Gentleman’s Agreement

I just watched a film classic – one I’d been meaning to watch for some time but had sat on the shelf, still wrapped in cellophane and three sides of tape, ever since Christmas when my dad got it for me. Dad and I always liked to watch movies together, could spend whole days watching movies and talking about them and then deciding what to watch next. We weren’t particular – any movie would do. One of the last times I spent with him, we watched a sort of triple feature, beginning with Pitch Black and ending with The Chronicles of Riddick. If it was loud and fun and had special effects and great one-liners, we were happy. Even Vin Diesel couldn’t ruin our good time. But we also liked those Great Films, the ones that Say Something.

Dad loved science fiction. He grew up on the greats – on radio with Flash Gordon and the Avenger, and then on television Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone, and of course comic books and sci-fi novels. He taught a course on Ethics at Lewis & Clark College using sci-fi novels. He loved Star Trek and Star Wars; he even seemed to believe in The Force, and didn’t let George Lucas’s silly blood tests for Jedis get in his way. A lot of times, it was these sorts of movies that Said Something. It seemed easier to explore interracial relationships and nuclear war and racism and sexism and anti-semitism and hunger and disease and fear on a spaceship or in the future. Science fiction is about allegories. It’s about exploring our many demons and our better angels and prompting us all to think about what we really believe, and what we really believe in.

I felt, still feel, like he and I were the same person. I wish I knew more about him – it might help me understand myself better. But I think that’s the trouble with death. Someone goes and you suddenly can think of all the things you wish you’d asked, but never thought of as urgent or pressing. Everything is urgent now. So today, I opened the wrapper on that film classic, and I popped it into the DVD player and I watched. Gentleman’s Agreement is about a journalist who poses as a Jew in order to write about anti-semitism. It attempts to tackle, through only one of our many societal diseases, what it really means to be human – or at least it endeavors to show that flesh is flesh, after all. And it shows that we all begin to buy in to notions of good and bad, same and different, right and wrong – as though they were ideas made concrete, something you can sink someone’s feet into before you toss them off the bridge. But it also demonstrates how much we accept the worst of the world around us. We let the tasteless joke go by. We believe that others are better than we are. We cut ourselves off from what life is, after all – messy and imperfect and dirty and often simply amoral. We so often want to be ‘better’ that we invent degrees of betterness and then include ourselves or exclude ourselves based on our own ideas of our self-worth.

And it’s all a bunch of nonsense anyway. Not everything can or should be explained. Sometimes you hurt because you simply do. Because all this is hard. Because we’re doing this instead of something we want to do more, because we don’t know ourselves very well and we think we know what we want until it’s right on top of us and we want it to go away. Because we know we want something but don’t know how badly we really need it until it’s slipping away from us.

In many ways, then, this whole thing is for my Dad, about whom I can’t stop crying.

So I leave you with this – it’s a lovely little story, and yes, it involves a robot. Unfortunately, it’s an ad for detergent.

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