Burgers, High Theory, and The Talented Mr Ripley

It probably isn’t a good sign that it is Day 2 of this blogging challenge and I am not really sure what I have to say.  Part of the problem is I spent the day on the road driving to LA to spend some time at the Bike for the Circuit event this weekend.  Another part of the problem is the friends I am staying with convinced me to go to Stout Burger and I am now in a “Morning After”-induced food coma that was well worth every bite.

I mean, look at this meal:

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While at dinner, my friend Jamie and I got to talking about the point in college when we went from being acquaintances to being full blown friends.  It happened early in junior year. We were in the same discussion group for our Postmodern Cinema class.  Our TA, the smarmily named Daniel Smith-Rowsey, was awesomely deadpan and hilarious, so, unlike many of our TAs, plenty of people in our section went out of their way to try and impress them.

It should surprise no one that I used to be a massive kiss ass and suck up to professors and teachers, but in college I started to slack off knowing I wouldn’t be held accountable for much  of my college life, save for whether or not I finished my degree.  I turned in papers, I tried to end up on the honor roll, but I didn’t need to prove myself to be the smartest person in the class.

Some other people in our section though, they were out to prove how smart they were.  It is a type or pretention common in film school, but not exclusive to it.  In fact, every department of college I would find these folks who had no clue they weren’t particularly bright to begin with, perhaps because they were too busy trying to prove how smart they were to everyone they could, including Daniel Smith-Rowsey.

The story I am about to tell isn’t just about condemning a film school kid trying too hard.  It is a pretty telling sign that I should have known long before I went to grad school that I was not cut out for the academic and theoretical  discussions that make up academia.

I pause briefly to warn you all that I am about to spoil the plot of a 15 year old movie (which is a stupid thing to have to warn people about if you ask me).  In class, we had watched The Talented Mr Ripley.  If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know it concludes with Ripley (Matt Damon) running off with his newfound gay lover Peter Smith-Kingsley and taking a cruise.  Shortly after the boat departs, Ripley runs into a friend (Cate Blanchett) who believes he is not Tom Ripley, but another person altogether, Dickie Greenleaf.  Once again, Ripley is caught pretending to be someone he is not and he is forced to make a choice about how to keep his secret a secret. 

He can choose to kill Peter or he can try to off Blanchett, who is on the ship with about a dozen friends.  He chooses to kill Peter, continue to live his lie of a life as Dickie, and pretend to Blanchett and co that he is the rich golden boy he never really was.

A girl in our section spends a good five minutes discussing the extensive homosexual metaphor at play here.  This is not just a movie about Ripley trying to be someone he is not. To her, it is a large metaphor about homosexuality and Ripley’s inability to come to terms with his gayness.  “Then it culminates with him choosing to murder his new gay lover to fully quash the bad side of himself, the side that isn’t heteronormative.”

It is at this point that I let out an exasperated sigh and raise my hand. Daniel Smith Rowsey calls on me.

“Listen…while I guess there may be some larger theme at play here, but can we talk about the fact that, from a plot perspective, he can’t do anything but murder the gay lover?”

She doesn’t understand my point, so I continue.

“Ripley can either kill Peter quietly with little issue or he has to kill Cate Blanchett and deal with her horde of friends.  This isn’t a gay metaphor, this is a numbers game.  He’s not repressing his homosexuality on purpose, he is just being pragmatic.”

I knew I was supposed to engage in the debate, propose some other reading of the text or theory about what it means that Tom Ripley lives a lie, but I just couldn’t find the energy to do it.  It happened a lot in grad school too.  The class thought I was a racist because I didn’t have a problem with the barbaric natives in King Kong being Pacific Islanders because, why wouldn’t they be? They are supposed to be in the Pacific Isles.  Or when Indiana Jones shot that ethnic Moroccan man in Raiders because, he is in Morocco. What exactly did you expect him to do, shoot a Swedish guy?

In other words, I am a lazy academic.  I value logic and pragmatism over interpretation.  Before I can think about what something means, I need to know that it makes sense.  It is why this blog is called Cultural Nitpickery.   Sure, I can have the more esoteric debates about what the larger message of a movie is, but not before we can all agree that you don’t have your protagonist kill someone to prove  a higher point in the name of queer theory without it servicing the story first and foremost.

That is why Jamie and I get along so well. She feels the same way and references this comment and my refusal to not just say what is on my mind as the moment that she realized we were going to be great friends.  I’m glad she drew that conclusion, as she is now one of my best friends.  I am also glad that we can agree on tasty burgers and illogical plot points because I am going to sleep well in burger bliss tonight.

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