Synecdoche, New York (2008)
Charlie Kaufman does existential dread better than anyone else. In his films, the writer/director has been able to capture what it means to be human time and time again. In his body of work, Kaufman explores the breadth of universal human emotions, from love to loneliness to horror.
It is not an outlier that Synecdoche, New York exists. Philip Seymour Hoffman portrays a neurotic playwright who suffers a series of mysterious health problems, but the movie reflects more than just the process of directing a play. The themes of growing old, death and the existential dread that comes with them become more prominent as the film progresses. Meanwhile, the playwright’s situation gets worse as well. He thinks he is dying. Despite her youth, she grows old and dies in a matter of minutes. The playwright struggles to finish his final play as the project spirals out of control. The protagonist’s anxiety and dread leave the audience wondering, “Does life have meaning when death is always just around the corner?”
Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)
A fading actress prepares for her next role as the more unlikable younger counterpart of the one that made her famous decades ago in Sils Maria. An American assistant and the woman have visited an isolated Swiss retreat as preparation for the role. The actress must face the reality of aging as she learns her lines and attempts to embody the role.
Aside from the fact that she must portray the older character, she must also portray the less-likable character. Thus, she is faced with the prejudice both her industry and the world at large hold against older women. Although she still sees herself as belonging in the younger, lighter, nicer role, her physicality prevents her from being seen as one. The location of the retreat places her in a bind by this reality. Her feelings are greatly affected.
In Clouds of Sils Maria, it truly excels at capturing the existential dread that comes with aging as a woman, and this is especially true for women living in Hollywood. In addition to accepting that she is simply aging, the actress must also accept that she is aging out of her industry. A person’s commercial value is directly tied to their aging process, which reaches an even greater level of despair.
Wild Strawberries (1957)
Wild Strawberries, written and directed by the legendary Swedish director Ingmar Bergman, follows an aging physician as he grapples with his old age and impending death. As the elderly man deals with nightmares and daydreams related to his existential dread surrounding aging, he meets a series of hitchhikers who force him to reflect on his past and accept his future. Although Wild Strawberries is concluded with the protagonist’s eventual recognition of and acceptance of his mortality, the process of getting there is an astute reflection on the existential dread that follows many people into old age.
Through films like The Seventh Seal and Persona Bergman has proven himself to be a director deeply talented in evoking universal human emotions throughout the characters, plots, and direction of his films. Wild Strawberries are certainly no outlier. The film’s creative treatment illustrates a range of emotions that define the human condition: love, guilt, sorrow, joy. In the context of this Wild Strawberries, a new depth is added to each of these emotions, as they are all felt under the umbrella of a state of existential crisis. Love and joy washed in existential dread is more than just love and joy. Fear and sorrow felt with existential dread are not simply fear and sorrow. This film finds its strength in the depth and complexity it finds in emotion.
8 ½ (1963)
A famous Italian filmmaker, Federico Fellini, produced the surrealist film 8 12. While working on his new film, a successful film director suffers from a creative block. While the man struggles to make progress on his movie, the film dances between reality and fantasy. The film’s fantasy sequences provide audiences with a glimpse into the inner workings of the protagonist through a state of surreal fantasy. The director is transported back to his youth during one point in the film; he visits his grandmother’s villa, dances on the beach, and reminisces about being punished as a Catholic schoolboy. Throughout the film, the man envisions other fantasies, revealing his great regrets and insecurities.
The film explores many themes beyond simply aging. Despite this, the fear of failing to make a significant contribution to the world remains a major theme throughout the film.
American Beauty (1999)
The movie begins with a montage showing Lester Burnham’s discontent with his picture-perfect suburban life. Currently, he is forty-two years of age and he believes that he will die within the next year. Then he went on to describe his depressing suburban morning routine. Watchers are immediately pulled into Lester’s world filled with dread and existential anxiety. The knowledge that American Beauty’s protagonist will die at the end forces viewers to consider that, in their own narratives, they will also die. How better to instill a sense of existential dread in an audience?
The film explores the type of existential anguish most commonly highlighted in media: the midlife crisis. Some people experience a painful awareness of their own mortality upon realizing they are halfway through their lives. Discontent with one’s life is often a result of an examination and realization. Existential crisis often leads a person to make rash and extreme changes in their lives. In Lester’s case, this translates into a relationship with a teenager, a job at a fast-food restaurant, a lot of time spent smoking weed, and an obsession with lifting weights. Watching American Beauty is like watching a midlife crisis play out on screen, complete with existential dread.