Whose Life is it Anyway?
Watching this movie some 31 years after watching it the first time gave me another look on the subject of reason, life and our ability to make our own decisions about our lives. At the time the film was made, euthanasia was something no one would believe would be accepted in our society. And while this movie does not support the idea of physician assisted suicide, it does offer the viewer a perspective on making a decision about their own life that has transformed into a right to die issue over the past 35 years since it came out. I must mention that while watching the movie, the things that were shown were tremendously “dated” and unacceptable in our 2012 world! Watching doctors smoke cigarettes, for example, in the lunch room was a total shock to me, even though when I watched this in 1981, it did not faze me at all!
Existentially speaking, this movie asks us to examine a meaningless existence, one that has been irreparably altered by a terrible car accident. Prior to the accident, we learn that the protagonist is an accomplished sculpture whose life is filled with creativity and an intense love relationship. After the accident, we learn this man will never again be able to create anything, as his life as a quadriplegic makes him a complete puppet in the hands of well -meaning health care workers at a hospital. Nietzsche said that “Life has no meaning except that which stands under the domination of purpose” (Schlick 63). If one’s life is suddenly altered to just be alive and unable to therefore have a purpose, then should not a man be allowed to leave this life upon his reflection and choosing? According to character Ken Harrison, his life is tortuous because even though is mind is active and able to consider his life, he can no longer do that which brings him meaning, and in fact suffers from the ability to do any other thing, due to the limitations of his disability.
The idea that most of us lead lives of quiet desperation whereby we struggle with finding our purpose when we have all the physical capabilities intact, so how could one with so many limitations find solace in his or her own life within that paradigm? Schlick mentions that : “For mere living, pure existence as such is certainly valueless, it must also have content and in that can only the meaning of life reside” (Schlick 63). In the movie, our protagonist appears to be not only intelligent and witty he also comes across as upbeat and with a zest for life. One gets the impression in the beginning that he will eventually get physical therapy and then be back to his former self. It is only when he learns his fate that his desire to remain alive with only his mental faculties useful to him that he claims he is already dead and wishes to move along to escape his “life sentence”.
One of the components of existentialism is an emphasis on the uniqueness and isolation of the individual experience in a hostile or indifferent universe and Ken Harrison’s universe became a hostile environment the minute he lost his ability to manipulate his body. In his bold action to have a judge allow him to leave the hospital and stop his medical treatment, Ken’s world then became one in which he could control once again. Society viewed this as something odd and many fought him on his decision, not because they wished to be cruel, but because they knew their lives would be impacted by his decision to die.
According to IMDB, Richard Dreyfuss who played the part of Ken Harrison has no memory of making this film due to heavy drug use at the time of filming. This fact seems to oddly typify the behavior of an absurdist, both in and outside of the film. Absurdism, so named by Albert Camus in his work “The Myth of Sisyphus” is described by the Greek Mythic analogy to demonstrate the futility of existence. In the myth, Sisyphus is condemned for eternity to roll a rock up a hill, but when he reaches the summit, the rock will roll to the bottom again. Camus believes that this existence is pointless but that Sisyphus ultimately finds meaning and purpose in his task, simply by continually applying himself to it. I find it odd that both Dreyfuss through his altered state, and his character Harrison, appear to be living pointless existences inside and outside of the movie. Dreyfuss could not complete a day’s work in the movie without having to leave to rest, and yet most of the movie he is in a bed and cannot move.
Another scene involves the death of a man of 56 years old and who is examined as a cadaver by some medical students. One of the students yawns, probably due to his hectic schedule as an intern, but who is condemned by the lead doctor for not being bothered enough at the loss of life before him. Themes of existence appear to remind us of the importance of the Hippocratic oath which says “first do no harm”. Man’s thinking nature is played out in the philosophical ideal that believes in the theory that each part of the wheel is important to the whole and without even one lug nut present, a wheel does not work as effectively in moving the car (life) forward.
Schlick, Morris. “On the Meaning of Life” Klemke and Cahn A Reader. 2008 Oxford Press.