Saturday, September 09, 2006

The Existentialist

By 1963, Americans in the twentieth century had witnessed the War To End All Wars...and then the war that came after that. They had been through the Great Depression. They had come to know the details of Hitler's concentration camps and of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Freudian psychoanalytic theory was sufficiently widely known, at least in its broad details, that neither family relations nor sexual impulses could be thought of as "simple" or straightforward. The nasty tactics of cold war espionage had come to light -- both in the news and in fiction. Complex, tectonic changes in racial attitudes and relations were (often violently) underway. All in all, the early 1960's could hardly be regarded as an innocent time.

Since the Second World War, too, Existential philosophy, which had originated in the European continent, was lapping, here and there, at our shores. Existentialism brought with it the distinct possibility that God was dead. It brought "Nausea", "No Exit", "The Plague", Absurdity and, ultimately, Nothingness to trouble the complacency of any intellectually aware American.

Nevertheless, in the face of all that, we managed to retain, many of us, a remarkable sunniness of outlook, a whimsciality of vision which in retrospect baffles me.

By 1950, in an essay collected in Vaudeville For a Princess, Delmore Schwartz was already adjusting the European Existential slogan, "Nobody else can die for you" to what he considered to be the less morbid, more appealing, more American-friendly "Nobody else can take a bath for you."

By 1963 I was aware, as a young boy, of the short, non-commercial films made by film students and "experimental" film-makers. Many of them appeared on pre-PBS educational television as filler in between programs. A surprising number of them were quite cheery, despite the fact that they dealt with very serious (and sometimes grim) subjects. They seemed to have a tone of -- dare I say it? -- hopefulness at their core. I cannot imagine many of those films being made today.

I offer as evidence a video currently being hosted on YouTube, posted by "Tasutpen", entitled The Existentialist. It is a wonderful short film by Leon Prochnik, made over forty years ago which, it seems to me, epitomizes the sort of upbeat spirit which, I think, it is impossible to recapture these days.

A brief introduction by the filmmaker, along with a short interview and bio, can be found on this page for WNET's Reel NY

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