By Ittai Sopher PZ ‘19
A tender young man has been stabbed by a bayonet in the Korean War. Helplessly looking up at the stars, he remembers a young blonde woman wagging her leg in a college library. The young man ruminates in his final moment: “there are reasons why we die”.
James Schamus’s Indignation, explores Marcus Messner’s exodus from the lower-middle class Jewish community of Newark, New Jersey to an elite and very Protestant liberal arts college in Ohio. Marcus is escaping a world that is obsessed with death. In the synagogues of Newark, a man recites the Mourner's’ Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, for his fallen child. Marcus’s friends take jabs at the fallen boy, a teammate of Marcus named Greenberg from the local baseball team, and suggest that the boy’s death is made more tragic by the fact that Greenberg was a virgin.
Foreshadowing the important role that sex will play in Marcus’s short time at a liberal-arts college in Ohio. Marcus’s father is feverishly and obsessively worried that Marcus will put himself in danger in college. After Marcus tells Greenberg’s mourning mother that he’s going to college in Ohio, the mother voices the concern which will make anyone raised in a traditional Jewish community burst out into laughter: “Ohio!? But how will you keep Kosher?” Later, once in college, you can almost feel the mourning mother’s warning bubbling in Marcus’s head as he slowly contemplates eating an extremely non-Kosher entree of Escargot in the fanciest restaurant of Franklin County, Ohio-- he does.
Throughout Marcus’s exodus from Newark, New Jersey to Winesburg College in Ohio, Marcus exhibits a strong disconnect from a surrounding environment which is obsessed with death. The ROTC marches in the background while the Dean of the College, Dean Caudwell, mourns in the pews about the tragedies befallen American soldiers in
The Korean War. Marcus falls in love with Olivia Hutton yet ignores the scars on her arm from cutting herself, and instead refers to her calmness and expertness, to which Olivia responds “Are you blind?” The relationship between the two is as gentle as it is seemingly lethal. As Olivia’s own emotional state becomes more fragile, Marcus only falls more in love with her and sees more beauty in who she is. Marcus’s mother warns him to disconnect himself from Olivia after Marcus’s mother sees the scar on Olivia’s wrist and Marcus’s father without even knowing who Olivia is warning Marcus about dating people, “Be careful!”, he screams into the phone. At the end of the film, as we see Marcus and Olivia reaching their final moments, Marcus in Korea and Olivia in an old- age home decades later, the larger theme of the reasons behind how we die, and how who we shape our demise, is extremely evident and adds nuance to Marcus’s unwavering ideological clash with Winesburg.
The film also shows the audience long and painstaking debates between Marcus and Dean Caudwell about how Marcus does not seem to fit into the institution and how the “accommodations” made for Marcus isolated him even more. More importantly, Dean Caudwell, challenges Marcus’s insistence in rebelling against the religious indoctrination imposed upon him, and advises Marcus to instead meditate on these feelings within the establishment. Logan Lerman as Marcus sweats in heated exacerbation as the Dean of Winseburg continuously challenges the fundamentals of who Marcus is. These moments are the strongest of the film and create a foundation for all other conflicts within Marcus’s brief college experience to revolve around. His internal struggles and debates about his Jewish identity and his positionality within the institution which manifest themselves in his work ethic and his initial disdain from joining a Jewish fraternity, are all put on hyperfocus in these scenes and the audience can not help but empathize with Marcus’s zealotry.
The film, set in 1951, is also extremely relevant to the Claremont Colleges today. In a college environment where so much burden is placed on marginalized groups to adjust to the college’s environment, Marcus’s approach to his school’s neglect of his identity is refreshing and timely. Marcus’s rejection of the “go along to get along” policy of his institution brings to mind the theories presented in Audre Lorde’s Transformation of Silence into Action in which Lorde asks her audience: “What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?”
In his debates with Dean Caudwell, Marcus is not interested in swallowing tyranny and opts to die with his voice heard rather than in silence. Marcus’s demise, which are made possible by consistent his acts of rebellion against institutional norms, raises questions about whether a system based on compromise functions as a form of violence against oneself and their community. While Marcus’s constant and unabiding feelings of indignation without fear of his demise ultimately lead to his death in the Korean War, his final thoughts about how our decisions are always indicative of our mortality lend credence to the notion that every single decision we make within our communities has repercussions and consequences. For Marcus, as a Jewish Atheist who is immersed in a very non-Jewish institution and in love with a supposedly self-destructive woman, this rebellion means standing up for his beliefs over the status quo regardless of the circumstances. The result of his actions is tragic yet extremely noble in that they represent an unwavering commitment to righteous and pluralistic values.