I may have mentioned that one of the perks of Carolina Meadows is Saturday night screenings of old and not so old movies, complete with free popcorn. A week and a half ago, Susie and I took in Stranger Than Fiction, a 2001 fantasy/comedy featuring Will Ferrell, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Dustin Hoffman, Queen Latifah, and Emma Thompson, a pretty classy cast. It is a charming little film that raises some really profound philosophical questions [quite possibly unintentionally, although that may be underestimating the author of the screenplay, Zach Helm.] While I await the opening of the stock market to see how big the drop will be, I thought I would talk for a bit about it. It would make a great topic in a Philosophy seminar.
Will Farrell plays a lonely, anal obsessive IRS auditor who one day starts hearing a voice in his head – not voices, but a single voice, that of a woman. She is not talking to him but rather about him, in the manner of the narrator of a novel. Eventually Farrell finds his way to Dustin Hoffman, a professor of literature, who after asking a series of questions [to determine whether Farrell is a character in a comedy or a tragedy, for example], determines that he is a character in a novel being written by a quite successful but writer’s block stuck novelist, Emma Thompson, who has not published anything in ten years. [Thompson’s publisher has sent along a professional writer’s block baby sitter, Queen Latifeh, who assures Thompson that every one of her clients has met the publisher’s deadline.] Thompson, who writes rather dark novels, is stuck trying to figure out how to kill off her main character, Farrell, in an artistically interesting manner. Farrell seeks out Thompson, and gets a copy of the unfinished novel, which he takes to Hoffman. Hoffman declares it a masterpiece that can only be successfully completed with the death of the main character. He advises Farrell to submit quietly to his own death for the sake of art, pointing out that we all die anyway sooner or later.
There it is. The movie ends with an entirely gratuitous and completely incompatible happy ending that unites an alive Farrell with Maggie Gyllenhaal, whose sole function is to provide an irrelevant feel good love interest.
Where to start? I could build an entire Introduction to Philosophy out of this movie, with sections on Epistemology, Metaphysics, Ethics, the Philosophy of Language, Social Philosophy, and of course Aesthetics.
Let me begin with the Philosophy of Religion. As I have several times written [including in my essay “Narrative Time,”] the core of Christian theology is the claim that the universe is, as it were, a story told by God, with a beginning [The Creation], chapters [Eden, the Fall, the Old Testament, the Incarnation and Resurrection, the New Testament], and a conclusion [the Second Coming and the Last Trump.] True believers believe that they are characters in this story, and that on occasion, if they are blessed, the Author and Narrator speaks to them, either directly, through a personal revelation, or indirectly through His chosen church. Our divine calling is to play well the role that God has written for us, even if that role calls for our death. So the movie could be viewed as a meditation on the Christian concept of a Calling.
Or Aesthetics: many novelists say that characters come to them and demand that their stories be told. What can we say of characters who say that a novelist comes to them and demands that they submit to the narrative strictures of the plot? Could characters form a united front against the author and demand a different ending for the novel? What if Natasha does not, after all, want to marry Pierre? Or if Elizabeth Bennett, against all authorial pressure, falls in love with Mr. Collins? What if Mitya, Ivan, and Alyosha decide to go into business with old man Karamazov?
Metaphysics: What is the ontological status of a character in a novel? Or of an entire fictional world? Can Phileas Fogg meet Sherlock Holmes? How? Why not? What is the relative time location of the worlds of Gandalf, Ethan Frome, and Obi Wan Kenobe? Should a degree from Hogwarts carry any weight in a Harvard application?
Well, the market is open, so I shall stop. Not bad for an evening with popcorn.