6. Altered States (1980)
Care and Concern for Fellow Human Beings Is What Makes Life Meaningful
Edward Jessup, assuming that the meaning of life is received from some higher source, ends up becoming a non-believer when his father dies in agony. He thinks, being a good man, his father did not deserve to die like that. Therefore, such an end contradicts the existence of a higher power or universal justice. As a result he becomes a doctor instead of a priest. Being an accomplished scientist, he decides to find the source of the meaning once he had when he was a little kid.
During dinner after having a long conversation with his friends, he says: “Ever since we dispensed with God we’ve got nothing but ourselves to explain this meaningless horror of life. Well, I think that the true Self… that original Self, that first Self, is a real, quantifiable thing… tangible and incarnate… and I’m going to find the fucker.”
Later, after countless experiments with mushrooms (Banisteriopsis caapi), he sits in the dark in an isolation chamber. His back’s turned to everyday reality, he talks to the other people in the room. He says he is seeing beautiful things as if that’s a glimpse of the absolute truth he was seeking. We hear the excitement in his voice as if what he is seeing will make him whole once again. Little by little we see a man’s descent into darkness by his own free will.
In a way, Russell points out that when a man trying to solve a puzzle forgets that he is nothing but a piece of that puzzle, he can never solve it and he will eventually lose his way. Similarly, as Gadamer points out, to be able to grasp the essence of something, one must cease to be a spectator and become a player.
7. Crimes of Passion (1984)
Is That All There Is To A Fire?
How can one turn a deeply philosophical movie into a psychosexual thriller? Watch the movie and you’ll see how. To be able to function ‘normally’ in today’s world Joanna Crane pursues two separate lives. One is the respectable life of a professional and the other is the life of a prostitute. This separation seems to help her keep the first life intact and by the help of the second, make it bearable.
When the subject of the story isn’t that exaggerated, we see that lives of most people are double lives, that we are all confused and looking for our way. One philosopher said that philosophy was nothing but homesickness, a desperate need to get back home. In this movie Russell shows us a couple of dead ends and then, a possible way to get back home. The required ability to do so lies in the hands of those who can merge these alternate realities into one and become whole again.
As he has explored the question over and over in his career, Russell proposes that enlightenment, therefore the good life is only possible with the care and concern for other people. In other words, on our own we cannot do anything about the excruciating pain life imposes on us. All we have is each other.
8. Gothic (1986)
You Cannot Run Away From Your Own Fears.
If you are into astrophysics and following the debates about religion and science, you know that one of the critical questions being raised is whether something can come from nothing. In this movie, we see that something can come from nothing, if you believe it would strongly. Not only that, when something comes out, it can also reduce your reality to its. You may be lost in the labyrinths of your own making forever.
In other words, what we consider to be real is as much as a thought as it is a physical manifestation. Our realities are formed by what we think about our world and what it really is. When one’s fears and desires are mixed with his/her presuppositions, depending on the current circumstances any strange occurrence may happen.
If that’s not confusing enough, multiply this phenomenon with the number of people interacting with it each other at the time and then, you’ll barely have a grasp of the chaos we call life.
9. Salome’s Last Dance (1988)
One Man’s Meat Is another Man’s Poison.
My favorite Bible quotation have always been “don’t judge lest ye be judged yourselves.” In this movie we see how easy it is to be self-delusional or self-righteous. Also, Russell points out that while the alternate realities of people reside side by side, they are actually light years away. What seems like a community and a shared sense of reality is actually a variety of complementing or contradicting worlds housing several different kinds of problems that may make sense on completely different levels.
Apart from being right or wrong, when John the Baptist tries to tell something to Salome, all she is interested in is flesh: “Your body is as white as the lilies of a field never mown.” An insight Russell explicitly expressed in Crimes of Passion as well, he points out that when one is hollow and not having a meaningful life, all he/she can do is to be a plaything actively or passively.
Either he/she will be an entity others can act upon or he/she will act on others. Being is reduced to efficient interactions among people. Care and concern for one another is no longer possible.
Another interesting theme in the movie is the inability of the people to see what they really are. To protect themselves from the truth, knowingly or otherwise, some ‘sins’ are ignored, while others are frowned upon and in the end, one may lose his/her head because of a few special ones.
Russell exposes those who think they are better than others by showing that everybody’s hands are dirty. Then again, if you stop looking for the absolute truth or the most righteous act, you may eventually become a nice guy or gal.
10. Whore (1991)
When Predator Becomes Prey.
When Liz is assaulted sexually, she tries to own that experience to make it bearable and carry on with her life. To be able to do that she becomes a prostitute. The money is good and she is resourceful. So, everything seems in order. She thinks she is in control. When it is revealed to her that she is nothing but a pawn in someone else’s game, she has a hard time gaining that sense of self-sufficiency again. To make the matters even worse, there are too many games played by too many people and she is always the pawn.
How can you break loose? What she has been doing up to this point was to understand the needs of consumers and maintain some degree of control when providing these services. As China Blue in Crimes of Passion once said: “I’m a hooker, you’re a trick. Why ruin a perfect relationship?” A relationship reduced to a shopping experience conducted by two people who don’t give a damn about each other.
Unlike the typical shopping experience where a service is exchanged for money, here a service is exchanged for another service. While what they seem to be doing may be called as “love making”, in reality it is an existential search where both parties are trying to understand what it is they are doing right now, apart from the numbed sensations.
Still, where everything seems futile, Liz is unexpectedly redeemed by someone who helps her out of his own accord. Since this lowlife street beggar wants nothing in return, we finally see what’s needed to break the chain.
Author Bio: Erol Bozkurt is a computer scientist who specializes in analysis, quality assurance and management. He is interested in movies with alternate meanings, because that’s what software developers do all the time, play with the meanings of things. Right now, he is living in Istanbul, Turkey and working as a consultant.