"It's funny how the colors of the real world only seem really real when you viddy them on the screen."

Friday, December 23, 2011

Trivia Trumps Truth

I re-watched Being John Malkovich recently and was struck by, or perhaps imagined, some concepts I hadn’t noticed on previous viewings. I'm thinking out loud and going all over the place here, but I might actually get somewhere along the way. Let's see! For those uninitiated, a portal has been found in Malkovich's head which enables people to see what he sees, feel what he feels, for fifteen minutes at a time. Craig and Maxine, a woman he lusts over who falls for his wife Lotte, decide to make a buck off access to the portal.

I caught the Heloise and Abelard connection at the first run through. The entire film hinges on difficult connections between people in love, requited or the unrequited variety – very bad for the skin. Passion can drive a guy to do things he might not do otherwise: like have sex with an underage student, the daughter of a powerful man who will have you castrated for the transgression, or perhaps he'll tie up his wife and leave her in a cage while he dons a disguise to boff her lover.

And Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard is thrown in there as JM studies some lines. It fits beautifully with the futility of the people finding meaning or hope in stuff. It’s just stuff and it all goes away. Nothing is permanent. You can’t save the cherry orchard no matter how you slice it. And poor Craig. The only way he can save Maxine's life is to give up the only means he has to attract her, and she still barely pays any attention to him. He sacrifices his money and career to save her, well he thinks he's saving her anyway, and she ditches him at the side of the highway. That's life.

But this time round I picked up on a few themes I’m seeing in various other places all of a sudden. The first: the affirmation of ordinary life. A man slips into JM’s body for fifteen minutes as he’s ordering bath towels, trying to finagle more washclothes for fewer bathmats, and the interior peeping tom calls the experience amazing! We're engrossed with the trivial details of lives, no longer looking deeper for anything more meaningful; sometimes bath towels are enough to hit the mark. And love - our experiences with family and friends are at the top of the hierarchy of the trivial. But as much as we find meaning in the mundane, is there a bigger meaning out there that we're neglecting? Are we missing the forest for the trees?

And the self-fulfillment of the characters is a force that works against their family life. The original couple can't be happy together and find personal fulfillment. It's either one or the other.

I recently re-read a bit of Charles Taylor: "Nature draws us because it is in some way attuned to our feelings, so that it can reflect and intensify those we already feel or else awaken those which are dormant. Nature is like a great keyboard on which our highest sentiments are played out. We turn to it, as we might turn to music, to evoke and strengthen the best in us."

And I remember thinking at the time that this provocation also might explain our love of pets. And I thought of this watching Cameron Diaz insist on sleeping with Elijah, the chimp, when he's feeling out-of-sorts. Even Elijah is navel-gazing in the film, spending time in intensive psychotherapy. We've shifted from a philosophical exploration of human nature to a psychological fixation with my nature - or my pet's nature even.

Which brings me round to The Zoo Story. I'm wavering between our love of animals bringing us to a different level of being, evoking and strengthening and all that jazz, and our adoration of the little things being a pathetic stepping stone towards a real relationship with people. You gotta connect with something. Having a loving spouse and children has come to be seen "as a crucial part of what makes life worthy and significant." Lotte has a menagerie, but just really wants a baby. Is the connection with animals or nature in and of itself necessary and significant, or merely a tool towards the family as meaning-conferring?

Arguments against subjective relativism have been popping up around me. In an article in the most recent issue of The CCPA Monitor, Ed Finn voices his concerns about the decline of collectivity in "Triumph of individualism a defeat for society as a whole." And there it was again in Mark Kingwell's The World We Want; he also wants us to work on a "project of universal justice." Okay - I know these aren't astounding ideas, but it's weird that it keeps coming to mind over and over this week. It's like an I Heart Huckabees coincidence or something. Kingwell and Finn see the need to dismantle special interest groups in order to focus on the community as a whole.

Kingwell throws in the caveat that he is a straight white male and all. But insists, "I still believe a language of individualism can be politically useful if, but only if, its limits are constantly acknowledged and any tendency to eliminate otherness or difference is ruthlessly resisted. What must equally be resisted, however, is the celebration of particularity at the expense of larger political goals, the sort of self-regard that closes off all rational challenges by pointing out that the challenger is not a member of the particular group in question."

Can we access any collective ideas when we're all immersed in trivial details of our ordinary lives? We've lost interest in the bigger stuff. Well, perhaps it's more likely that most of us never had any interest in the first place. That was the path of the elites, while the peasants worried about the mundane. But now the few interested in Truth are shut away in ivory towers or cheap basement apartments, and the people that make the headlines are those who know how to make a fashion statement or craft a sound-bite.

If we're all created equal, if we all have equal value, then nothing's special. But it feels arrogant to suggest a few people are actually right, and the rest are really wrong. Everyone's voice must be heard, must count as we develop policy.

And I thought of all that during the film, watching these people, so self-absorbed, and so miserable, suffering through their lives with each other. They desire, and often get what they desire, but it still leaves them mostly miserable. Craig warns his wife near the beginning to stop thinking that there's one thing that will make her happy. This time it's a sex-change operation that she's consulting an allergist about. But of course Craig doesn't heed his own advise and gets sucked into the delusion that Maxine is the one thing that can finally make him happy.

And yet the film is so enjoyable to watch that I can watch it over and over again. It's a something I can connect to. It awakens dormant feelings and ideas that swirl around begging to be organized - somehow.

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