Thursday, December 09, 2004

Willard and His Rats

Having recently seen the film "Willard, memorable principally for Crispin Glover's ability to make the lead character believable and for a grotesquely oversized rat, let me now proceed to overanalyze it.

For those not familiar with the story, Willard is a social misfit living in a huge Victorian home with his mother, and suffering severe psychological scars from his years in her tender care. He works for what used to be his family's company, now owned by his late father's tyrannical former partner, under the terms of a buy-out agreement which provides that he can never be fired. His mother asks him to exterminate a growing population of rats in his basement, but he instead befriends the rats, training them to do his (destructive) bidding. Only two rats are identified by name, a white rat named "Socrates" who quickly becomes Willard's favorite, and the oversized "Ben" - who seems to have an agenda of his own, and who Willard believes resents his relationship with Socrates. (Willard comes to hate Ben, and they ultimately attempt to turn their destructive power upon each other.)

Sometimes it seems that large segments of our society have more in common with Willard's rats than with Willard. That is to say, even though if they had sufficient interest or perspective to notice, they would realize that they are following the instruction of a severely flawed personality, as long as that personality is taking charge and telling them what to do... they do it. I'm not trying to draw sweeping allegories to business and industry - I think the better analogy is on a smaller scale, for example, with media advocacy organizations which enlist large numbers of people to send out letters attacking newspapers and columnists who dare to endorse a particular viewpoint or perspective. Or even on a personal scale as, for example, a spurned lover surrounds himself or herself with new "friends" who accept their account of the break-up without question, and who are then dispersed to spread ill-will about the ex. Heck - you even see this effect (seemingly magnified by the lack of direct personal involvement) in online communities.

Of course, nobody is going to take this perspective on their own life, or their own "friends", and they (and their "friends") would be deeply offended by the analogy between their conduct and that of a psychotic loner and his attack rats. But at the same time, the very same people could read this and think, "I know somebody exactly like that". And, of course, that lack of perspective is endemic to being human - something that can be overcome, at least in part, through concerted self-evaluation and reflection, but is largely a part of the human condition.

I could put a gentler spin on this, I suppose, by instead comparing people to sheep who are easily led astray. But I've never particularly cared for that analogy, even when plucked from theology and put to song. But I guess it is more lyrical than, "All we like rats are in some ways predisposed to doing the evil bidding of others, without reflection." (Besides, in reality, rats aren't actually inclined to behave as depicted in Willard - their depicted conduct reflects personification - so that would effectively be analogizing human conduct to human conduct, which would be horribly circular.)

In truth, I think people choose to become sheep (or "attack rats") because they want to further their relationship with their friend or leader. I guess within that context being compared to a sheep - a mindless follower, lost without a leader - is significantly more flattering than being compared to an attack rat - a destructive, unthinking embodiment of somebody else's aggression. But perhaps the best part is how many people, once the allegory is about people and not rats, would happily - even eagerly - choose to play the part of Willard. That, after all, is power.


  1. I think you actually have two (at least) different dynamics going on. You have some people who want desperately to belong and have their own sense of self-worth heightened by feeling like they are part of something (your sheep). These people tend to join cliques and other social organizations such as religions groups and political parties. Their “intellectual” structures change whenever necessary so as to allow them to continue to fit in (I give you certain small charismatic religious groups where the definition of “Who is a Christian” changes on a fairly regular basis, but no one questions why “absolute divine truth” changes whenever it is convenient for the leader.

    You also have people (your attack rats) who see being part of a group as an excuse or cover for conduct that they want to carry out, but fear the consequences of unless they are part of a group. They tend to show up in fraternities, police departments, and law schools.

    Mind you, I suppose it all really boils down to people feeling like they “need” something from the group, and neither of my above examples are mutually exclusive (I give you the Nazi party in Germany.)

  2. I think forming groups is basic human nature. I also think that it is quite normal for most groups to have at least some level of "us vs them" feelings although certainly there are different degrees to this.

    The point is that those in a particular group will have a natural bias that favors those they see as being in their group and a natural bias against those they see as not being in their group. I have noticed that often a person will excuse the very same behavior from someone in their group that they damn in others. This isnt often easy to see and I know that I am guilty of it as much as anyone.

  3. I agree that joining groups is part of human nature. Humans are social creatures, and human behavior is strongly influenced by group norms.

    Obviously group process can be dominated by Willard-like individuals, or be used for bad purposes. However, pretty much all human progress has been achieved through group effort of one kind or aother.

    I never saw the movie, and until I read your review, I took it for granted that "Willard" was the name of a rat character. The name does retain certain rat overtones, and was recently invoked in that context by Maureen Dowd.

    As I now recall, there was a Willard sequel ("Ben") which could not be called "Willard 2" because the title character didn't survive the first film. I'm sure Hollywood is more careful about such details nowadays.


  4. Ah yes, the oversized Ben in a title role. I don't know much about the movie, as despite its somewhat well-known title song (Ben, by Michael Jackson), I have never had the opportunity to see it. I looked it up on IMDB, where it was described as a horror movie about a ten-year-old boy who befriends Ben, and becomes distraught when the military comes in to exterminate Ben's horde of homicidal rats (until he discovers that Ben has survived).

    But I read today on a major newspaper site (along with a tragic progression of photos of Michael Jackson) that Ben was a "sentimental movie about a boy and his pet rat". Hm. Perhaps the person who wrote that blurb hadn't seen the movie? Because, friend of a small child or no, how sentimental can a movie be if its title character is the oversized leader of a homicidal rat pack on a killing spree? (Which, in wild, sleep-deprived streams of consciousness, might be how one would have described the original Oceans Eleven had it been written and directed by, say, Quentin Tarantino.)

    Willard survives in the remake (and Crispin Glover performs a cover of 'Ben' for the closing credits). So they could make a Willard II, and perhaps even a Willard 3D. (Three dimensional rats? That'd have to be popular with the kids.)


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