I was listening to the radio awhile ago.
That admission immediately tells how old I am.
I know that these days when someone says that they were “listening to the radio” that they were probably listening to music on the internet. It’s kind of like how some people say that they listen to “albums”.
I still say album.
I still listen to cassettes.
And I was listening to an actual radio.
The old hi-fi.
I know that the current technology is supposed to be all that, but there’s at least one good thing about being an old fuddy duddy still hooked on listening to 20th century technology. Namely, listening to a radio allows one to channel surf.
And while channel surfing, one occasionally tunes into something interesting.
And by “interesting” I mean something that allows a person to write about philosophical stuff.
That’s a Liberal radio station.
Wait. I think I’m supposed to say it’s Progressive.
Anyway, I don’t remember what exactly led to what, but I remember one of the hosts of the show said something about existentialist cinema. He made a joke about the movies The Seventh Seal and House Party. His joke was that one of the films is deep and packed with existential significance. The other (obviously) is not.
I’ll let you guess which one is which.
Figure it out yet?
For the host of the show, even slightly suggesting that a movie like House Party can in any way be as existential as a Bergman film is as laughable as the punch line of a joke. At first glance, the host is right. House Party is a thematically shallow movie.* Based on the film’s ostensible meaning, it would be absurd to suggest that the movie is anything more than an urban teenage comedy about a couple of buddies who throw the ultimate house party. But here’s a secret: movies, like books, TV shows, and songs, often have more than one meaning. There’s what a movie is supposed to be about – but then there’s what a movie is really about.
Want to take a guess at what House Party is really about?
That’s right. You guessed it.
At first glance (or as the philosophers say, prime facie), Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal is just an old, overly-long movie about a knight who does some stuff, plays chess with death (who bears more than a passing resemblance to Observer from Mystery Science Theater 3000), rides across the Swedish (are they in Sweden?) countryside, and chats it up with some weird lady who is condemned to be burned at the stake.
If you watch the film on a purely surface level you wouldn’t get much out of it.
Other than annoyance with another foreign black and white movie with subtitles.
And the Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey reference.
And that that’s the old dude from The Exorcist.
Now THAT’S a good movie.
If you watch The Seventh Seal without really paying attention to the movie, you would miss the film’s philosophical significance.
Philosophical themes/significance in The Seventh Seal include (but not limited to):
- Reason for man’s suffering.
- God’s existence.
- Struggle with religious faith.
- Identity (as relates to our place in the world).
- The nature of being (including our place in the world).
There’s another movie that covers some of those philosophical themes, too.
1… 2… 3… Say it all together…
That movie is House Party.
On the surface, House Party (written and directed by the Hudlin Brothers) isn’t what anyone would call a “deep” movie. The movie’s seemingly simplistic plot goes a little like this: we follow a night in the (mis)adventures of a pair of inner-city high school chums (played by early ‘90s rap duo Kid N’ Play) and their chronic halitosis-besieged buddy (played by Martin Lawrence) as they evade cops, bullies, and Kid’s belt-wielding father (played by the late Robin Harris) to attend the ultimate house party.
Not to get off track, but is it just me or did the guys in Full Force look like they were about 40 years old?
Don’t get me wrong. I could plausibly suspend my disbelief watching Full Force as high school students in House Party. At least they weren’t as unconvincing as Vic Morrow as a delinquent “teen” in The Blackboard Jungle. Or the obviously-past-thirty-year old Stockard Channing as high school student Betty Rizzo in Grease.
And while we’re on the Grease tip, throw in Lorna Luft, Christopher MacDonald, and Adrian Zmed in Grease 2.
When House Party was released in 1990, moviegoers and critics immediately spotted the movie’s themes of race, class, gender relations (in particular, in the African-American community), and how the film bucked against the typical depiction of hypersexuality among teenaged characters in most teen-oriented comedies.
That already kind of proves that there’s more going on in this movie than meets the eye.
Now, we can spend our time, like the movie critics did back in ’90, discussing the social and cultural relevance/significance of House Party. And certainly there is plenty there to discuss, even after more than 20 years since the movie’s release.
Or, we can look even deeper and discuss the movie philosophically.
Let’s do it then, shall we?
In the movie House Party, Kid, played by Christopher “Kid” Reid, is a somewhat nerdy high school student, plagued by bullying classmates and stifled by an over-protective father. Kid is a character at a crossroads. He’s a character on the verge of manhood struggling to find his own identity.
Kid is being pressured by many influences: he wants to be a dutiful son to his widowed father, yet he feels the pressure as a young male at the edge of adulthood, to conform to the expectations of his peers – in particular, the pressure exerted by his best friend, Play (played by Christopher Martin) who urges Kid to attend a house party in hopes of “hooking up” with the object of Kid’s affection, a fellow student named Sydney, portrayed by Tisha Campbell.
Kid’s attempt to stand up like a man ends in a brutal lunchtime beating. His attempt at independence lands him in trouble with the police. His attempt at being a teenage Lothario ends in humiliation.
But despite the competing influences and occasional humiliation, Kid wants to determine his own life path.
Determining the path that one’s own life takes is the principle at the heart of existentialism.
Existentialism is the:
school of philosophical thought associated with Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, de Beauvoir, and Nietzsche. Existentialism emphasizes the importance of free will, personal responsibility, and how our experiences and choices forms what we become – what we make of ourselves.
Of course, bearing all the responsibility of who we become presents us (or any movie character) with a dilemma. To wit: how do we decide what we become? How do we determine what makes our lives meaningful? The French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) stated that the main message of existentialism is
… to make every man aware of what he is and to make the full responsibility of his existence rest on him.
For those of you who are well-versed in Sartre quotes, you’ll know that Jean-Paul Sartre famously said “existence precedes essence”.
According to Sartre, we are born without an innate nature. No one is a “natural born” sinner or saint. Or even naturally masculine or feminine. What we are and who we become (our “essence”) is a construct; it is not determined by a priori factors (God, society, biology, destiny, family, etc.) but by our own choices. We must make our own essence. In the absence of external influences, Sartre says, we are nothing more than the products of our own creation.
That means we are free to be whatever or whoever we want to be.
This can be a problem.
This is the problem:
Sartre’s “existence precedes essence” says we are free to create our own identity. We are not, as Freud declares, bound by our biology. Sounds good so far. After all, who doesn’t like freedom? But, the freedom to create one’s own essence means that we and we alone, bear all of the responsibility of figuring out who we are and making our lives meaningful.
According to Sartre, freedom is a double-edged sword: we are free be whoever we want to become, but we are also free to be whoever we want to become. When we have absolute responsibility for determining who we are, the freedom to choose is as liberating as it is problematic and confusing. Which path of life should we take? How do we figure out which path will make our lives most meaningful? And we can’t blame our bad choices on God or our biology. We almost we have too much freedom to choose. We have no other choice but to be free. This is why Sartre says “man is condemned to be free”. Sartre writes:
… man is condemned to be free. Condemned, because he did not create himself, yet, in other respects is free; because, once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.
Sartre also says:
He was free, free in every way, free to behave like a fool or a machine, free to accept, free to refuse, free to equivocate; to marry, to give up the game, to drag this death weight about him for years to come. He could do what he liked, no on had the right to advise him, there would be for him no Good or Evil unless he brought them into being.
To make matters worse, Sartre says man cannot fully exist if he fails to create his own essence.
I figure at this point, you’re probably thinking that I’ve completely forgotten that this blog post is supposed to have something to do with the movie House Party. You’re probably wondering what the H-E-double hockey sticks does existentialist French philosophy have to do with early ‘90s urban comedy.
To the point: how exactly is House Party a modern existentialist masterpiece?
This is how:
At the outset of the film, Kid is subject to the kind of external forces that Sartre describes: his father, his friends, the pressure to act like a typical urban male. Kid seems to want to give into the pressure – it would be easier to simply follow along and be exactly what his family, friends, and society expects him to be. But he can’t. Kid must determine his own life path.
Kid chooses to live on his own terms in defiance of others’ expectations. Although his father warns against attending the house party, Kid chooses to go to the party despite his father’s threats. During a moment of intimacy with Sydney, Kid chooses not to have sex with Sydney, favoring instead to first develop a friendship with her. Kid is not the culturally stereotypical thug the police believe that he is. The path isn’t his father’s or his friends, but his own. And as a consequence, Kid finds his authentic self – who he truly is – not the person his friends, his father, or school lunchroom bullies want him to be. Kid does what he wants to do what he wants to do, and when he does he realizes the potential consequences.
Thus, House Party is really about how to lead an existentially authentic life.
So, when Kid’s father beats his ass with a belt for defying his orders, the punishment is all Kid’s fault.
We assume that he assumes full responsibility.
Ok. I know. You’re not entirely convinced of what I’m telling you. I understand. House Party is not the greatest movie. It’s not even a great movie. But just think about what I’ve told you. Watch the movie again. You might want to have some Sartre handy. It might not have the pedigree of a Bergman film, but trust me, House Party is a film about something.
However, I can’t say the same about Class Act.
I have no idea why or what that flick is about.
*NOTE: you many have noticed, when referring to The Seventh Seal and House Party, that I refer to The Seventh Seal as a “film” and to House Party as a “movie”. This choice of words is completely intentional. There are those who use the word “film” when making reference to “quality” cinema – i.e., cinema with social, cultural, and/or philosophical significance. “Movies”, on the other hand, may or may not include significant philosophical themes. In addition, movies, unlike films, are often intended primarily for entertainment purposes.
I might add that referring to a motion picture as a “flick” denotes that the movie has very little to no (obvious) philosophical value and is made strictly for entertainment purposes (e.g. exploitation flicks, drive-in flicks, and pornography).
1) Jean-Paul Sartre. “Existentialism”. 1980. The Norton Reader. 5th Edition (shorter). Eds. Arthur M. Eastman, Caesar R. Blake, Hubert M. English, Jr., Joan E. Hartman, Alan B. Howes, Robert T. Lenaghan, Leo F. McNamara, James Rossier. NY: W.W. Norton & Company. pp. 659, 662