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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?


Leaving Las Vegas is a film made in 1995 by director Mike Figgis. I did not have time to read the Philosophical Films website’s review of this movie before the screening and I really do not watch any movies or television outside of stuff required for school (except for Family Guy and Futurama, the later of which I really think has a lot of philosophical content), so I was hoping that it was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas but I was pretty sure that it was not. Anyways, the point is that I was let down to begin with and the movie deals with the meaning of life and existentialism. Not to mention that the main characters are an alcoholic and prostitute, which is generally a good sign that the following movie material will result in my brain feeling like useless much (that’s why I avoid movies and TV). Therefore, it was mostly a losing battle for the movie to acquire any of my interest. However, I do believe that the path of both alcoholism and prostitution raise important questions that are not usually offered an opportunity to arise. Choosing alcoholism as a means to death is a very drawn-out process that requires a tremendous amount of willpower to follow through with. I think that most people that choose to end their life by drinking themselves to death are not able to follow through. The prostitute that engages in some sort of strange pseudo-love relationship without sexual intercourse until the death scene with the alcoholic presents a strange twist. An individual with values and morals that society labels ‘normal’ probably would have spent a substantial amount of time trying to talk the alcoholic out of drinking himself to death, however she claimed to understand him and only briefly tried to talk him out of suicide. As for Mary Litch’s distinction between suicide from passion and suicide from resignation, either I don’t fully understand the distinction or I think the distinction shouldn’t exist (or should be defined different, and this is really what I think the problem here is). -- Scuba-nator

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