LEAVING LAS VEGAS (1995)
PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Meaning of life, Sartrean existentialism
CHARACTERS: Ben (Nicholas Cage), Sera (Elisabeth Shue), Yuri (Russian pimp)
OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR MIKE FIGGIS: Stormy Monday (1988), Internal Affairs (1990), Timecode (2000), Hotel (2003)
SYNOPSIS: Ben is an alcoholic from L.A., who was left by his wife and has lost his job. Unable to solve his personal problems, he decides to go to Las Vegas to drink himself to death. He meets high-priced prostitute Sera, and the two use each other for emotional support while Ben declines and eventually dies. While together, they come close to genuinely caring for each other. However, they continually push each other away since true commitment would mean stopping their self-destructive behavior. John O’Brien, the author of the novel upon which the movie was based, was himself a serious alcoholic, and he killed himself at age 33 a few weeks after learning that his story would be made into a movie. Nicholas Cage won the best actor Academy Award for his role in the film; the film also received other Academy Award nominations, including best actress, best director, and best screenplay.
1. Sartre argued that all relationships are either sadistic or masochistic: we either impose our will on other people, or allow others to impose our will on us. Are there examples of this in the movie?
2. According to Sartre, part of our sadistic behavior involves giving people “the look,” whereby our mere gaze dehumanizes our subject. Are there examples of this in the movie?
3. “Leaving Las Vegas” is an extreme example of people beyond hope of recovery clinging to each other out of desperation. Thus, it’s not surprising that the film offers a vivid illustration of Sartrean relationships. Aside from extreme examples like this, though, is the give-and-take required of all normal relationships as dehumanizing as Sartre suggests?
4. Another key feature of Sartre’s existentialism is that we are free and responsible for our choices, and we can’t place blame for our behavior on socially-determined factors. When we do place the blame on outside forces, Sartre argues, we are engaged in self-deception. Both characters in the film feel trapped into their respective lifestyles, and unable to act otherwise even to save their lives. Are Ben and Sera examples of Sartrean self-deception, or is there entrapment genuine and thus refute Sartre’s notion of human freedom?
5. Suppose that Ben and Sera are not trapped into their respective lives, but instead embrace their choices to die a drunk and to be a prostitute. Does this give their life meaning in the same way that, for example a believer finds meaning by following God’s plan, or Gandhi found meaning by helping others?