by Mark Danowsky, Managing Editor
Good Will Hunting opens with Matt Damon working as a janitor. We learn this is just the most recent in a long line of jobs. He has a difficult childhood & history (he’s also under 21 throughout the film, a fact easily forgotten because they’re drinking constantly) – it’s implied that during most of the time the movie takes place that Damon is working construction. Meanwhile, he’s being strongly encouraged to pursue a life in mathematics, either in the public or private sector, either in academia or in an office environment (he is set up with an interview with the NSA, for example).
Both Affleck & Robin Williams’ characters want Damon to use his rare gift. Williams, as therapist, in one scene characterizes Affleck not as an intellectual equal, but as the kind of friend who “will lie down in traffic for you.”
3 big scenes in GWH. Well 4. In one, Damon explains to his love interest (side note: film does not pass the Bechdel test, but neither does Office Space), how he can do certain types of brain work the same way someone like Beethoven could compose music. He explains that when it comes to this type of work he can “just play.” He doesn’t have to work to do it and, as the film reveals, it’s generally not fun for him. There’s one scene when he’s with the Fields Medal-winning prof and they are seemingly enjoying a tête-à-tête on the blackboard. This is contrasted, even countered, by the later scene in which Damon blows up at the prof claiming he’s sick of dumbing down to explain things that are obvious to him. The prof’s response is interesting – he mentions how most of the time he wishes he didn’t know Damon’s character was “out there” [in the world] because that way he could sleep at night. The implication being he could still walk around thinking he had exceptional intellect.
In one big GWH scene, the prof is in a bar with the therapist (Williams). The prof tries to prove a point about how even the lowly bartender knows Einstein but does not know who he is (in spite of his Fields Medal). The therapist then describes another man who was a smart, promising young intellect and would go on to become famous for an entirely different reason. Williams calls out to the bartender and asks if he’s ever heard of Ted Kaczynski – to which the bartender immediately replies, “The Unabomber.” This conversation ends with the therapist frustrated saying “Maybe he (Damon) doesn’t want what you want” to the prof. In therapy sessions, Williams openly accuses Damon of not knowing what he wants. Damon clearly doesn’t. Damon, as is pointed out, is just a kid.
The end of GWH is not nearly as satisfying as it is on first blush. When the movie came out, that is, when I first saw it, I remember having a good takeaway feeling. But the feeling is a cheat. The path Damon’s character has chosen is not remotely set in stone. It actually tracks similarly to Damon’s character in Rounders. At the end of Rounders, Damon’s character is going to give it a go in Vegas and see if he can win big. At the end of GWH, Damon’s character is going to give it a go and see if he can make a life with the girl that loves him.
Another key scene in GWH is when Affleck, Damon’s “big brother” / dumb friend, tells Damon, that it’s a slap in the face if ends up sticking around his hometown instead of taking on the world. Affleck implies that he and his other knucklehead buddies don’t have a choice, but Damon does. Damon can get out and make something of himself. And because he can, he must. That’s the argument. Real quick, let me interject here and say I, too, held this belief at one time. The belief being that if a person can do something, then they must do something. But it’s not that simple. My go to example was a surgeon. It takes a lot to be a surgeon. You typically need to come up with enough privilege to consider the possibility that this path is even an option. You also need to have an upbringing with enough support to nudge you in this competitive med school direction. You need to excel in school. You need to be focused. You need to be good with your hands. You need to be able to multitask. You need to be good with blood. I could go on. The point is that there are many factors that make it plausible for some of us to become a surgeon and impossible for the rest of us. And because it is impossible for so many of us, we, as a society, need surgeons to be surgeons. Especially, I felt, once we dumped a boatload of tax dollars educating these individuals for this important task. But what if the individual decides they no longer wish to be a surgeon. Should this individual be allowed to walk away and work at the local convenience store? I used to say no. I used to say this was unacceptable.
This brings us to Office Space. After a hypnotherapy treatment, the main character in OS wakes up with a completely lax attitude about life. He nonchalantly approaches Jennifer Aniston, who is a waitress for unknown reasons, and asks her on a date. He then tells her he doesn’t like his job and is going to stop going.
OS is a great film. And it stands the tests of time well. As far as life lessons go, it’s extremely confusing.
We vaguely follow three guys who work shitty office jobs. The film’s protagonist, Ron Livingston, is the only fleshed out character, but we don’t even really understand his motivations because he doesn’t understand them himself (à la Damon in GWH). Over the course of the film, the protagonist has occasional conversations with his salt of the earth neighbor, a construction worker who is rife with stereotypes – something of a goofball redneck anti-intellectual. At the end of the film, the protagonist finds happiness, allegedly, working construction alongside this neighbor. He chooses happiness over the IT office job that presumably makes more money. It’s supposed to be slightly ironic, I think, but as a viewer there’s kind of this feeling that the writer (Mike Judge) never worked construction in his life, or else would not portray a life in manual labor in a manner that is so freeing. But OS is all about broad strokes. You’re not really supposed to think too hard about any of it. That’s probably why it’s super enjoyable to watch, and a whole lot less fun to overanalyze.
Maybe the lesson is society is devised to set us on a track. This track can take you many places. Oh the places you’ll go, right? But we often don’t stop to ask ourselves if we want to go any of these places. No child says they want to be a customer service representative or a retail merchandiser or a claims adjuster, and yet we reach a point when these can come to sound like ideal jobs given our life situations.
In both GWH & OS, the jobs that end up looking the most positive/satisfying are often those that help others find their own path. I’m mostly thinking about the therapists. Construction is painted in semi-appealing light, but it’s not so different from the way I’ve heard people talk about fracking—by which I mean in a manner that is conflicted. There are also not great ideas about how men ought to engage with women. Beyond failing the Bechdel test, both films struggle with one of the main issues the test is designed to call out: not only do women not have conversations with other women about topics that are not about the male characters in the film, these women are very much in the film to further the development of the male leads.
In John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism, he argues for the importance of art in society. Mill classifies his belief of what constitutes high and low art, then stresses how in an ideal society the lower classes of society would have the “opportunity” to enjoy the high arts. Opera is an example of high art for Mill. Damon’s character in GWH enjoys both high and low art. Or, rather, high and low life. He clearly finds some value in reading and the gathering of knowledge, but also values getting his hands dirty. He’s big on honor and loyalty, has obvious trust issues as a result of abuse/trauma, and is perpetually in a state of hypervigilance. Damon’s character doesn’t care about opera, except to explain why it might “matter” in context, conceptually. He would not want to sit through a 6-hour opera; he’d rather go fishing with the redneck neighbor from OS.