Tag Archives: social satire

Hanging out with Jim


Talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. We hung out last weekend, observing his birthday. Jim’s much older than me but some of his tastes coincide with mine. I asked him if he wanted to watch a movie and he said yes, choosing The Graduate, a film released in 1968, the year I was born. I said “cool” thinking this a good choice, being a fan of the story and of its famous soundtrack by Simon & Garfunkel. Jim and I had spoken of The Graduate many times in the past. In passing, he’d call it one of the all-time greats, sometimes placing it in his private list of the top ten films ever made. Sometimes that list gets expanded, as there seems to be nearly fifty films, by my estimation, that he says merit inclusion in that list.

Anyway, as we started viewing the Netflix download or whatever he made familiar comments about the film’s stars and its music. The song “Sounds of Silence” sets the tone for a melancholy experience, alongside the image of Dustin Hoffman playing Benjamin Braddock, looking stoned, bereft, or both coming off a plane and heading for home. He’s the graduate, we’re meant to infer–an unhappy achiever, it seems. Jim didn’t seem to notice or recall this. He just liked the song, and relayed a memory of being at a party wherein this song was played, alongside songs like “Cecilia”, another song from the movie, he said. I used to correct Jim on points like this, but it no longer seems important whether The Graduate and S & G’s final album, Bridge Over Troubled Water, are separate entities. When Anne Bancroft (playing the iconic Mrs. Robinson) appears, Jim further enthuses, remarking on her class and style. “She can come to any party of ours,” I quip, referencing one of his signature phrases.

During these early scenes, Jim continues to enjoy the comic or sexy elements of the film: he delights in another famous moment wherein a family friend takes Ben aside at his graduation party (hosted by his parents), and seems to advise him about future investment prospects. “Plastics”, the man says, prodding a finger into Ben’s chest. The future is in plastics. This classic moment of absurdism heralds the social satire in The Graduate, which Jim seems to enjoy but not notice simultaneously. As Mrs. Robinson starts putting her moves on young Ben, Jim laughs, finding the diffidence in Ben hilarious and the sexiness of the older woman classy beyond everything. As Jim appears to find each succeeding moment of Ben’s humiliation amusing, I wonder what kind of sadism or masochism is being played out here. Is Jim identifying via memory with Ben Braddock, and privately recalling a time in which he’d been seduced by a Mrs. Robinson-type. He won’t tell me these things, as he’s quite dismissive of his own romantic past, but he betrays this past anyway, it seems to me, by how he reacts to things.

Jim doesn’t seem to care one way or another about Benjamin Braddock through The Graduate’s first half. Meaning, he doesn’t seem to identify or sympathize with Ben’s wayward manner, or with his implied disillusionment with the American Dream. This film’s criticism of middle-to-upper class Western life, circa 1968, seems either lost on Jim or else it’s a point of indifference. As we enter the film’s middle third, he complains that they’re aren’t enough S & G songs in the film yet, as if he’s becoming bored with the story. His indifference towards Ben turns to dislike, however, in the sequence wherein Katherine Ross, who is playing Mrs. Robinson’s daughter, is introduced to the action. Pressured to ask her out by his parents (because the Robinsons are business partners), Ben begrudgingly agrees, but in doing so he violates a command by Mrs. Robinson, who had previously demanded that he NOT date her daughter. On the surface, it seems reasonable that she, as Ben’s lover, would object to his dating her daughter. But something deeper is happening–something that Ben infers, taking personally her prohibitive demand. “I’m not good enough for her?” he complains.

Now the story is complex, has social and psychological layers that are intertwined, and Jim doesn’t like it. “I don’t like this next part”, he says ominously. That was an understatement. As Ben acts arrogantly and aloof on the forbidden date, taking the Ross character to a strip club among other things, Jim begins a diatribe: “This isn’t right what he’s doing. She doesn’t deserve this. If I had my way, I’d cut his balls off for behaving like this!” At this point, Jim is hot-tempered, as if he has left the fiction and is speaking to something deep within himself. His focus remains external, however. As I carelessly ask, “Do you wonder why he’s doing this?”, he flatly replies, “No. It doesn’t matter”, as if offended by my question. I take a moment to recall that when Jim is annoyed by something, his curiosity abandons him. He’s not interested in Ben’s motivation, or the unconscious wishes or conflict that his behavior is acting out. In this way, Jim and I are quite different.

The remainder of the film passes with an air of disappointment. A few more S & G songs on the soundtrack lighten the tone somewhat, reminding Jim of the groovy vibe he’d once thought this film represented. Otherwise, watching The Graduate has been a disillusionment for him. His past, 1968, or that entire era, perhaps, was not what he thought it was, it seems. It isn’t just a party, this film seems to be saying, of the era in which it was made. I don’t bother inviting this discussion with Jim. Gingerly, I venture that the film is not what he remembers, and he sort of agrees. He didn’t get that it was a satire, he comments. In saying this, he doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand. He means that he chose not to notice that aspect of the film, and he has no problem with that, he is further saying. I hold my tongue on a riposte: that’s like watching Laurel & Hardy not getting that it’s a comedy, I want to say.

I don’t say that. Like I said, talking to Jim is not easy sometimes. So sometimes we just hang out.



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On to the next thing

As I move from one writing project to the next–roughly one book per year–it’s hard to maintain the pretense that I’m committed to any project for any length of time. Months after they’re done, I find it’s hard to keep the stories alive in my mind, there to be nurtured, developed until growing legs and walking on their own. It’s as if they were like children birthed and then given away, never to be seen again. There: how’s that for belaboring a maternity metaphor (and using the word ‘labor’ to boot), and then spicing it up with a hint of surrogacy.

For my next novel, I’ve decided to do things differently. This time I’ll get a head start upon my own jadedness and write blog essays well ahead of publication. With Crystal From The Hills and The Situation, one story stretched over five years (of my time, that is), commentary began upon the eve of release, which in retrospect seems neither here nor there, as crickets were the sounds that greeted those books’ arrivals. Meanwhile, I’m currently taking Working Through Rehab on a mini tour of book readings, following an unexpected positive review in The Therapist magazine. For Blocked (the working title of my next piece), I don’t necessarily expect a better reception, by which I simply mean more reactions. Actually, I might be content to fly completely under the radar.

Or the search engine analysis. That’s a fragment from one the book’s opening gags: a allusion to metaphors changing alongside technology. Do you like it? I hope so (sort of), as clever plays upon words are part of the new book’s intended appeal–a function of my seeking a voice that would convey attitude but do so with mischief. That’s my way of saying that Blocked will require a sense of humor, because that’s what its characters use to get by in life. It’s kind of a Breaking Bad sort of thing. I notice that dark humor is well rewarded these days, by an audience and/or readership with whom I feel increasingly out of touch, though I can take a hint as to what it wants. How do I know I’m out of touch? I don’t. I just sit in an office day after day listening to people, so how should I know what’s happening in the world.

So why should I try, or dare, to write a social satire? Oh God, it’s not a social commentary book, is it? That’s not what I think you’re thinking. However, it is what certain friends and colleagues–people who don’t read this blog–may think. Or, they may like the idea of a book of commentary, but would gently suggest I dispense with fiction, and include tables and graphs, plus a fuller reconnaissance as to what readers want to know. I could do that and within a year produce a volume entitled Finding Love Through Secure Attachment, or something, starring an exposition of mirror neurons and a glib pronouncement we can re-wire ourselves with healthy experiences, which I find unconvincing actually. Anyway, such a book would be not just positive, as people like to say, but also promissory, and instructive.

Perhaps I will be content to entertain, and possibly shock. Oh, how I’d love to shock, though I don’t think I will. It’s too hard when you don’t know enough. Still, my story features some chestnut themes of mine, stuff that will resonate with some readers, bore others: the oppressive nature of systems; the banality of modern communication; the obscuring truth by apathy and social momentum. Added to those are headline issues, mostly to do with sex, which my writing has only flirted with so far (there’s another play). Significant things are happening in the world to do with sex, so it’s about time I added my two cents, blending in oblique fashion the contending views of people like Cordelia Fine and Warren Farrell. This pretense reminds me of something once  written of Jean Luc Godard’s Weekend–that it dramatized with surrealistic glory the contrasting worldviews of Mao Tse Tung and Lyndon Johnson. Excellent. That’s something to emulate, though it would be unlikely for me, because the days of capturing interest with allegorical traffic jams are behind us.

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