19. An Alienating Society

My efforts to assay the film in a linear fashion are clearly falling apart, and that feels entirely appropriate. Yesterday I jumped into the Tulsey Town section and in the process skipped some important connective tissue between the “Influence” section and the dessert break. As the discussion of the Cassavettes film winds down, Jake makes one last stab at defending the film — he feels empathy for Mabel in the film because her struggle is emblematic of a society that lacks kindness for people alienated from it.

Jake struggles a bit to explain what he means by this. He starts by articulating the struggles of aging. You begin to lose your ability to see and hear and you become invisible to other people. Your lifelong struggles and mistakes have all piled up and you lose the ability to put them into any kind of soothing context. To survive this slow descent towards death, we grasp onto platitudes that temporarily soothe the mind, but provide no real wisdom.

What follows is a parade of platitudes, probably the sort of thing Jake’s dad says to himself habitually (he’s already voiced — partially — the silver lining one:)

It’s going to get better

It’s never too late

God has a plan for you

Age is just a number

It’s always darkest before dawn

Every cloud has a (fucking) silver lining

There’s someone for everyone

(Shut up Mabel! Sit down Mabel!)

God never gives us more than we can bear

(God’s a good egg that way)

As I’ve been doing the last two days on my other blog, I’m going to turn to Erich Fromm to contextualize this discussion. Fromm has a tendency to be sour and preachy, but my view is that when an Auschwitz survivor wants to preach to you about the human condition, especially one as articulate as Fromm, you’d be a fool to ignore him.

One must learn to be concentrated in everything one does, in listening to music, in reading a book, in talking to a person, in seeing a view. The activity at this very moment must be the only thing that matters, to which one is fully given. If one is concentrated, it matters little what one is doing; the important, as well as the unimportant things assume a new dimension of reality, because they have one’s full attention. To learn concentration requires avoiding, as far as possible, trivial conversation, that is, conversation which is not genuine. If two people talk about the growth of a tree they both know, or about the taste of the bread they have just eaten together, or about a common experience in their job, such conversation can be relevant, provided they experience what they are talking about, and do not deal with it in an abstractified way; on the other hand, a conversation can deal with matters of politics or religion and yet be trivial; this happens when the two people talk in clichés, when their hearts are not in what they are saying. I should add here that just as it is important to avoid trivial conversation, it is important to avoid bad company. By bad company I do not refer only to people who are vicious and destructive; one should avoid their company because their orbit is poisonous and depressing. I mean also the company of zombies, of people whose soul is dead, although their body is alive; of people whose thoughts and conversation are trivial; who chatter instead of talk, and who assert cliché opinions instead of thinking. However, it is not always possible to avoid the company of such people, nor even necessary. If one does not react in the expected way—that is, in clichés and trivialities—but directly and humanly, one will often find that such people change their behavior, often helped by the surprise effected by the shock of the unexpected.

There’s so much in this Fromm quote that is relevant here. First, I like to think that this activity of going through this movie piece by piece is a form of concentration, so I fully embrace Fromm’s point. Take in everything he says afterwards, it’s deeply meaningful, but jump ahead to that last point. Jake and the young woman had just been engaged in a non-conversation. She voiced Pauline Kael and basically shut down Jake’s thoughts about the movie. But in this tiny coda to the discussion, Jake succeeds in breaking through and finds one of the most important moments of kinship with the young woman in the film. It is the shock of the unexpected that Fromm describes and you wish for them that they could have found more, even if what they share is sadness and disappointment.

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