Wednesday, October 11, 2017

John Marmysz's "Cinematic Nihilism"

John Marmysz holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from State University of New York at Buffalo. His primary research interests focus on the issue of nihilism and its cultural manifestations.

Marmysz is the author of The Nihilist’s Notebook, Laughing at Nothing: Humor as a Response to Nihilism, The Path of Philosophy: Truth, Wonder and DistressThe Nihilist: A Philosophical Novel, and Cinematic Nihilism: Encounters, Confrontations, Overcomings. He is coeditor (with Scott Lukas) of Fear, Cultural Anxiety and Transformation: Horror, Science Fiction and Fantasy Films Remade.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to Cinematic Nihilism and reported the following:
Page 99 of Cinematic Nihilism is the first page of Chapter 5, “The Lure of the Mob: Cinematic Depictions of Skinhead Authenticity.” On this page appears a still from the 1998 film American History X. It is a picture of a skinhead (the actor Edward Norton) with a swastika tattooed on his chest. The image is followed by these introductory words:
Skinheads are generally viewed, in contemporary Western culture, as symbols of violence, white racism and bigotry. In fact, the term ‘skinhead’ is taken by most academics and mainstream media consumers virtually to be synonymous with the term ‘Nazi’, and it has become almost automatic to associate images of young, white males sporting shaven heads with viciousness and racial intolerance. The media commonly utilise and exploit this iconic image in everything from television programmes and commercials to magazine ads and movies, reinforcing and strengthening its evocative power.
The chapter goes on to examine a somewhat puzzling and controversial genre of film in which neo-Nazi skinheads are portrayed in an understanding light, as misguided yet intelligent and psychologically complicated individuals in search of personal autonomy and self-understanding. The concept of “authenticity,” as articulated by the philosopher Martin Heidegger, is marshaled in order to try and appreciate the reasons why these otherwise reprehensible characters appear so sympathetic to audiences. My argument is that this sympathy is the result of audience identification with the struggles of the film characters as they confront, and authentically come to terms with, their experience of nihilism.

This chapter closes the book’s second division, which is devoted to films that depict struggles to confront nihilism. The book’s first division is devoted to films depicting initial encounters with nihilism while the book’s third, and final, division focuses on films in which characters overcome nihilism. Among the films examined are many that have been condemned by critics and scholars as morally reprehensible: The Wicker Man, Under the Skin, The Human Centipede, Nymphomaniac, Videodrome, Night of the Living Dead, Fight Club, Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters.

The argument I make over the course of analyzing these films is that, contrary to much critical opinion, cinematic nihilism is not essentially negative or destructive, but a potentially constructive phenomenon offering audiences the opportunity to wrestle with an issue of universal human concern: alienation from our highest ideals. This alienation is not an unambiguously bad thing, since in addition to anguish, it also potentially provokes ongoing interpretation, aspiration and ambition. The rush to overcome nihilism (in both film and real life) may in fact result in consequences worse that nihilism itself, such as abjection, fascism and death.  Thus, despite common wisdom, I conclude that the defeat of nihilism (cinematic or otherwise) is not unequivocally good. It may be beneficial to remain within its grips rather than overcoming it once and for all.
Learn more about Cinematic Nihilism at the Edinburgh University Press website and John Marmysz's website.

--Marshal Zeringue