“I am a sick man. I am a spiteful man.” So begins the narration of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man in Constance Garnett’s translation of Notes from Underground. What drives a man (or woman) underground? Fear, spite, resentment, contempt? I read a letter to the editor today in the Minneapolis Star Tribune (I hate-read the letters to the editor) and one of them was from a doctor bitching about how some of his patients had the temerity to self-refer themselves to the Mayo Clinic, even though he was perfectly capable of caring for their chronic conditions. Some of these people were even receiving Medical Assistance from the state. Who do they think they are? Persian Gulf oil despots? The clear, visceral contempt that this doctor has for his patients is clearly enough to turn sick men into spiteful men. And why are they sick? Well, certainly the prevailing current of fear in the United States doesn’t help matters. Fear of what? Americans are afraid of everything. But mostly they’re afraid of each other. They’re afraid of others doing better than them. They’re afraid of others getting a break that they didn’t get. They’re afraid of being judged. They’re afraid of being hated. They hate the people who might hate them. They hate the people who do hate them. And they fear failure. Because in America, no one is held in greater contempt than the failure. Economic failure is moral failure in the land of Ragged Dick Struggling Upwards. I’ll bet nowhere in the world are poor people hated more than in the US (maybe in Latin America; I get a vivid image in my mind of Salvadoran oligarchs hating poor people; but some of this may just come from my reading of the angry Salvadoran novelist Horacio Castellanos Moya).We young people (and I’m 23, I’m a young person) stand on a tight-rope stretched taut over a Grand Canyon of failure, and on the other side is some precarious kind of success. But the canyon is wide, and to top it all off, it’s fucking windy. The fear of falling off the tight-rope is enough to make anyone sick. In John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero” (and I don’t pretend to be working class, not that we acknowledge the existence of such a class here in America), but I say, in John Lennon’s “Working Class Hero,” he sings, “When they’ve tortured and scared you for twenty-odd years / Then they expect you to pick a career / When you can’t really function, you’re so full of fear” (emphasis added). This is the current state of so many middle-class American young people.
And it’s this condition which is depicted so vividly in Alex Ross Perry’s 2011 masterpiece The Color Wheel (which, ironically, is in grainy 16 mm black-and-white). The film follows two young people, a brother and sister, as they go on a weekend road trip to retrieve the sister’s stuff from the house of her broadcast journalism professor, with whom she’d been living prior to their recent break-up. The sister, JR, is an aspiring broadcast journalist/actress, but she has very few prospects in this field. The brother, Colin, is an aspiring writer (a term he hates) with similarly dismal prospects. And they both judge each other because they each don’t want to admit that they’ve probably fallen off the tight-rope. And everyone else—the professor, former high school classmates—judges them because they (everyone else, that is) have fucking made it, but the fear of not making it is still so strong in them that it still has its icy fingers wrapped around their intestines, that they hate, they passionately hate the failures who represent what just as easily could have happened to them.
As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I have a long-standing prejudice against American cinema, but I loved this movie (granted, it’s the kind of American movie that I would like: something in the Wes Anderson/Noah Baumbach/Whit Stillman/mumblecore tradition). It’s a profoundly compassionate movie. As JR and Colin realize that everyone hates them, they learn to stop hating each other (they probably never really hated each other, they just sniped at each other like siblings sometimes do, but my point is that they learn to treat each other better). And amidst all the fear of their flailing and fading youth, they make beautiful and privileged moments together.
Hell, this is probably the best American movie I’ve seen in the past year. Certainly the best one that didn’t have Greta Gerwig in it, and I love Greta Gerwig.