Define Me: The Human Condition on Film

In explorations such as this, one is always told to define their terms. What then, does one do when the term they are exploring is indefinable? Here refer to the Human Condition: it’s an abstract and oft-referred to term which would benefit from definition but maddeningly resists it in turn. If you really needed to, it could be given the largely reductive definition of what makes us tick: why do we laugh at, cry at, hate or love what we do? It’s something we’d all like to understand, simply for the reason that we will never understand it; the human mind is such that we tend to put ourselves at the centre of it all and naively think that everything can and should be understood, and the fact that everything can’t makes us uncomfortable.

So far, so vague, but how does all this relate to film? Films, from the simplest of comedies to the most complex of dramas are all, at their base, a quest to understand the Human Condition. Some are obvious and very deliberate in this sense, see any of Charlie Kaufman’s films for an example. His most recent effort Anomalisa is the stuff existential crises are made of; it essentially attempts to work out what it is to be human and as such represents a philosophical rabbit hole in which the viewer, if they are not careful, can get inescapably lost in. It’s an extremely effective film, as all films which follow this sort of existential grandeur tend to be. Frequently they reflect more than may appear on the surface, often reflecting the auteur’s own emotional state. It is no mistake that Inside Llewyn Davis, a film about the loss of an artistic other half and the professional and personal isolation this causes, was made as the ageing Coen brothers approach their twilight years. Dramas are obvious examples and one could go on endlessly about how their ability to make us and their creators look inwardly but they, at their core, have the exact same goal as all other films: to play on or otherwise understand what makes us tick.

Comedies, being very much products of their environments, are useful in proving this point. It seems strange to mention Kaufman and Adam Sandler in the same breath, but one is as eager to find the root of the human condition as the other, even if they approach it in entirely different ways. Sandler’s brand of comedy is a farcical one, albeit done very badly in most cases; a brand of comedy which has become very prominent as of present. If we are to look at the most popular comedies of recent years we see recurrent themes: spoofery, farces and otherwise over-the-top set pieces are the norm. From The Other Guys, to The Hangover, to the Scary Movie franshise, to any Paul Feig movie, it’s all become rather silly. It all seems rather reminiscent of the 1970s wherein Mel Brooks, National Lampoon and Monty Python dominated the public’s laughter. This style of comedy seems to very deliberately rear its head just when life seems most complicated. The 70s, in the age of Watergate, Vietnam and a mounting nuclear presence represented a very complicated geopolitical landscape akin to the still-mounting nuclear presence, Donald Trump dominated, and media obsessed geopolitical landscape of today. In these environments, people are quite rightly befuddled by it all, something very much reflected through the comedy of the time. It would be a stretch to suggest Ben Stiller had some sort of grand allegorical intentions for Zoolander but at the very least we can attribute its success to the its ridiculous nature; the world around us is farcical so we may as well get a laugh out of it while we can. We can only laugh at something if we identify with it on some level after all and, in being products of the environment they exist in, comedies no matter how awful they may be, play on the human condition as much as dramas do.

Moving swiftly on, we come to the opposite end of the spectrum; to what scares us. If horrors are done correctly, the threat should be implied rather than explicitly shown. Without spoiling it for those yet to experience it, 10 Cloverfield Lane is a recent example of this technique done to perfection. The threat in the film is hinted at through slow burning revelations, association and intricacies of sound and lighting rather than jump scares and as such it is incredibly affecting as a result. The Babadook similarly implies the monster rather than shows it and, going back some years before this, so too does The Exorcist. The reason this is so effective a technique is for the same reasons which we search so readily for a definable human condition: we are made uncomfortable by the idea that there are things we cannot easily comprehend. Once the monster has been revealed, it can be taken in and come to terms with, and as such, it is never as scary as when it is first shown. If the monster, and the term monster is being used abstractly here, is never shown then the audience is never allowed this satisfaction. This comes as a result of the way we are wired, which is deeply disconcerting; such horrors play expertly on the human condition to get their shocks.

This is all rather a lot to take in but the essential argument here is that all films, no matter what genre they exist in, or what end of the spectrum of quality they operate on, are more complex than they may lead us to believe. Often this is accidental- Grown Ups 2 is Grown Ups 2, there is no escaping that- but the things we find of worth, whether it is because they make us laugh or cry, are given this worth by our human condition and our endless and unachievable quest to understand it.

 

Image: InsomniaCuredHere; Flickr.com

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