If there are people remaining who care about traditional philosophy beyond using it to impress some young co-ed down at the coffee house, or to totallyÂ trip out over bong hits in the dorm room, there are millions more who have happily adopted the basic notions of the existentialists, and simply gotten on with the business of living. And it’s theÂ existential questions that are at the core of filmmaker Roger Nygard’s newly released offering, The Nature of Existence.
In this documentary, Nygard, quite simply and too great effect, turns his camera on a cross-section of people and personalities, from prominent thinkers to the man on the street, and asks them about the nature of existence. “What is existence?” “What is our purpose?” “Why are here?”
(See the trailer below.)
The good news is, the film doesn’t get bogged down in the postmodern quagmire of the Kierkegaards and Nietzsches. But instead,Â examines, on an enjoyable lay level,Â an adequatelyÂ robust spectrum ofÂ elements that play into our ideas of existence.Â Things like nature, love, science, sex, religion, and the afterlife, provide trigger points for the interviewees to offer theirÂ thoughts onÂ the meaning of it all.
And whether by design or because life is inherently ridiculous, Nygard does well to capture very candid moments and replies from the religious and non-religious alike that are both tellingÂ and funny. In fact, in a film that mercifully does not try to make itself outÂ to beÂ some intellectual handbook, theseÂ raw moments are often the most profound, subtly revealingÂ true reactions to the human condition.
Regular visitorsÂ of scientific and skeptical circles will recognize many of the featured guests in the film, including Richard Dawkins and Michael Shermer. But Nygard does his best to include viewpoints from regular folks and religiousÂ figures from all the major religions* as well. He seems genuinely curious about the notions proffered by everyone, including a young girl, who turns out to be one of the most inspiring and endearing interviewees in the movie.
The film is not heavy-handed by any stretch of the imagination —Â asÂ the humorous encounters Nygard has with the local cuisines and other enjoyable sidebars would attest —Â and it is as fair and impartial as the medium allows. One never gets a true sense of Nygard’s own ideas on the subject he’s exploring, but it’s clear he doesn’tÂ approach the task in jest. And that dynamic precludes the extreme stuffiness that could easily accompany such a project.
If the film has a major shortcoming, it’s that most people who’ve dwelled even a short time on the idea of existence are not going to find anything earth-shattering in it; at least notÂ from a philosophical standpoint. But theÂ snippets of freely-offered psychology and the almost peripheral examination of the culturalÂ norms that inform our thinkingÂ easily make up for that. The faces and the locations are compelling. Plus, the pace of the film and the humor woven throughout add toÂ its attractiveness.
In short, the film is an enjoyable diversion from the summer blockbusters. In fact, one could do a lot worse for the “movie” portion of dinner and a movie on a Saturday night.
* Even though the film crew traveled to manyÂ different countriesÂ for the project, in the post-screening Q&A, producerÂ Laurel Barrett, informed us that, though they wanted to enter some Middle Eastern countries,Â they had a lot of difficulty with visas, etc., and were unable to.