Hearts and Minds
Chris Wisniewski on The Station Agent and The World According to Garp
About fifteen minutes into Tom McCarthy’s The Station Agent, the film’s protagonist, Fin (Peter Dinklage), walks into a convenience store near the train depot he has just inherited. The clerk is astonished to see the man—a dwarf—in her shop. As he heads over to a cooler to grab some water, she leans over the counter to get a better look. “Yoohoo,” she calls. He turns toward her; she pulls out a camera and snaps a picture. Annoyed, Fin nods and continues to shop, a nonchalant indication that the clerk’s reaction to her once-in-a-lifetime dwarf sighting is all-too-familiar to him. One could criticize this convenience store encounter as easy and perhaps a little condescending; more than once, McCarthy’s film teeters towards mocking the provincialism of the New Jersey townsfolk Fin encounters (in one particularly unconvincing scene, a pair of twenty-somethings make a dated reference to Fantasy Island, shouting “De plane! De plane!” as Fin walks away from them). But Dinklage’s casually weary response to the indignation has an emotional authenticity.
When I first saw The Station Agent, I was deeply moved by McCarthy’s empathy for his characters and especially by his film’s sensitive portrayal of a fully realized central character who happened to be a little person. But I was grading on a curve. Like Fin, my sister is an achondroplastic dwarf, and my whole life, I have observed as she has endured taunts, stares, and (yes, it really happens) unwanted picture-taking from grown adults who really should know better. The unrelenting insenstivity towards dwarves that is rampant and strangely permissible in our culture has become a part of my sister’s everyday experience, but before The Station Agent, I had never seen that insensitivity convincingly portrayed on a movie screen. Hollywood prefers its dwarves to be munchkins and elves—inhabitants of fantasy worlds (or yes, fantasy islands)—not flesh-and-blood leading men.
Representation matters, though. As much as we go to the movies to step outside of ourselves—to be thrilled, fascinated, challenged, or entertained—we also seek something emotionally familiar and relatable. And for those of us who feel different or somehow “other,” because of our race, gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, physical disability, and the like, there can be something isolating about the way Hollywood cinema leaves us on the outside looking in. This is obvious enough. Multiple alternative and independent film industries and movements, from the race movies produced by companies like the Micheaux Film Corporation during the classical Hollywood period through the New Queer Cinema of the nineties, have emerged, in part, from the commonly shared appetite to see movies about “people like us.” Taken from this perspective, The Station Agent—which is nearly singular in its truly sympathetic depiction of dwarfism—is praiseworthy, and even courageous.
And yet, when I told a cinephile friend that I had chosen to write about The Station Agent for this symposium, his immediate response was decidedly ungenerous: “Ugh, that movie is terrible,” he groaned. He has a case. The Station Agent follows train-obsessed, emotionally remote Fin as he moves to rural New Jersey and grudgingly befriends Joe (Bobby Canavale), a gregarious hot dog/coffee truck operator, and Olivia (Patricia Clarkson), a painter struggling with the death of her child. It becomes clear, by the end of the first reel, that this unlikely trio will form a tenuous pseudo-familial bond, and so there is not much at stake in The Station Agent: Joe might annoy Fin and even, once, stand him up at a bar, but Fin, in spite of himself, would never completely walk away from the friendship; Olivia attempts suicide, but she would never actually succeed in a movie like this. Even the faint and potentially complicating romantic energy between Fin and Olivia is conveniently displaced onto Michelle Williams’s librarian character (less emotionally connected to Fin and already pregnant with someone else’s child, and thus a decidedly “safer” romantic interest). Nothing happens that we don’t already suspect will happen; open-mindedness and liberal, pluralist values are reaffirmed in completely nonthreatening ways. Visually uninspired and packaged to please, The Station Agent is just the sort of noble, aesthetically unambitious, character-focused comedy-drama that gets praised as great filmmaking by middlebrow audiences and critics who probably don’t know—or care to know—the difference between Abbas Kiarostami and Aki Kaurismäki: disabled protagonist, check; suicidal platonic love interest, check; chatty, vaguely ethnic comic relief, check.
The Station Agent neither attempts nor manages to challenge or provoke, aesthetically or politically. To what extent, though, should we require such provocation? How important is formal or political ambition to our definition of “quality cinema”? Any assessment of The Station Agent may be less an objective valuation of its worthiness than an assertion of a certain set of evaluative criteria, a choice between “highbrow” or “elitist” artistic pleasure/edification and “middlebrow” sensitivity/entertainment. Is it enough that The Station Agent satisfies emotionally while inviting us to empathize with someone who is other, or should we expect a deeper and more profound level of engagement from the movies we watch? The question risks reducing film culture and criticism to a battle between the highbrow and the middlebrow framed as a contest between the heart and the mind.
George Roy-Hill’s 1982 adaptation of John Irving’s 1978 novel The World According to Garp upends these easy categorizations. More intellectually complex and formally ambitious than McCarthy’s uninspiring but big-hearted movie, The World According to Garp lacks the sensitivity and grace that so distinguishes The Station Agent. Both are decidedly middlebrow—but in almost completely incompatible and strangely anachronistic ways: where The Station Agent follows in the rather outmoded tradition of earnest, heart-on-its-sleeve Hollywood fare of the late Seventies and early Eighties like On Golden Pond and Ordinary People, Garp anticipates the faux-edgy, cynical, and essentially conservative “iconoclasm” of contemporary indie hits like Little Miss Sunshine and Juno. Next to Garp, The Station Agent feels old-fashioned. It takes time with the lost souls who occupy its narrative center and invites its audience to both share their pain and experience the uplift they find in discovering each other. Next to The Station Agent, Garp feels positively soulless. Coasting on its literary pedigree, it clips from one plot point to the next and from quirk to quirk. It overpacks incident and violent tragedy into its two hour and fifteen minute runtime, to little emotional effect.
Garp begins with an image of a naked infant flying through the air as the credits roll, accompanied by the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.” Hill cuts to Jenny Fields (Glenn Close) catching the child on a beach, then walking into her parents’ house. “Garp?” her mother asks incredulously. “Garp,” Jenny assures her, and then explains the circumstances surrounding his birth. The year is 1944, and Fields, who had been a nurse in the war, conceived her son by sleeping with Technical Sergeant (“T.S.”) Garp, a comatose pilot with a constant erection who was under her medical care. The pilot died, but she got her baby, which, as Jenny explains, was exactly what she intended. Aghast, her mother asks if they bothered to marry. “I didn’t need his ring, mother; I needed his sperm.”
In her rejection of postwar gender roles and heterosexual partnership, Jenny casts herself, not unlike the characters of The Station Agent, as an outsider, though her outsider status is a function of feminist ideology (she roundly dismisses the notion of taking a husband who would have “legal rights” over her body), not biology or circumstance. Meanwhile, the titular Garp, played as an adult by Robin Williams, is a child of the baby boom who anticipates, through the circumstances surrounding his birth, the counterculture his generation would later usher in. Because of his unlikely origin story, he stands as a symbol of the same feminist ideology Jenny puts into practice, and in its episodic depiction of Garp’s life from childhood through adulthood, the movie charts the emergence of a fictionalized radical feminist movement inspired and shepherded by Jenny. It steps outside of the patriarchal normative social and familial structures of postwar America, and narrates a sort of “alternative biography” rooted in a feminist creation myth.
But it is Garp, not Jenny, who occupies the film’s center, and he frequently opposes, in thought and deed, the radical feminism his mother and her friends advocate. The figure of the other Garp, the dead father Garp, becomes an idée fixe for the character and the film, suggesting that even Garp Jr. rejects his mother’s conviction that she just “needed sperm.” As a child, he asks questions about his father incessantly, then draws a picture of him that becomes, in one of the movie’s more visually inventive sequences, the hero of an animated adventure the boy imagines in his sleep. In school, he takes up wrestling because the headgear reminds him of an aviator’s helmet. Even after he admits to his mother that he “never needed a father,” the obsession persists. At the end of the movie, Garp, suffering from a gunshot wound, is rushed to the hospital via helicopter. “I’m flying,” he says on his deathbed, smiling in wonder, as if this ascension has finally brought him close to the pilot/father he never knew.
Jenny repudiates lust, male desire, and marriage; Garp sleeps with prostitutes, marries, and cheats on his wife with a babysitter. Jenny raises her son as a single mother; Garp becomes so obsessed with fatherhood that he stares at his children while they sleep and forces his wife to sit with him in their car and watch the children play in the living room on a night they had planned on going to the movies. Despite the affection between Garp and his mother, the two are set in opposition to each other and engage in an ongoing contest over who gets to speak for whom. Early in the film, Garp decides to become a writer and pens a thinly veiled biography of his mother. “If you’re going to write about me,” she complains, “wait until I’m dead,” and then she decides to write the book herself—a bestselling manifesto titled Sexual Suspect. As Hill’s camera lingers on a full shot of a store window filled with copies of Jenny’s book, Garp complains, “It’s sickening,” and goes on to express his frustration that his mother had included information about him in the book. Later, Jenny becomes a caretaker for a group of women who call themselves the Ellen Jamesians after a girl who was raped and had her tongue cut out (so she couldn’t implicate her attackers). The Ellen Jamesians have their tongues voluntarily removed as an act of political protest. Garp denounces the group, and after he learns that Ellen herself has appealed to them to disband, he publishes Ellen, a vicious attack of the Ellen Jamesians. Jenny barely condones them, but as the movie plays out, her outspoken radicalism paves the way for their extremism. And so Garp becomes, in both his public and personal life, a kind of reactionary figure vis a vis his mother: a vocal critic of feminist extremism, a philandering husband, a doting, loving father.
Though Close plays Jenny Fields sympathetically, the movie finally seems to align itself with Garp and the conservative values of marriage, fatherhood, and patriarchal family that he largely represents. And when Garp’s actions could put these institutions at risk, he suffers no consequence: the movie largely sweeps Garp’s infidelities under the rug, as though they are innocent, understandable, and largely forgivable. By contrast, when Garp’s wife Helen (Mary Beth Hurt) has an affair with one of her students, the indiscretion leads to a car accident in which Garp, Helen, and her suitor are all wounded (horrifically and, oddly, comically) and one of their sons is killed. For a film so invested in probing gender politics, this comparatively severe narrative punishment plays as a cautionary tale, and it places Garp in a position of power—in forgiving Helen, he repairs their broken family and even gives her a new child to replace the one they’ve lost.
The world of Garp is a fictionalized version of our own. Like many of Irving’s novels, the book draws inspiration from contemporaneous social and political issues while also exaggerating, amplifying, and sometimes introducing a few absurdities (during Helen and Garp’s first viewing of their future house, a plane crashes into it. “We’ll be safe here,” says Garp, asserting that lightning never strikes in the same place twice). Radical feminism, political extremism, and political assassination would have been serious and timely topics for Irving’s readers and Hill’s viewers. From this perspective, The World According to Garp, unlike The Station Agent, unsettles. It engages with big ideas, but it does so at a cost: Garp and Jenny, the movie’s two central figures, never really feel fully human. They express thoughts and represent concepts; indeed, they ignite such furious political debate in the context of the narrative that each is assassinated—Jenny, by an unidentified gunman at a political rally, Garp by an Ellen Jamesian ostensibly retaliating for his book—but they’re never quite recognizable.
The Station Agent’s Fin, Joe, and Olivia, on the other hand, embody nothing more or less than a very common—and very recognizable—loneliness. Like Garp, Olivia lost a son in a horrible accident. While Garp and Helen spend precious little screentime grappling with their loss—Walt is mentioned just once after he dies—Olivia’s grief is deep, raw, and full-blooded. She confesses to Fin how difficult it feels to be around other people, imagining their eyes on her, knowing that they are thinking, “There’s the woman whose son died.” In that moment, their bond makes perfect sense, and it doesn’t feel “written” at all: they’re both preoccupied by what it’s like to be different, to have everyone around you notice you and judge you. His disability and her grief provide the basis for a straightforward and intelligible kinship.
When Olivia rejects Fin’s friendship, just before her attempted suicide, she confronts him: “I am not your fucking girlfriend, or your mother.” With that, Olivia encapsulates and rejects the shared need they each bring to their relationship. Despite his reluctance to open himself up to others, Fin secretly craves the emotional intimacy she offers, while Olivia wants, to some extent, to play caretaker. Later, by saving her after she overdoses on pills, Fin asserts his investment in their friendship and becomes caretaker to her. None of this is unexpected in a narrative sense, but it does reconfigure the emotional landscape of the film. McCarthy leaves them in a moment of mutual understanding and affection that feels wholly earned—unsurprising, sure, but also unforced.
The World According to Garp, despite its intellectual ambition, mostly fails to achieve the same tenderness of McCarthy’s otherwise undistinguished film. Except in the case of Roberta Muldoon. A transsexual and former tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles played by an Oscar-nominated John Lithgow, Roberta is a resident of the colony run by Jenny who becomes, in time, one of Garp’s closest confidants. She bridges the space between these two strangely opposed characters: even as she challenges traditional attitudes towards gender in her stature, gate, and appearance, she longs, like Garp, for marriage and children. Upon meeting her, Garp observes that she “seem[s] like the only normal person around,” and she may be. She dates, plays with the kids, provides emotional guidance; she and Garp have a believable, physically affectionate relationship. She never feels like a sideshow or a joke. Hill deserves credit for the movie’s frank depiction of Roberta, but the achievement is also Lithgow’s. Like Dinklage and Clarkson, he brings to his role a knowing sense of loneliness and an open-hearted desire to connect to others. Though Garp has little in common with The Station Agent, both films achieve emotional resonance through the performances of skilled actors who manage to remind us how it feels to be other, on the outside looking in. It is through the most improbable character of Roberta Muldoon that Hill’s film acquits itself most admirably, and reminds us—as McCarthy’s does, at its best moments—how invigorating it can be to see people onscreen whose stories too often remain untold: a cinema of difference.