When John Goodman started running through that flaming hotel in Barton Fink, sweating and screaming, “I’ll show you the life of the mind!” he wasn’t actually that far off. In these troubled times, The Life of the Mind is a pressure cooker with peeling wallpaper and poor customer service.
Those who pursue the ‘Life of the Mind’, whether they wanted to or were forced to, will probably end up passing through university or college at some point. These are the places described by that man behind the curtain in The Wizard Of Oz where great people go to ‘think thoughts’ and get a diploma at the end of it all.
The Not-So-Great-And-Powerful Oz forgot to mention the binge drinking, baked beans and the aggressive student politicians who want you to join the Stop the Illegal Invasion of the Planet Pandora coalition, but never mind.
Originally, individuals left university with a little bit more in the way of brains, a qualification and a job (with some liver damage and some embarrassing rashes if they didn’t take care of themselves properly).
Unfortunately, times change and governments decide they’d rather spend state cash on wars for unobtainium in far off lands rather than subsidising the further studies and sexual exploits of young people. For a whole variety of reasons – the shifting nature of society, economic boom and bust, bad advice from fortune cookies, etc. – higher education is now quite different from what it was in, say, the 1970s. Now graduates leave university to be greeted by unemployment and massive debt.
The Graduate suggested that post-academic life was all floating around swimming pools with a cocktail in your hand whilst rich older women throw themselves at you. If it had been made in 2010, however, Dustin Hoffman’s character would be paddling around in a puddle of his own unwashed hair grease, sucking on a recycled teabag in a dirty pint glass while waiting for the Jobcentre to ring back.
This makes the 21st century Life of the Mind look pretty unappealing, in that instead of prosperity and a glowing future of potential, you’re left staring into the economy-sized bean tin of poverty.
Recent figures on graduate unemployment are scarier than an army of winged monkeys, and it’s pretty grim out there for anyone who decided to pay the fees to go to some lectures and write a thesis ‘cause they thought it would do them good’.
What we’ve got now is a whole generation of aspiring particle physicists queuing up to clean car windows at traffic lights and law students trying to get gigs in strip clubs.
You know the crack addict hobo who’s huffing glue in the alley behind Burger King? Yeah, he’s the country’s third highest regarded scholar on Descartes and Early Modern European philosophy. “I think, therefore I am.” used to be his motto. Since graduating with honours his credo has become “I sleep rough and shove things up my nose, therefore I am most definitely not.”
In conclusion, if you’re coming to me for careers advice (and if you are then you’re probably far beyond hopeless), I’d suggest that you consider alternatives to the Life of the Mind before you enrol for next semester. In fact, offering up my experience as a moviegoer I can tell you that educated people usually end up being helpless victims or heinous, heartless villains.
See megalomaniacs like Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Dr. Strangelove. Observe the deranged likes of Henry Frankenstein and Herbert West of Re-Animator holed up in labs conducting wicked experiments on dead things. Witness the pain of Steve Carell’s character in Little Miss Sunshine as he’s dragged on a dysfunctional family road trip to a beauty pageant instead of being allowed to kill himself in peace.
The Life of the Mind is a lonely and torturous one of twisted ethics and estrangement. As Barton Fink said, “There’s no roadmap for that territory… and exploring it can be painful.”
With all that anguish and confusion, Goodman’s inferno in the Hotel Earle is an act of mercy.
The action heroes who follow the Life of the Fist (or the Life of the AK-47) have a much better time of it, and this was reinforced in my mind by Predators.
All the extra-terrestrial ass kicking is done by the cosmopolitan core band of badasses (a mercenary, special forces, a Yakuza assassin, etc.). Acting as a token intellectual, Topher Grace’s doctor is there to remind us just how feeble and unreliable educated people are.
The trailers for The Expendables and The A-Team preceding Predators all underscored the point: Hollywood recommends a Life of Armed Combat over more cerebral, academic pursuits. Trust the tough guys and turn off your brain. You should aspire to be Arnold Schwarzenegger and not Woody Allen.
Ignore your careers advisor, kids. Worship Bruce Willis and Sly Stallone and work on your brawn instead of cultivating your mind. Life is more fun when you’ve got an oversized projectile weapon at your side and an occupation where you can kill in cold blood without guilt and worry.
You’re less likely to end up in debt, sexually propositioned by a leering lecturer or torched by a sweaty psychopath in a fleapit. In fact, you’re the lucky guy who gets to hold the flamethrower. A career in the military? Could be a pip…
There’s also the added bonus that if you join up and excel in the armed forces you might be specially selected by the Predators to take part in the prestigious unreal tournament on their game preserve planet.
It’s like the greatest gap year holiday ever: travel, adventure, cultural exchange, self discovery and an adrenaline rush that you’d never get on a nine-to-five internship.
The ‘human game-hunting’ concept that provides the basis for Predators is a brilliant idea. It allows the best bits of the 1987 Predator movie to flare with the spirit of Battle Royale, with vicious alien creatures taking the place of Japanese school children. (See how academia only leads to despair and degeneracy?)
In fact, until the economy picks up and someone decides to abolish tuition fees, the smart choice is an extended gap year in outer space war gaming, from which return is a bit difficult. Tool up with a vast arsenal, volunteer for the Predators Game Preserve Experience and you’ll probably come out of it better than you would from three years at university. Plus, no Predator could ever be as terrifying as the fiery wrath of an enraged John Goodman.
James’ previous column can be found here.