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Everything that's wrong with the world in two examples


Forget it, Jim. It's Whatpassesfor- logicandreasonintheworld-town.

"Something is happening here but you don't know what it is, do you Mr. Jones?" -- Robert Zimmerman, 1965

I do not believe that the greatest evil is done by people who necessarily think of themselves as evil. Because evil doesn't often recognize itself. In "Chinatown," Noah Cross says: "Most people never have to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they're capable of anything." Implicit in this statement is his refusal to accept responsibility for what he has done. As he says, "I don't blame myself." There's great truth in Cross's words, and also in a corollary I'll propose, which goes like this: "Most people refuse to face the fact that, at the right time and the right place, they can rationalize anything." (See this post for more on that score.)

I think the most inherently "evil" person I've ever known, the one who did the most careless damage to people around him, was not a mere malevolent creep but someone who was pathologically clueless and could not conceive of anything or anyone beyond himself. He was a parasite, sucking the life blood out of those closest to him. His hosts -- er, "friends" -- eventually came to see that he considered them (if he considered them at all) insignificant -- unintended consequences of himself -- while people who knew him only casually (which was the best, and perhaps only, way to "know" him) thought he was just a really nice guy. He needed symbiotic relationships to feed his sense of self, and any harm to others as a result of his appetite was nothing more than acceptable collateral damage. If he was aware of it at all.

I see these patterns not only in everyday life, but in the behavior of governments, bureaucracies, businesses, public officials, and tyrants of all stripes. And I think it all comes down to that common quality of cluelessness -- either obliviousness to the consequences of one's words and actions or reckless disregard for them. Woody Allen (who, by the way, made a great movie about cluelessness, "Another Woman") divided the world into the "horrible and the miserable." For the sake of this essay, I would like to propose that we divide rampant worldwide insanity into Two Kinds of Cluelessness: 1) Literalism: Those who are certain they know something, but don't know that they don't understand it; and 2) Über-Solipsism Narcissism: Those who are certain they understand something, but but don't know -- and don't care -- that they don't, because everything is only about them anyway.

I will always remember reading "Catch-22" at the tender age of 15, because I was already aware of this kind of insanity in people around me (family, friends, schoolmates, teachers, President Nixon and Vice President Agnew, the Watergate crew, and even -- in my craziest moments -- myself), but I'd never seen anybody else recognize it -- and play with it -- so hilariously. It was a huge catharsis for me, an acknowledgment of my pent-up frustrations, and I laughed until I cried and cried until I started laughing again.

Let me give you a pair of examples from the "Cinema Interruptus" I did with "Chinatown" in April at the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder, CO. First, let me say it was a fantastic experience for me, and that the participants in the audience were inquisitive and incisive and generally brilliant, as always.

And then there were these other two...

EXAMPLE #1. Literalism: Those who are certain they know something, but don't know they don't understand it. There's this guy who always comes to the Interruptus, always sits in the same spot in the auditorium, and whose purpose for participating is to show off his book learnin'. The audience can't stand him, and they often tell him to shut up, but sometimes he does have interesting and enlightening bits of information to provide. He just doesn't seem to know the difference between the relevant ones and the irrelevant ones.

So, remember, we show the movie all the way through on Monday, then spend eight hours over the next four days (4 to 6 p.m., Tuesday through Friday) going over the movie, shot by shot. This time, late in the week, he chose to read an excerpt from Robert Towne's screenplay. I didn't know where he was heading with this, so I let him go ahead. He read this passage (and if you haven't seen "Chinatown," you should stop here), as J.J. Gittes looks through the window of a house to which he has followed Mrs. Mulwray:

Evelyn is pacing back and forth in and out of his line of vision. After a moment someone rises INTO SHOT -- obviously from lying on a bed. The figure is just a few feet from Evelyn. Her tear-stained face comes INTO VIEW. It is unmistakably the girl Gittes had last seen with Hollis Mulwray. Mulwray's girlfriend.

I asked him what point he was trying to raise, and he said it was this: The screenplay clearly states that the girl was Hollis Mulwray's girlfriend.

Well, yes, because at that moment in the screenplay (and in the film), that's what Jake thinks. It's from his POV. The whole movie is about his flawed vision.

But the screenplay SAYS it's Mulwray's girlfriend.

Yes, but you already know that he, and we, will soon find out that is not true, because that's the whole last part of the movie and we've already seen the whole movie.

But since the screenplay says it's Mulwray's girlfriend, maybe this is some other girl.

Well, OK, you just go ahead and believe that if you like, even though you know that the movie then makes absolutely no sense....

Later it occurred to me that maybe this guy was a fundamentalist who also insists that every word in the bible is the absolute truth. And I guess you could say that, if you read every word in the bible in isolation, without connections to any of the other words. What we have here, I suppose, is a failure to connect the dots.

EXAMPLE #2. Über-Solipsism Narcissism: Those who are certain they understand something, but but don't know -- and don't care -- that they don't, because everything is only about them anyway.

After the whole thing was over, I was wrung out (that ending isn't easy to take, no matter how many times you see it, and we'd just invested about ten and a half hours in it). I was saying thanks and goodbye to people and, when the auditorium was nearly empty, a straggler approached me with a question:

I just came in at the very end and I wondered who killed whom and why.

Why would I tell you that if you haven't been here all week and you've never seen the movie?

Well, I wanted to come but I didn't have time. There were other panels I wanted to go to.

Well, there were other panels I wanted to go to, too. But we just put in eight hours discussing this movie and now you expect me to give you a one-paragraph synopsis? Why would I want to do that?

(I look up and notice that Sergio, the sound technician, is making the "crazy" sign. But the young woman doesn't seem crazy, except when she talks.)

I like to know what happened so I can talk about the movie with people.

How can you talk about the movie if you haven't seen it?

Oh, I do that all the time. I had a great conversation with some people about "Fight Club" a couple years ago and I still haven't seen that.

(Starting to get flustered.) No you didn't. You didn't have a "good conversation" about "Fight Club" because you had no idea what the conversation was about. You hadn't seen the movie.

Well, I have a whole pile of books at home that I haven't read and I like to talk about them.

Yeah, we all have piles of books we haven't read, but that doesn't mean we can talk about them.

Just tell me what the movie was about. Please.

(I succumb. "Chinatown" is well-known to have a rather complex story. I use all the characters' names and try to make it sound as inane and incomprehensible as possible and say it as if it was all one sentence.)

There. Does that help you?

But why did he kill him, and did he really kill him or did he have someone else do it for him?

(Yeah, and what about Ida Sessions?)

Look, do you know how insulting this is to me an and all the other people who've been here all week?

(I start to walk away.)

I don't mean to insult you. I told you I wanted to come, but I had other panels to see and I don't have two hours to spare to watch a movie.

And I don't have two hours to talk to you. Goodbye.

Even now I find it hard to believe I had that conversation. [One reader has wondered how this would have played if I was being "Borat-ed." I must say, the comparison did occur to me...] Reminds me of a friend who worked at a film organization and was asked to gather some facts and put together a proposal about some issue or another. When she presented her proposal to her boss, the boss looked it over and said: "But this is not what I believe!" My friends swears that's true. Never let facts or analysis get in the way of a belief!

Now, I'm not saying that these people are evil. Just that their thought-processes are, um, evil-enabling. And that they don't have a clue...

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