What is Life all About?

Movies rarely touch upon subtler notions like Existentialism. Still rarer are movies that really delve into such themes with commendable discernment. Two such rare movies are Michelangelo Antonioni’s The Passenger (1975) and Coen Brothers’ A Serious Man (2009). Both movies have nothing much in common. Antonioni’s The Passenger is a thriller where Jack Nicholson stars as a disgruntled television reporter David Locke who is switches his identity with an illegal gun-runner, while “A Serious Man”, a black comedy, is a modern adaptation of the story of Job from the Old Testament. But in the core, both these movies revolve around the existential crisis shrouding their protagonists. Both these movies ponder over the meaning of man’s existence and challenge the traditional notions of existential theories thrust upon man by legacies.

In “A Serious Man”, the protagonist Larry Gopnik a devout Jew, faces multiple misfortunes in his professional and personal life (like the biblical Job) and ends up questioning the meaning of his own existence. For Larry, the rules of the life matters most; Rules like love-your-neighbour, don’t-consume-alcohol, get-a-good-job. He knows all the rules, but he doesn’t really understand why the rules are made that way. “… You can’t really understand the physics without understanding the math… I mean – even I don’t understand the dead cat (i.e., the notional Schrodinger’s cat)”, he quips to a disgruntled Korean student. He thinks that the man-made hypocritical rules define his existence. But if these rules which he have all his life never transgressed define his existence, why dreadful things should happen to him? He doesn’t have answer for that, for he understands only the math (the rules), not the physics (the reality).

Antonioni’s Protagonist David Locke is a tad more intelligent than Larry Gopnik, but not intelligent enough to break free the shackles. David Locke identifies that man has been caught in his own past. “We translate every situation, every experience into the same old codes. We just condition ourselves”, he complains to a fellow passenger, David Robertson, whose identity he will eventually trade in. Disgruntled by repeated failures as a reporter and cuckolded by his wife, he tries to escape his past by taking the identity of Robertson, when he is found dead in his hotel room. But just like Larry, Locke is also a creature of habits and rules. When his wife asks him why he didn’t confront an African president in an interview when it is very obvious that he is lying, Locke shrugs and replies in a half hearted way “But those are the rules”.

Both Locke and Larry try to run away from their tormented past. Locke does it by switching his identity. When his new Barcelona girl friend asks him what he is running from, Locke (they are in travelling in car) without even comprehending fully the meaning of his answer replies, “Turn your back to the front seat”. The girl turns back and sees the road and the trees lining it moving away from them. Locke is not just running from his past; but by running from his past, he is running from everything. Locke soon realizes that just escaping from his old identity doesn’t automatically solve his problems; doesn’t automatically free him from the old codes. He, like Larry doesn’t understand the physics. In an old footage from Locke’s documentary shown as a part of a flashback, a witch doctor challenges him, “Mr. Locke, There are perfectly satisfactory answers for all your questions… But I don’t think you understand how little you can learn from them.” Locke expects the witch doctor’s answers to confirm what he already knows, for he can’t understand anything beyond the hardcoded perceptual reality. Larry is also trying to run away from his own past. He wants to dump the identity that people have thrust upon him. He wants to be taken seriously and wants to be treated like an adult. “This is a ser- I’m a serious man- I’m, uh, I’ve tried to be a serious man, you know?” he babbles haplessly to his rabbi’s secretary to get his attention.

Both movies end on a rather skeptical note. Both the protagonists fail to break free the fetters and fall into a vicious circle of doom. Antonioni suggests that man has to finally blame himself for being caught up in his own legacy; Locke aptly remarks in one of the scenes, “I’ve run out of everything – my wife… the house… an adopted child… a successful job… everything except a few bad habits I could not get rid of”. Coen Brothers ask for humble acceptance of fate. The Jewish philosopher Rashi’s quote (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) shown at the beginning of the movie is both the message of the movie and a portentous warning of what and what not to expect of the movie. Both movies leave you with a lot of unanswered questions hovering inside your head: “What was that all about?” Could these movies be more meaningful if Locke and Larry had found the answer to all their questions? But as early existential philosophers said: the individual is solely responsible for giving their own life meaning. Larry and Locke cannot give us answers, but they have given us the right questions to ponder with.

Nallasivan V