Six Degrees of Separation is one of my favorite movies, directed with intelligent finesse by Fred Schepisi from the acclaimed play by John Guare who wrote the screenplay. The story centers around Paul (played by Will Smith), a young black man who has conned his way into the East Side New York apartment of Ouisa and Flan Ketteridge (Stockard Channing, who is brilliant, and Donald Sutherland), who are art dealers for the rich. They are guilty liberals who gets taken in by a charming con man who has them convinced that he is the son of Sidney Poitier, that he is a friend of their children, that he has graduated from Harvard, and that he can offer them roles as extras in the film adaptation of Cats. In this scene, Paul gets into their apartment by feigning a mugging attack, and when he dazzles them with his wit and intelligence, they -- together with guest Geoffrey (Ian McKellen) -- inquire about his thesis on J.D. Salinger's The Catcher on the Rye (stolen by the muggers). What follows may be Mr. Smith's greatest monologue, ever. (No scene in I, Robot even comes close.)
Paul: Well ... a substitute teacher out on Long Island was dropped from his job for fighting with a student. A few weeks later, the teacher returned to the classroom, shot the student unsuccessfully, held the class hostage and then shot himself. Successfully. This fact caught my eye: last sentence. Times. A neighbor described him as a nice boy. Always reading Catcher in the Rye. The nitwit -- Chapman -- who shot John Lennon said he did it because he wanted to draw the attention of the world to The Catcher in the Rye and the reading of the book would be his defense. And young Hinckley, the whiz kid who shot Reagan and his press secretary, said if you want my defense all you have to do is read Catcher in the Rye.
Flan: I haven't read it in years. (Ouisa shushes him.)
Paul: I borrowed a copy from a young friend of mine because I wanted to see what she had underlined and I read this book to find out why this touching, beautiful, sensitive story published in July 1951 had turned into this manifesto of hate. I started reading. It's exactly as I remembered. Everybody's a phony. Page two: "My brother's in Hollywood being a prostitute." Page three: "What a phony slob his father was." Page nine: "People never notice anything." Then on page 22 my hair stood up. Remember Holden Caulfield -- the definitive sensitive youth -- wearing his red hunter's cap. "A deer hunter hat? Like hell it is. I sort of closed one eye like I was taking aim at it. This is a people-shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat." This book is preparing people for bigger moments in their lives than I ever dreamed of. Then on page 89: "I'd rather push a guy out the window or chop his head off with an ax than sock him in the jaw ... I hate fist fights ... what scares me most is the other guy's face..." I finished the book. It's a touching story, comic because the boy wants to do so much and can't do anything. Hates all phoniness and only lies to others. Wants everyone to like him, is only hateful, and he is completely self-involved. In other words, a pretty accurate picture of a male adolescent. And what alarms me about the book -- not the book so much as the aura about it -- is this: the book is primarily about paralysis. The boy can't function. And at the end, before he can run away and start a new life, it starts to rain and he folds. Now there's nothing wrong in writing about emotional and intellectual paralysis. It may indeed, thanks to Chekhov and Samuel Beckett, be the great modern theme. The extraordinary last lines of Waiting For Godot -- "Let's go." "Yes, let's go." Stage directions: they do not move. But the aura around this book of Salinger's -- which perhaps should be read by everyone but young men -- is this: it mirrors like a fun house mirror and amplifies like a distorted speaker one of the great tragedies of our times -- the death of the imagination. Because what else is paralysis? The imagination has been so debased that imagination -- being imaginative -- rather than being the lynchpin of our existence now stands as a synonym for something outside ourselves like science fiction or some new use for tangerine slices on raw pork chops -- what an imaginative summer recipe -- and Star Wars! So imaginative! And Star Trek -- so imaginative! And Lord of the Rings -- all those dwarves -- so imaginative. The imagination has moved out of the realm of being our link, our most personal link, with our inner lives and the world outside that world -- this world we share. What is schizophrenia but a horrifying state where what's in here doesn't match up with what's out there? Why has imagination become a synonym for style? I believe that the imagination is the passport that we create to take us into the real world. I believe the imagination is merely another phrase for what is most uniquely us. Jung says the greatest sin is to be unconscious. Our boy Holden says, "What scares me most is the other guy's face -- it wouldn't be so bad if you could both be blindfolded -- most of the time the faces that we face are not the other guys' but our own faces. And it's the worst kind of yellowness to be so scared of yourself you put blindfolds on rather than deal with yourself..." To face ourselves. That's the hard thing. The imagination. That's God's gift to make the act of self-examination bearable.
Flan:(Teary-eyed) I hope your muggers read every word.