By: Jack Gross
“Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it. That revolt of the flesh is the absurd.”-Albert Camus
Forsaken to an eternity of menial labor by the gods, a man must slowly push a boulder up a hill until he reaches the top. At the peak is where his exhaustive efforts are unceremoniously dismissed, as he must watch the rock roll back down, signaling the infinite cycle of this futile endeavor. This is the Myth of Sisyphus from Greek mythology, a story that has been repurposed and retold for centuries. However, it was most famously contextualized by French Philosopher Albert Camus in 1942 when he published an essay titled The Myth of Sisyphus.
Camus uses Sisyphus’ predicament as the core example of existential absurdism. In the essay, Camus explains that it is not Sisyphus’ ascension up the hill that interests him, but rather Sisyphus’ resigned and stoic return, emphasizing his complacency in the face of never-ending torment. To Camus, this illustrates man’s greatest existential conundrum: the inevitable search for meaning in an inherently meaningless existence. Time carries us forward rhythmically, a concept lost on us through the hustle and bustle of monotonous labor and a mechanized life. It is when we are confronted with the essence and temporality of our existence that we experience the absurd. The remainder of Camus’ writing works to explain that the rational answer to feelings of the absurd is not suicide, but rather reconciliation.
Camus describes the absurd man as a mime, acting out their daily rituals knowing these routines are meaningless, and he labeled art as the greatest mime of all. Contrary to Camus, I find that even though we are unable to derive meaning from art, artistic expression of the absurd is the greatest form of rebellion we have at our disposal, reflecting the creator’s perspective on the inscrutable world. Camus posits that absurdist art cannot attempt to present viewers with concrete meaning or answers, because there are none. Instead, art must restrain itself from grandiose attempts at presenting answers and must teach us not to desire reason but to come to terms with its absence. This compromise between incomprehensibility and acceptance is the key to an admirable piece of absurdist art.
In his writing, Camus focused this idea on writers such as Dostoyevsky, but I’d like to extend this conversation to the rich catalog of absurdist films that have been released after the publication of Camus’ essay. These films depict the existential absurdity of life, and rather than desperately attempting to apply to mean, they instead bask in the ambiguity, and like Camus suggests, force the audience to reconcile with their proposed undefined existence. I believe these films shed a light on one of the underlying takeaways of Camus’ writing: ideological compromise.
Naked (1993) Dir. Mike Leigh
Set in the dreary, dingy, and desolate streets of East London, and armed with an impressive arsenal of nihilistic sentiment and pessimistic angst, Johnny passively bounces around from street alley to couch in Mike Leigh’s existential drama, Naked. Johnny, played by David Thewlis, is a man with no moral conviction, no inkling of decency or hope, and instead of struggling with Camus’ central dilemma regarding purpose in a meaningless world, Johnny has long accepted his life is without purpose. Rather than reconciling with this notion and living proudly as Camus implores us to, Johnny resorts to extreme acts of depravity, selfishness, and manipulation. Guided by vice and tempted by pleasures alone, Johnny makes no effort to strive for a better life or make meaningful connections with those around him. In a troubling counterintuitive manner, it seems Johnny’s acceptance of Camus’ philosophy has in turn made him a creature of sin, yet one that has a rather firm grasp on his cosmic place in the world. By the end of the film, after agreeing to move with his ex-girlfriend to Manchester, Johnny steals her money and limps away into the streets, representing the tedious nonsensical cycle reminiscent of Sisyphus’ own journey, as one wonders what street corner he’ll find himself on next.
What makes this film even more admirable in terms of Camus’ writing is director Mike Leigh’s refusal to answer questions or reflect meaning. Leigh doesn’t once attempt to prove Johnny’s mindset wrong, instead, he presents it as realistic as possible, allowing the viewer themselves to make their own unbiased judgments and decisions. In this way, we are responsible for our own reading of the film and are made accountable for our own viewpoints regarding Johnny’s resigned acceptance of existential absurdism. We are shown a world without consequence and a character without conviction, and when the viewer accepts these truths, only then can they reflect their own analysis onto the work, much like that of Camus’ example involving the mime.
After Life (1998) Dir. Hirokazu Kore-eda
In Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, we are introduced to wonderfully poetic ruminations directly tied to existential absurdism. The film’s premise is deceptively simple: recently deceased spirits arrive in a liminal territory between living and death where they get to choose one memory from their lives to relive through the film before they pass on. Nearly everyone struggles to pick one moment, some outright refuse to choose, and others watch their entire lives on screen, attempting to pick the perfect moment. This forceful process of handpicking a single memory to live with forever is rooted in existential absurdism, as it suggests that beyond the single moment in their lives, everything proceeding and following it will be rendered meaningless once they pass, forever lost in the annals of their own minds.
Kore-eda depicts this act of selection not as an involuntary moment of tragedy, but rather as a necessary revelation that our time on Earth is terribly limited and only has the meaning we grant it. After Life isn’t so much an endorsement of the sanctity of life as it is a series of questions regarding the way we live life. While Kore-eda doesn’t attempt to apply indexical connections between life and purpose, instead he proposes the importance of coming to terms with one’s mortality, and in doing so, accepting that life is but a series of memories we will soon forget. This isn’t tragic when seen through the lens of After Life, rather it’s an idea we must all accept in order to live enriching lives.
Woman in the Dunes (1964) Dir. Hiroshi Teshigahara
Known as a modern retelling of the Myth of Sisyphus, Woman in the Dunes follows an entomologist who scours long stretches of sand dunes in search of a beetle. His journey is infinitely complicated however when he is trapped in a deep sandpit with a mysterious woman and her small hut on the arenaceous floor. Here, the woman abides by her daily futile ritual: shoveling falling sand away from her hut in order to not be buried alive. This strange and impractical living arrangement acts as a metaphor for daily life and the constant struggle to gain purpose. Suddenly trapped in this hole, the entomologist suffers from a loss of identity, and an absence of freedom, and must learn to cope after a series of futile escape attempts.
The film works to reimagine the Myth of Sisyphus in contemporary society, conveying the desperate desire to escape domesticity and attain spiritual freedom while ensnared in a doomed life. Teshigahara’s film, like the others I’ve listed, doesn’t attempt to deny the inherent incomprehensibility and frustrating trivialities of existence, nor does it pretend to have answers to the unknowable, instead it provides examples of how one can reconcile with the enigmatic universe. In Woman in the Dunes, the entomologist discovers a small method for water production and has found happiness in his newfound usefulness as well as his moment of fulfillment. Like Sisyphus, whose stoic demeanor on his descent down the hill, the entomologist has found a semblance of bliss in his absurd life and has completely abandoned all hope of escape. It’s important to point out that while the entomologist seems to find an answer, it’s truly only a method of acclimation and conformity because the indefinability of his circumstances is not resolved. This is how Woman in the Dunes represents the true essence of Camus’ essay.
Fallen Angels (1995) Dir. Wong Kar-wai
In the green soaked cosmopolitan of Wong Kar-wai’s Hong Kong, various characters wander through the lost city, looking for requited love and instead find alienation and lovelorn anguish. They aimlessly interact with one another, weaving in and out of lives without meaning or purpose. In a Wong Kar-wai film, his protagonists often search for these key principles through connection, a feeling they are rarely granted in his work.
Whether it be the death of a father, the loss of a friendship, or a deeply troubling breakup, all of the characters in Fallen Angels find themselves in desperate need of direction. In the film, we are not shown grand moments of intimacy or flourishes of love and hope, instead, we see small victories, however fleeting they may be. These brief instances give much-needed affirmation to our protagonists, affirmation not that their lives are moving in the right direction (because there is no right direction), but that everything will be ok despite their troubles.
The final scene in Fallen Angels depicts two characters riding on a motorcycle as the camera pans up towards the morning sky, the first shot of daylight we’ve seen in the entire film. Abiding by Camus’ understanding of Sisyphus, Wong Kar-wai and his characters find solace in their undefined placement in the world through their acceptance of their situations.
While some may reduce film in context with absurdism as an empty form of escape from the unbearable truths of life, I think Camus’ philosophizing instead indicates a different relationship. The visual and sensory catharsis we experience by consuming these absurdist works of art presents us with an alternative method, one that allows us to reconcile with concepts of existential absurdism without falling victim to the melancholy that Camus was deeply concerned by. As Camus suggests, great art cultivated by absurdist creators does not preach, proselytize, or attempt to present impossible answers. Instead, they present us with a clear pathway into accepting the enigma of the universe and our placement in a world devoid of meaning. In this manner, we don’t need to live in a fabricated reality to attain some semblance of fulfillment. I believe the films I’ve listed do more than an admirable job presenting Camus’ ideas and further reinstating the necessity of ideological compromise over a quest for a reason.