is in doubt, and especially moral indignation, where the pessimistic seeds of passive nihilism often take root…(p. 102)

DownloadedFile-1Over the course of Ford’s film making career, we see the fading away of the hero, and the realization that the cowboy is becoming an anachronism who, in conquering the West, makes room for a new way of life that is not his own. Stoehr’s analysis of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance is especially astute in articulating this point. In this film, Tom Doniphon (John Wayne), the gunslinger, is a “dying god” (p. 121) who sacrifices his own happiness and way of life so that Ransom Stoddard ( James Stewart), the lawyer, can prosper and establish a new culture of law and order in place of frontier chaos. Tom fades away after killing the villain and sacrificing the love of his life to Ransom, destroying the possibility for his own happiness and yet creating the conditions that allow for the happiness of other, more “civilized” people. Tom is the Nietzschean “lion,” the destructive nihilist who clears the way for a something new, but who is not suited for values creation himself. That is the job of someone like Ransom, the law-giver who, in the wake left by Tom, is now able to step in and build a new order.

After discussing the trajectory of Ford’s film-making career, Stoehr addresses the “Post-Ford” landscape that is populated by film makers such as Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. What we find in the westerns of these directors is “a land with no heroes,” (p 132) a place where the myths built by directors like Ford and by actors like John Wayne are shown to be illusions. Cowboys and gunslingers come to be depicted as sadists, drunks and criminals. From the jaded and  cynical backward-looking perspectives of these artists, the heroic, lion-like nihilist portrayed by John Wayne never really existed at all.

imagesIn the films of Stanley Kubrick, Stoehr finds a director predominately concerned with exploring the “nihilistic experience of the modern individual.” (p. 173) Stoehr shies away from labeling Kubrick himself as a nihilist; rather he is a director concerned with displaying and depicting the fragility of the world in the absence of authority, culture and civilization. Here we come back to the importance of active, positive nihilism as a dynamic force that allows us to overcome the “horror of the Void” and to do something – anything – affirmative and creative with our lives. This seventh Chapter does a wonderful job of pointing out the overlap between tragic and comic elements in films such as Doctor Strangelove, A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. The absurdity of reality is something ambiguous; it can potentially mean anything, and it is part of Kubrick’s genius that he is able to show how one and the same phenomenon can be terrifying, morally reprehensible and hilarious at the same time. Thus, nuclear armageddon, violent rapist thugs, and axe-wielding maniacs can both scare and amuse us. We are made to feel both gleeful and frightened by the same things. In themselves, they mean nothing. It is only through active interpretation that such things gain moral significance.

Nihilism in Film and Television ends with an eighth chapter, “Nihilism as Detached Experience,” which feels tacked on and out of place. Really, I found nothing in this section that added to the rest of the book. It consists of a summary of ideas taken from Martin Heidegger, Hubert Dreyfus and David Abram, then ends with a list of five films that Stoehr tells us illustrate themes found in the works by these authors. I’m not clear why the book ends on this note rather than with a conclusion that draws together and rearticulates the main conclusions from the preceding chapters. In any case, the book cries out for a concluding chapter that is more well integrated with the chapters that precede it.

Despite my scattered criticisms and a few disappointments, Nihilism in Film and Television is a study that contains some important and profound insights into the ways that film and television narratives illustrate the dynamic – and not necessarily negative – vicissitudes of nihilism. Some of the sections (like Chapters One, Four, Six and Seven) are outstanding in the insight they bring. Others (like Chapters Three and Five) are intriguing, but could have been developed further. It is only one of the sections (Chapter Eight) that seemed to me to be ill-conceived and out of place.