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.