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For my next blog entry, I thought I would list and discuss those writers and artists that have influenced my writing. The influences have changed over the years. Some of the authors that influenced my writing when I was younger, in high school and college, say, have been replaced as I grew older and as I encountered other artists who more reflected how my view of the world had changed over the years.
I still tend to explore the same themes and issues as I did when I was just starting out. I was always asking the same questions: What is the point to everything? Is there a point? Why are we here? Why do we exist? Is there a God? How we do live life in a world that is both inherently logical and makes sense as well as inherently illogical and absurd and chaotic?
I don’t have answers to these questions. Which is why the artists I am going to list are the ones that still influence me. They don’t have the answers either.
It should be noted that I am not an expert on any of these artists and I can’t guarantee total accuracy in my interpretation. But this is how I encountered them and how they influenced me.
I suppose, since I am a screenwriter, the place to begin is with film.
Alfred Hitchcock is my favorite filmmaker and, in many ways, perhaps the most influential. In a number, if not all, of his films, he tends to open on a world that makes sense and is logical. Then something illogical happens (a woman is murdered in a man’s apartment and he’s accused of the murder; a woman swears that the woman with whom she boarded the train is not the woman on board now; a man has been mistaken for a man with the same name and people are out to kill him) and the character is sent into a world that no longer makes sense. They have now become a pawn in an existential conflict that they don’t really understand. I think the main area where I depart from Hitchcock is that, in his films, the world always returns to normal and everything is revealed to have made sense. He begins in an existential manner, but doesn’t end that way.
Ingmar Berman is, for me, perhaps the greatest writer/director in film history. His films, especially beginning with The Seventh Seal and then through his trilogy questioning the existence of God (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light and The Silence) traced someone evolving from a belief in a creator to a universe where, if there is a God, He is silent. His characters struggle with the meaning of life and what part they have to play in it.
Michelangelo Antonioni is the filmmaker that in many ways most defines existentialism in cinema. In his films, especially early ones like L’avventura and Blow Up, he introduces a plot turn that sends his characters on a quest for an answer. But ultimately there is no answer. In L’avventura, a group of people go to an island for an excursion; a man’s fiancé disappears overnight, but though they search, they never find out what happened and so their life eventually goes back to normal. In Blow Up, a photographer takes a picture that may contain more than he expected; has he captured a murder? Again, he never finds out. Antonioni, for me, is the one filmmaker who can make angst and ennui fascinating.
Woody Allen might be described as the common man’s existentialist. In his films, both comedies, including the early funny ones, and dramas, as well as all things in between, he explores the same themes as Bergman, Antonioni and many others, but in an often seriously satirical manner.
Film noir and sci fi from the 40s and 50s also have heavily influenced me. Film Noir because, like Hitchcock, the story begins with a normal, everyday world for the hero or heroine. But soon they get caught up in a world that no longer makes sense and one they often have little control over. For sci-fi, it tends to be movies like Invasion of the Body Snatchers and I Married a Monster from Outer Space where, for the central character, again the world seems normal, but slowly they come to suspect that something is happening that makes no sense, something so ridiculous that no one will believe them until too late.
Samuel Beckett is probably the writer of fiction that has become the most influential on my work, especially his masterpiece, and perhaps the greatest play of the 20th Century, Waiting for Godot, in which two men live in a vague location with a lone tree the only scenery. They are waiting for Godot, again a vague figure, to arrive. Why they are waiting and what they hope to get from Godot is also vague and unclear. But their lives are only interrupted by a young boy who keeps promising that Godot will come tomorrow, as well as a two strangers, a master and servant, the servant able to spout off philosophical ideas on demand—but in such a way that they are almost gibberish. Absurd and ridiculous, yet somehow still more truthful than most realistic plays. His work tends to explore, or dramatize, the absurdity of life.
Albert Camus, a French/Algerian writer, who joined the Resistance during WWII, is also a writer who explored existential and absurdist themes of man’s lack of meaning and the inevitability of death. The novel that most influenced me is The Plague, about a town that is put in quarantine, no one allowed in or out, when the plague arrives. The novel explores the issues as to why this person gets sick and others do not and where is God in all of it? (Spoiler alert-nowhere.) In the end, the only meaning to the plague is that it will return.
Franz Kafka was one of the earliest authors on the themes of absurdism and existentialism. His characters are often put in irrational situations and have little way out. In The Metamorphosis, a man, for no explanation, wakes up to find he has turned into a giant cockroach. In The Castle, a man arrives in a small town because he was hired for work by the man who lives in the title location, but cannot reach his potential employer. In his most famous work, The Trial, a man is arrested for some crime, but the exact nature of the crime is never revealed to him.
Charles Dickens is perhaps my favorite novelist of all time. But I often say that he can be more Kafkaesque than Kafka. His books are often about unforgiving and nightmarish institutions, often filled with absurdism. In Bleak House, a fight over an inheritance has been going on for years; but in English law, once the lawsuit is set in motion, no one can withdraw from it and it has to play out-there is no settling out of court. In Little Dorritt, the father of the title character is incarcerated in debtor’s prison; the dilemma is that you can’t leave prison until you pay off your debt, but since you are in prison, you can’t make any money to pay it off.
Hans Küng is a Catholic theologian often in trouble with the Catholic church, especially because he questions the infallibility of the Pope as well as other beliefs, such that priests should not marry. The two books that impressed me the most were On Being a Christian and Does God Exist? An Answer For Today. They are an exploration of whether God exists and does He have meaning for contemporary man, tracing human thought and philosophy over the millennia. His approach is a highly rational one—trying to use reason to justify a belief in a creator.
Søren Kierkegaard was a theologian and philosopher who is considered the first existentialist. The aspects of his thought that influenced me included the impossibility of a rational belief in God and the necessity for a leap of faith. That meaning in life can only be found in such a leap.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian and pastor who was connected to the plot to kill Hitler and was a go between for the allies and Germans not supporting the Fuhrer. He broke off from the Lutheran church because it would not denounce those who followed Nazism. He believed that God exists, but we have to act as if He doesn’t. He was hung in Flossenburg concentration camp two weeks before the Allies liberated the camp.
As I said, I am no expert on these artists and I probably haven’t read them in as much depth as I would like to or should. But over these years, these are the artists that have helped make me what I am as a writer.