A Comunity Savant - PNN reviews The Station Agent

root - Posted on 13 June 2004

A PNN ReViEwsForTheReVolUtiOn

by Josh McVeigh-Schultz/Mentor; Dee Gray

I never new my grandfather, Joseph McVeigh, but the pall caste by his death still lingers over our family gatherings. He was larger than life and relentless about his connections to people. He was someone who absorbed everyone he met into his ever-expanding world. My grandmother likes to tell me that when he died there were forty different people who came to her and swore he was their best friend.

I have felt his absence throughout my life. At every family gathering, someone will tell me how wonderful it would have been if I had known him, if I had been able to soak up his zest for life.

My grandmother never remarried, and we assume it is because she still adores him and still feels the weight of his absence. My four uncles and two aunts try in vain to replace his presence, but their performance of his personality often degenerates into ugly competitiveness and jealousy. Even the grandchildren want to be Joseph McVeigh and we vie for the family’s attention, failing to realize that what made him special was not the attention he received but the attention he gave to others. In many ways, I have yet to apply this lesson to my own life, and my solution to my extended family’s competitiveness is to ignore the game altogether. This is the strategy of silence.

A new film, The Station Agent, explores the theme of isolation in our modern society and celebrates the relentless pursuit of community as a form of resistance and salvation.

The film follows Fin, a train enthusiast who inherits a small plot of land in rural New Jersey. This property includes an abandoned train station that once housed a “station agent�—a sort of jack-of-all-trades: shopkeeper, depot manager, and barber, who once served as the social focal point for small rural communities.

We get the sense that station agents are throwbacks to another era in American history. Like passenger trains, they are an institution of American life that has already seen its day and now must recede into the background of historical minutia.

But throughout the film, the idea of the station agent emerges as a key metaphor. In particular, the waning of this social institution suggests a more profound trend in America: that the complex web of human relations that makes up our society is falling into disrepair. Without community focal points, without anyone to play the role of “node� within a social network, we are becoming more and more isolated. And strands of the web that once connected whole communities together, now hang aimlessly like cobwebs in an old abandoned building.

The protagonist of the film, Fin, is metaphorically caste in the unlikely role of “station agent.� But his laconic, anti-social personality makes him an awkward fit.

Outside his new dwelling, Fin encounters Joe, an extremely gregarious Cuban American who has left the city to help his ailing father and run the family’s hot dog stand. Though Joe’s first attempts at striking up a friendship with Fin fall flat, his relentless friendliness eventually wears down Fin’s protective barriers.

In many ways, Joe would seem to be the real “station agent� of the story because he is so outgoing and engaging with everyone he meets. His relentless pursuit of social contact makes him something like a community savant.

He is also the only character who is involved with his family. His obligation to his father and to the family’s business, shows that he has not succumb to the pressures of capitalism: he does not consider his own life to be an economically independent entity severed from the life of his parents.

And yet, there is nothing surprising here. It is Joe’s Cuban American background that ensures his close family ties. We get the sense, then, that ethnicity and culture have a part to play in resisting—or perhaps in other cases, exacerbating—the disintegration of social webs into tattered cobwebs.

However, Joe is not universally successful at creating social contacts in this small rural community. His “in your face� Cuban American attitude rubs many people the wrong way. Joe not only struggles to win the friendship of Fin, but he also has trouble getting the female lead, Olivia, to like him. Moreover, in a broader sense, his unabashed confidence contrasts with the understated, meditative mood of the film. It is as if he doesn’t fit the mold the generic indy-film character: slightly wounded, slightly offbeat, and slightly empowered by his own quirkiness. Instead, Joe is just plain empowered. His unmitigated persistence in pursuing social ties makes him something of an uber-friend.

Perhaps ironically then, it is Fin who becomes the unwitting catalyst for a three-way friendship when Olivia hurdles into his life with her lumbering SUV. The lesson here is that there is no ideal personality or “type� that best fulfills the role of social networker. Olivia’s bad driving is what triggers her connection to Fin. And Fin’s stubborn reticence is what leaves the door open to Joe’s friendship.

If this were a Hollywood film, Olivia and Joe would develop a romantic connection, with Fin as their surrogate child a la Ralf Mineo in Rebel Without a Cause. But director Thomas McCarthy wisely keeps these three characters on equal footing despite their vast differences. The juxtaposition of their disparate voices, in fact, becomes a key device for dramatic tension and humor.

But, like the characters in Felini’s La Strada, the one thing these three characters share is their common experience as misfits. They are all outsiders in a foreign environment. And they all struggle with feelings of isolation.

Joe, the fast talking urbanite, is clearly a fish out of water, and the endless calls on his cell phone suggest that city-life beckons him to return. His friendliness makes him powerful, but it also belies a sense of loneliness and vulnerability.

For Olivia, isolation comes in layers. She and her husband originally bought a vacation home in the small rural community in order to isolate themselves from the pressures of the suburbs. But when their son died at a young age, she retreated to the vacation home in order to escape her husband while she nursed her grief. Now, her rejection of middleclass suburban culture is not so much a lifestyle decision as it is a defense mechanism: everything in the suburbs, including her husband, reminds her of her son. In this sense, she is like the classic bohemian, who escapes bourgeois culture for psychological reasons that then map, post facto, onto political ones.

The source of Fin’s isolation seems obvious at first. He is a dwarf living among taller people. But his defining characteristic is not his height but his unbridled passion for a dying institution: trains. Ironically, the very thing that made trains revolutionary—i.e. their ability to connect people and places over vast geographic expanses—is what Fin seems to find least interesting in life. In fact, he goes out of his way to avoid other people, so that he can spend more time focused on his love of a machine that was designed to connect people to each other.

The actor, Peter Dinklage, plays Fin with the poise of a dramatic stage actor, but his real strength comes across in the way he conveys so much with awkward pauses and silent evasions of human contact. He says himself that he is a simple man. But his misanthropic tendencies and his tragic love of a dying institution (trains) belie some deeper current to his inner world.

Fin is a dwarf, and this fact is central to his character if for no other reason than that the cinematic gaze is unaccustomed to his body-type. It would be silly to try and ignore it, so instead, his size becomes a prominent piece of the story.

However, director and writer Thomas McCarthy allows the character Fin to exist beyond the limits of a Hollywood cliché. Even though dwarves and midgets have played countless characters in TV and film, their roles are usually fetishized or exoticized as with the munchkins of the Wizard of Oz or with Mini-me from the Austin Powers movies. But in The Station Agent, it feels as if we are able to forget about Fin’s size for certain moments, especially when he is protected from the gaze of ogling locals. On the other hand, when he feels exposed, his size comes to the foreground again. But it’s the way that Fin deals with the issue of being looked at and treated differently that makes the story and his performance so strong.

I feel there is delicate balance that has to be struck. On the one hand, minorities are often type-caste in Hollywood films, so when they are seen in challenging and unexpected roles it allows them to branch out and be taken seriously—which seems positive. But on the other hand, assumptions about what it means to “branch out� can have biased undercurrents. For example white critics will sometimes compliment a black artist for transcending race and finally making a “normal� film, or writing a “normal� novel. But, here “normal� is really a code word for ‘white.’ It is as if the idea of art being racially charged cannot exist as a default category.

In another highly acclaimed and beautifully photographed film called George Washington, young black actors delivered incredible performances, but the issue of race was completely ignored by the white director and I think this detracted from the film. In the dialogue, white and black characters interacted as if there was nothing separating them. It was as if they lived in a color-blind society, yet the gaze of the film was still white. Black families dealt with their problems as if they were mimicking a white cultural model. And the protagonist of the film dreamt of becoming a great “hero� like George Washington, but there was no thought given to the possibility that a young black child might have a more sophisticated understanding of white power in American history.

In an interview, the writer/director, David Gordon Green, remarked that the reference to George Washington is purposefully meant to sound naïve and childlike. But whose childhood is he really talking about? It seems more likely to be his own. Interestingly, the look and feel of this movie was very “indy� with long drawn out shots, quirky dialogue, and a droning minimalist soundtrack. These accoutrements all contribute to the white gaze of the film, though, and I was left thinking that maybe a white director shouldn’t have made this one.

So what about Station Agent? There are some similarities between these two films. The look and feel of The Station Agent was very “indy� as well, with long drawn out shots, an emphasis on lush cinematography, and a minimalist score. Moreover, just as the writer/director of George Washington is not black, the writer/director of The Station Agent, Thomas McCarthy, is not a dwarf. And the main character, Fin, seems equally misrepresented. He avoids contact with other dwarves and midgets. His best friend in the beginning of the film is a taller man, and his only romantic encounters are with taller women. And yet, for someone who has always lived among the tall, he seems incredibly bitter and maladjusted to his role as minority.

The actor Peter Dinklage, by contrast, comes across as extremely confident and well adjusted. On a recent episode of Jay Leno, he strutted around the stage declaring to the audience: “look at meâ€| I am so sexy.â€? The audience roared with laughter and adulation.

But I am left with questions. Which is the more telling portrayal of the experience of a dwarf? Is Thomas McCarthy’s character inaccurate? Is it unlikely that Fin would be so repressed and bitter that he avoids all human contact until it is forced upon him? Or is Peter Dinklage the exception? Has he existed so long as an entertainer that he had to learn how to turn the fetishism and exoticism into ironic humor? And is he unique in this capability, or do all dwarfs find themselves relying on humor to undermine the "gaze"?

Maybe I am overlooking the obvious, though. Maybe the answer is simply that the actor, Peter Dinklage, and the character, Fin, are two totally different people who shouldn’t be confused or conflated just because they inhabit the same body.

But putting aside the issue of dwarf/midget identity, how would the story of The Station Agent have been different if Peter Dinklage’s personality had replaced that of Fin? Would Joe, Olivia, and Fin have become such good friends? Or would they have been less compatible? Would Joe have been threatened by Fin’s confidence? Would Olivia be less eager to pursue a friendship with Fin if he displayed an overtly sexual sense of humor? Would either Joe or Olivia have found Fin so intriguing if he wasn’t so quiet and enigmatic? Maybe the three wouldn’t have been such good friends after all.

The point I am making is that communities come in many shapes and sizes, and there is no one “type� of person that best connects people to each other. In the end, the role of station agent seems almost arbitrary. Anyone can be a successful station agent if circumstances allow. And perhaps the most important trait to have is not a wild and relentless loquaciousness, but rather, a sincere love of people and a willingness to let the community exist beyond the boundaries of ones own sense of self.

Fin’s strategy of silence and enigma eventually gave way to a genuine interest and caring for other people. In some ways, his silence facilitated this connection, because it gave him an aura of empathy. In other words, when you keep your own personality at bay, others can fill in the blanks and imagine that you somehow relate to them on a profound level. Eventually this fantasy grows into a reality. My own strategy of silence within my extended family has sometimes had this effect.

But at other times, my laconic performance comes off as morose, and probably scares people off. I have a theory about this, though. My hunch is that morose times call for morose community leaders. And so maybe I’ll have my turn at station agent yet.

When Grandpa Joe died, my grandmother fell ill and almost passed away a few days after her husband. She survived, but she had to stay in the hospital for months. During this time, the family’s oldest daughter, Jane, left college to care for her younger siblings. At the time, Jane was quiet and sensitive, but her older brothers stopped teasing her as much after this show of heroism. The new station agent of the family was my mother.


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