07 January 2013

On Average

Wikipedia defines zeitgeist (spirit of the age or spirit of the time) as “the intellectual fashion or dominant school of thought that typifies and influences the culture of a particular period in time.” Unlike Raymond William’s concept of the structure of feeling, an unarticulated social experience in solution, before social formations have precipitated out and are immediately available to discourse, the zeitgeist can be defined. Often cultural critics and scholars name it and discuss it in public discourse, and they define events and productions of all sorts as deriving from the period’s zeitgeist. I suppose that I’ve learned enough from postmodernism to maintain my skepticism towards the idea that any single strain of thought or belief could represent the time in which I live, and hopefully I know enough to doubt that one can reduce an age to the influence of any single philosophical perspective. But I do like to search out evidences of cultural thought that I can ascribe as zeitgeistianarticulableand that might serve as an alternative perspective to what too many hold as the dominant spirit of our age! To present the alternative zeitgeist as if it could ever have any ‘influence’ would be, as Melvyn Douglas in his very worst Danish accent says to Billy Budd (and I perhaps quote a very bit inaccurately) “like farting into the wind.” There is no contest.
Nevertheless, Hope Springs Eternal . . .
There are two moments in recent films that present an alternative to the dominating zeitgeist: a prevailing doctrine that more is better and that being number oneat any costis superior by any measure to being Number 2. This belief drives the demand for accountability and institutes high-stakes testing standards as a measure of achievement that dominates the public discourse in education and other fields. But in both of the films I intend to cite, being number not even number two is the sought after goal: the characters do not participate in the drive for measures of superiority. Rather, the characters celebrate the achievement of having risen barely to the level of below average or have just barely attained to the standard of average: it is at these socially unacceptable levels deemed to be failures that the fun in life begins.  
In the first film, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Patrick holds aloft his report cardor it may be simply the evaluation for a single courseon which C- is boldly written in red ink. Thrusting the paper towards the camera, he screams triumphantly,  “C-, Ladies and Gentlemen. I am below average!” At this announcement, his friends Charlie and Sam applaud wildly and celebrate Patrick’s proud declaration of academic (non)achievement. Since the film intends the audience to identify with the characters and hence, with the C- grade, the film celebrates Patrick’s success in the mediocre measure of his academic assessment.
In the second film, Silver Linings Playbook, Tiffany bargains with Pat in an exchange of favors: she will deliver a letter to his ex-wife (who has had a restraining order issued against him) if Pat will enter as her partner in what she refers to as “this dance thing,” that turns out to be a fairly sophisticated amateur competition: as one character in the film asks at the array of exotically costumed entrants warming up before the event, “Is this Dancing with the Stars?” I believe that Silver Linings Playbook is a film about the strategies we develop to manage our neuroses and thus, achieve some happiness in lifeto find the silver lining in the cloud, the life our neuroses create. Yes, I think, we all require a playbook to handle ourselves and our neuroses out in the world. Tiffany and Pat are the neurotic focus of the filmbut, in fact, no one in the film does not manifest some serious neurotic characteristics that they must learn to manage to continue to function in the world with some degree of happiness and success. How each manages his/her neuroses and still manages to establish and maintain relationships seems to me to be what the film is about! We all need a silver linings playbook!
And so Tiffany and Pat enter the “dance thing” and become part of a gambling parley Pat’s father (who has an amusing array of strategies in his playbook) makes in a double or nothing bet with his friend, Ronnie. In order for Pat’s father to win the bet, the Philadelphia Eagles must defeat the Dallas Cowboys and Tiffany and Pat must score a five out of a possible 10. Of course, they have had no higher aspirations than that average achievement: they are not entered to win but to participate. Its discipline and effort has served as a strategy for dealing with their lives organized by neuroses. The two take their turn on the floor as uncostumed and absurd amateurs, and perform their wildly irregular choreographed dance routine that ends with a hilariously botched  ‘Big Move.’ But when their score is announcedan even 5they and their families erupt in ecstatic joy and celebration. The announcer looks puzzled and wonders aloud, “Why are they so happy with a five? I don’t get it.” But it was not the score, really, that mattered to either Pat or to Tiffany; rather, their participation in the event served as a strategy in their silver linings playbook. It was not their score that truly mattered but their participation. Being average was the bonus!
These movies represent small acorns. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if from these little acorns some lovely oak trees would grow, and we would all learn to be content to live our lives noncompetitively and with satisfaction in our disciplined endeavors. Wouldn’t it be loverly to have a full silver linings playbook!


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