As I was writing my thoughts on the death of Osama bin Laden, I remembered a quote from a movie I saw when I was a teenager that I usually recall when people start talking about good guys and bad guys. It was from a movie, that was based on a play by Jules Feiffer called Little Murders. I remembered one sentence about there being no heroes or villains, and Elliot Gould‘s perfect deadpan delivery of the line. I googled the part I remembered and, lo and behold, came up with a link to the book form of the play with the line buried in this great monologue.
If you get a chance you should take a look at the whole movie. It is paranoid and zany and very, very dark. There are great performances by Alan Arkin, who directed it and plays a detective driven mad while investigating a string of arbitrary murders, and Elliot Gould who plays a photographer who has become emotionally detached from the world. The screenplay is by Feiffer. This monologue, from the play, was included in much the same form in the movie, and will give you an idea of the tone. Albert the photographer is telling this story to his girl friend to explain why he has to be the one to change in order to save their relationship.
Alfred: During Korea I was in college then—The government couldn’t decide whether I was a security risk or not – I wore a beard – so they put a mail check on me. Every day the mail would come later and later. And it would be bent. Corners torn. Never sealed correctly. Like they didn’t give a damn whether I knew they were reading my mail or not. I was more of a militant in those days so I decided to fight fire with fire. I began writing letters to the guy who was reading my mail. I addressed them to myself of course but inside they went something like: “ Dear Sir: I am not that different from you. All men are brothers. Tomorrow instead of reading my mail in that dark, dusty hall why not bring it upstairs where we can check it out together!” I never got an answer so I wrote a second letter. “Dear Sir: There are no heroes, no villains, no good guys, no bad guys. The world is more complicated than that. Come on up where we can open a couple of beers and talk it all out.” Again no answer. So then I wrote: “Dear Sir: I’ve been thinking too much of my own problems, too little of yours. Yours cannot be a happy task – reading another man’s mail. It’s dull, unimaginative. A job – and lets not mince words – for a hack. And yet I wonder – can this be the way you see yourself? Do you see yourself as a hack? Do you see yourself as the office slob? Have you ever wondered why they stuck you with this particular job instead of others who have less seniority? Or was it, do you think, that your supervisor looked around the office to see who he’d stick for the job, saw you and said ‘no one will miss him for a month.’” And still, no answer. But that letter – that letter never got delivered to me. So then I wrote: “Dear Friend: Just a note to advise: You may retain my letters as long as you see fit. Reread them. Study them. Think them out. Who, back at the office, is out to get you? Who, at this very minute, is sitting at your desk reading your mail? I do not say this to be cruel, but because I am the only one left you can trust –“ No answer. But – the next day a man, saying he was from the telephone company, showed up – no complaint had been made – to check the phone. Shaky hands. Bloodshot eyes. A small quiver in his voice. And as he dismembered my phone he said, “Look, what nobody understands is that everybody has his job to do. I got my job. In this case it’s repairing telephones. I like it or I don’t like it, but it’s my job. If I had another job – say, for example, with the FBI — or some place, putting in a wiretap, for example, or reading a guy’s mail – like it or don’t like it it would be my job! Has anyone got the right to destroy a man for doing his job?” I wrote one more letter – expressing my deep satisfaction that he and I had at last made contact and informing him that the next time he came, perhaps to read the meter, I had valuable information, Photostats, recordings, names and dates about the conspiracy against him. This letter showed up a week after I had mailed it, in a crumpled grease-stained, and Scotch-taped envelope. The letter itself was torn in half and then clumsily glued together again. In the margin, on the bottom, in large, shaky letters, was written the word “Please!” I wasn’t bothered again. It was after this that I began to wonder: if they’re that unformidable why bother fighting back? It’s very dangerous to challenge a system unless you are completely at peace with thought that you are not going to miss it when it collapses.