The Fisher King and the need for fellowship amidst the ever-increasing atomization of modernity
In January, I watched The Fisher King. It was the first time I’d seen it since my sophomore year in college, when we spent a couple of weeks studying it in a Literature in Film class I couldn’t have cared less about at the time—my mistake, like so many I committed back then.
Watching it now, I found myself transfixed. The feeling deepened as the film roared toward its finish. When it was over, I found myself filled with that sublime sense of magnified resonance that becomes rarer with age—able to only exclaim, Fuck. Here was one of the most deftly-written, and wonderfully filmed, treatises on the dystopian modern condition. And it’s from thirty years ago!
Fisher King begins with Jeff Bridges as a shock jock named Jack Lucas, holding court in his blacked-out New York City radio booth where he spends his mornings ranting about the societal forces he finds most appalling. That day, he’s got yuppies on his mind.
They feel nothing; everything is a cold-blooded transaction for them—even love. When a frequent caller, and troubled soul, calls in, Jack ducks any attempt at actually connecting with the man, instead poking fun at him to his colleagues’ disconcertingly increasing enjoyment. He ends the call with yet another dig at the yuppies. Little does he know that with this final throwaway line, he has unwittingly set events in motion that will inspire the caller in a horrifying way.
This is how Jack has rocketed to the fore of his profession: firing off words without a second thought. When he gets back to his ritzy loft after this morning session, he quickly loses himself gazing into a mirror, worrying over the lines on his face. This theme of self-centeredness, and the way it has unraveled our social fabric, runs through the film.
Cut to a ritzy bar later that evening, where the sad, hopeless caller goes postal, committing mass murder. Bridges’s career is over. The rest of the film will follow his attempt at reformation and reclamation, tethered to another lost soul—this time, a man named Parry (Robin Williams), who it turns out was a well-heeled young professional at the bar that fateful evening. He saw his wife shot, and it made him lose his mind.
Bridges’s journey will be messy, but then, isn’t that a fundamental marker of being a human? You get a bit muddy in the dig for truth.
Ever since that re-watch, Fisher King hasn’t been far from my mind. I think about it when I find my eyes glazing over what I’m supposed to be reading to keep up with the goings-on in the world—you know, the listicles, news blurbs, ping-ping-ping notifications making you grasp and grope into your pockets for your phone, to the point that if some person of yesteryear were to be watching you from a separate realm, they’d think humanity had devolved into a series of Gollum-like wraiths, hopelessly in thrall to a technological menace.
You emerge from one of these technological benders feeling vaguely unclean. All this facility, all this immediacy, yet rather than making my life easier, I find I am filled with a pervasive sense of dread. Unease and noise…and it’s always noise of a noisome variety.
It doesn’t take much to get back on track, mind you. Forget about social media. Step away from the TV for a couple of weeks. The first thing you notice once you turn the tube back on is the assaultive nature of commercials. It’s like stepping away from news, now, and seeing how hopelessly biased it is—one way or another. I find myself quickly turning it right back off.
So, I think, what can I do other than watch TV? I go for a run, go for a bike ride, lift some weights, read a book. Listen to music, or revel in silence. I emerge feeling much calmer. That urge to buy something new has disappeared. You realize you’ve been undergoing a transformation from a human being seeking self-betterment through an inquisitive nature into an unthinking, materialistic drone reduced to an…acquisitive nature.
They say Flaubert would spend entire afternoons pacing in his backyard, searching for le mot juste. I wonder how he’d have fared with a smartphone in his pocket, begging to be perused. You soon become certain that your only chance to make something—anything—worthwhile begins with a refusal to use that thing.
So set some limits. Refuse the allure of infinite amounts of anything; you are not designed to be able to process it. Maybe stick to reading books for information. Maybe make a point of meeting people in person to connect.
A recent perusal of Plato’s Revenge: Politics in the Age of Ecology, provided one of my favorite lessons of late.
“As Aristotle pointed out, no polity can long exist as “a mere alliance” of self-interested individuals. What makes a political community adhere is what Aristotle called a “rule of life”—that is, a shared ethos.”
It brought me back to Fisher King, and how Jack’s reclamation begins with the single step of reveling in his immediate personal relationships. All else is dust, air, and noise.
It also reminded me with a frequent refrain I’ve noticed being bandied about the internet, steadily gathering in force. Like so many rhetorical snowballs that seem to appear spontaneously, usually at a particularly serendipitous moment when a certain cause is being trumpeted, policy henceforth dictated this way or that like some coordinated avalanche—one might call it Manufactured Descent.
Soon, you won’t own anything, and won’t that be a wonderful! The World Economic Forum has since deleted the tweet this picture was attached to, but no matter.
No more meddlesome homes, cars, or any of the other meaningless detritus that litter a home to the brim. But it extends much further—this is about a continuing disintegration of the way we once lived life.
The eerie implication of all this is how it links to independence. It would seem there will still be things you’ll be enticed to “own”—bombardment of your Instagram feed with clothing offers, hooking you onto that incessant overload of dopamine drip of buy buy buy so you can satiate that need only to realize the next time you log on, there’s that need to buy buy buy all over again and suddenly you realize that oh, it wasn’t about the clothes at all, it was about the rush of acquisition. The mouse in the experiment, gorging itself. That general sentiment of unease that never seems to lift. What am I missing out on? What will help me have a better life?
Chances are, of course, it’s not another T-shirt, no matter how cool it looks. What is important—setting yourself up for the long-term with smart investing and savvy budgeting, gets thrown out the window. Instead, you find yourself tethered to the conveyer belt of materialism.
But if we’re all destined to live in pods, you won’t have any room for anything noteworthy, anyway.
But back to the question of ownership. Social media, like the shock jock mentality of Jack’s heyday, has informed a generation that it is acceptable to spew vitriol and filth without a second thought. You don’t have to say it in person, you don’t have to perceive the reaction of the offended target. You don’t have to own your words. That allows your tongue to loosen, a bit.
It’s a sort of psychological drone warfare; we can participate in the piling-on that helps destroy someone’s livelihood, dust our hands and head on to the next one. We have no need to take ownership of our action and help the sad sack on to the next stage of his life.
This was one of the ways in which I found myself watching The Fisher King through clenched teeth and oft-averted eyes. Jack’s realization when he realizes just how much of an impact words can have.
This is the beautiful aspect of Gilliam’s film. It is about redemption, morality, all these things that run counter to the helter-skelter thrum of modernity.
Parry observes that no one ever looks up anymore, charging instead this way and that, in and around—and often through—as they rush toward their destination. There’s Tom Waits as a bum in Grand Central Station, sitting with Jack as a passer-by chucks some coins at him, missing his cup but not missing a beat as he flies by. “He’s paying so he don’t have to look,” Waits says.
There’s Parry’s friend, the dainty man with a predilection for singing show tunes. He also happens to have AIDS. And Gilliam again asks the difficult question: who cares for the dispossessed in modern society? Who takes the time? Who will take the plunge into the messy ownership of emotion and feeling that makes us human?
Dean Kissick delved into this dystopian dynamic in a recent piece for Spike. Cut to a New York City dinner party, where the conversation is predicated upon making money at any cost. Then, making more money. It’s little wonder our cultural output, and general well-being, have suffered accordingly.
For a while I fell into the lazy belief that since social media represents such an outrageously false approximation of society, and is henceforth not “real”, you don’t have to take anything you see on it seriously. Not only have I realized that this solipsistic stance falls well shy of the mark, it fails to take into account the fact that, like some scary science fiction, what is birthed in the electronic scape inevitably bleeds into reality.
And it’s important to treat these posts as being all too real. The sickening thought about Jack’s throwaway line about Normies from the comfort of his radio booth, which sent that unfortunate soul on his killing spree is that, were he to be asked about it, Jack probably wouldn’t be able to remember exactly what he said. A few of so many words he spoke that morning; a mean tweet is just one of so many you send on a particular day.
What happens when we no longer worry about the impact our words will have in society? What happens when we are allowed to say anything, and risk nothing, in ways that might end up destroying another person’s reputation? Why is there never any accounting for how to bring a troubled soul who falls afoul of the mob back into our societal fold?
It might best be encapsulated by something said in The Soloist, the cheesy Hollywood film that came out at the end of the aughts—interestingly, the sort of high-brow cheesy film that Hollywood has pretty much stopped making—in which Robert Downey Jr. plays a Los Angeles Times reporter who befriends a down-and-out former Juilliard prodigy who, torn asunder by schizophrenia, is living on the streets with a beat-up violin. Asking a social worker what he can do for the man, the worker responds that maybe, right now, all he needs is a friend.
Goes to show that, even as we are regaled with how every issue we face is multitudinous, and impossible to solve in a four-year time span, we might do best to tune out for a bit and think of the simplest answer. It just might be the best one. We could build back better from there. (Hah.)
We don’t need to be cheesy, but we could do with a bit of sincerity. Funny, how the latter is so often dismissed as the former in our age. It would be nice to dismantle the in-vogue pose of disaffected cool sweeping the realms of online users. People lobbing snark rockets from behind the safety of their screens. The true test, then, is to put yourself out on the line. Take a stand, have an opinion that cuts against the grain. Be sincere. Risk the wrath.
It goes in line with the greatest passage from the Fisher King, recounted by Parry.
It begins with the king as a boy, having to spend the night alone in the forest to prove his courage so he can become king. Now while he is spending the night alone he’s visited by a sacred vision. Out of the fire appears the holy grail, symbol of God’s divine grace. And a voice said to the boy, “You shall be keeper of the grail so that it may heal the hearts of men.” But the boy was blinded by greater visions of a life filled with power and glory and beauty. And in this state of radical amazement he felt for a brief moment not like a boy, but invincible, like God, so he reached into the fire to take the grail, and the grail vanished, leaving him with his hand in the fire to be terribly wounded. Now as this boy grew older, his wound grew deeper. Until one day, life for him lost its reason. He had no faith in any man, not even himself. He couldn’t love or feel loved. He was sick with experience. He began to die. One day a fool wandered into the castle and found the king alone. And being a fool, he was simple minded, he didn’t see a king. He only saw a man alone and in pain. And he asked the king, “What ails you friend?” The king replied, “I’m thirsty. I need some water to cool my throat”. So the fool took a cup from beside his bed, filled it with water and handed it to the king. As the king began to drink, he realized his wound was healed. He looked in his hands and there was the holy grail, that which he sought all of his life. And he turned to the fool and said with amazement, “How can you find that which my brightest and bravest could not?” And the fool replied, “I don’t know. I only knew that you were thirsty.”
I only knew you were thirsty. For a world growing increasingly parched, this is something to be adhered to.