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Filmmaker Letter

Filmmaker Letter


by writer/director James Schamus

The first words of the opening voice-over of Indignation, spoken by Marcus Messner (played by Logan Lerman), a precocious 19-year-old who both understands and doesn’t understand the full weight of his musings, tackles the idea of causality—an idea at the heart of every screenplay writing handbook ever written:

It is important to understand about dying that even though in general you don’t have personal choice in the matter—it is going to happen to you when it happens to you—there are reasons you die. There are causes, a chain of events linked by causality, and those events include decisions that you have personally made.

On the surface, this makes sense enough. But I think in fact the whole thing is a wonderful jumble. First, about dying: if it is certain that you are going to die, the notion of cause already comes under some pressure. Death may well be an event, but it is also the very ground of the events that precede it: the one certain cause of all death is, in this sense, life; and, in the dramatic schema that in important ways make up human consciousness, one could also say, too, and say meaningfully, as Plato has Socrates say as he awaits his own death by poisoning in the Apology, that death is a “cause” of life. Second, note how Marcus mixes “causes” with “a chain of events linked by causality.” On the one hand, you could make the argument, as so many philosophers since Hume have, that this is precisely the kind of tautological thinking that gets humans into trouble; one event may follow another, but rational deduction derived from the observation of sequential events has proved to be shaky ground to stand on for making claims for universal determinism. Not to mention the endless chain set off by the question: what was the cause of that cause?

In Indignation’s centerpiece scene—the duel between Marcus and Winesburg College’s Dean Caudwell, played by Tracy Letts—Marcus invokes his political and philosophical hero, Bertrand Russell. But I don’t think Marcus is really all that knowledgeable about Russell’s own contributions to these debates about causality. In a famous essay from 1913, “On the Notion of Cause,” Russell wrote:

The law of causality, I believe, like much that passes muster among philosophers, is a relic of a bygone age, surviving, like the monarchy, only because it is erroneously supposed to do no harm.

But by the late 1940s Russell had modified his views substantially, and just as Marcus was finishing his high school education Russell was developing his ideas of what he called “causal lines.” Russell wanted to account for what he called the “quasi-permanence” of things and people over stretches of time; he is, to me at least, for all his technical language, quite movingly circling back to a problem John Locke grappled with about the very coherence of our identities in a world of flux, birth and death.  And, of course, Marcus adds a third, decisive element to this mix—“decisions you have personally made.” In other words, Marcus throws in the idea of freedom, which mathematicians and thinkers like Henri Bergson inscribed into the very heart of their accounts of temporality and causation, and which Sartre and others were building from to create Existentialism, a school of thinking just coming to America’s shores during Indignation’s story.

This idea of freedom, however, poses its own challenges for our film’s characters—what responsibility does the agent of a free act have for consequences unintended and unforeseen, for example? Just a couple of minutes after Marcus’s opening voice over, another character, Marcus’s father, played by Danny Burstein, bursts out to his son: “It’s about life, Markie. About the tiniest mistake that can have consequences.” To which Marcus replies: “Oh Christ, you sound like a fortune cookie.” Here, the question arises as to the seeming disproportion of our characters’ fates to the smallness (or non-existence) of the causes for those fates, and I think Philip Roth (and this dialogue is taken directly from Roth’s novel, on which the film is based) is speaking to something even the most uncinematic of us feel: we are all small, in the grand scheme of things, and death will make us smaller, but there’s something huge about how we negotiate the path between our tiny beginning and end points. Tellingly, Marcus’s father’s emphatic insistence on causality—and on our freedom as a cause in the world—makes Marcus think of “fortune cookies,” those insignificant occult reminders of fate, not freedom. It’s as if what we often ask for from narrative films—the desire for some kind of articulated balance between causality and significance—is itself, for the film’s characters, a perverse kind of cause for their destinies; Marcus and Olivia (the young woman played by Sarah Gadon whose own fate tragically intersects with our hero’s) desperately want to align significance and consequence, choice and cause, fate and freedom. But such alignments, especially as propounded in the usual studio screenplay formulae, can appear only after the fact, in retrospect—and who knows what retrospection will be available to us after we are gone?

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