02 April 2010

Splendid Isolation

I wanna live all alone in the desert
I wanna be like Georgia O'Keefe
I wanna live on the Upper East side
And never go down in the street

Warren Zevon - Splendid Isolation

In the fall of 1989 I was going through one of those introspective what-am-I-gonna-do-with-my-life stages. I had spent the summer before on a mindless adventure, sleeping out every night by my neighbor's pond (some might call it a lake), drinking beer, listening to Springsteen, and generally acting a fool. This didn't quite curb or cure me from the dead calm in my life. In other words, I wasn't moving forward. I had started waiting tables at ChiChi's (a venture that was my boss's idea) after moving out from the kitchen, and I came and went however I could because I couldn't drive. I felt rudderless, just adrift on the sea of my life, and it was beginning to affect me.

One night, when I was over at my friend Robin's apartment, she insisted we watch Pink Floyd's The Wall. I had never seen The Wall before, despite its midnight showing at muliple theaters every Friday and Saturday night for years (I always thought it was a movie for stoners and I didn't want any part of that). I was struck by how isolated Pink was. To recap, Pink was a young boy in England when the war was going on. He suffered the air raid sirens and the shelling and, worse of all, the loss of his father. At school, the teacher mocks the young, self-conscious boy when he finds Pink's notebook of poems. "The boy fancies himself a poet!" At home, his mother becomes overprotective, leading Pink to break out when he becomes a rock star, indulging in drugs and sex. Pink marries but is pushed over the edge when his wife cheats on him. All of these episodes become bricks in the wall and soon no one can get through to him. He has become isolated from human contact.

A month after watching and thinking about Pink and his wall, I watched Taxi Driver. If you ever think you are screwed up, if you ever think you got things bad, watch Taxi Driver. Everyone is normal compared to Travis. Travis Bickle, the taxi driver (of course - Robert De Niro), becomes so far removed from reality that it becomes frightening. He could be anyone you pass on the street. If it's true that the only normal people are the ones you don't know well, then this is that movie. Travis doesn't know how to relate to people, despite living and working in New York City, despite his interaction every day with hundreds of people, and despite his desperate attempts. He tries to flirt with the girl at the candy counter at the X-rated movie theater. He goes on a date with a pretty secretary, only to be shut down when he takes her to the same theater to watch a movie. "This is what couples do," he tells her. When she refuses to see him again, we see the potential violence within him. Little by little, after repeated rejections, Travis becomes a guy who paces around his apartment swearing at no one, and blankly staring at his own reflection in the television. Like Pink, Travis breaks out from his repression, and finally takes action. Pink trashes a hotel room and (SPOILER ALERT!) Travis kills about four people.

I think these two films make good companion pieces to one another. They are both good character studies of human isolation and of feeling loneliness despite being surrounded by people. Or maybe I just like to be alone too much. My friend Dana teases me because I want to live in a fortified compound in the mountains. The last time she teased me we were in a crowded bar and I had to ask her, "Are you talking to me?"

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