It has been a very long time since I’ve seen this film; it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that the last time I saw it was in a cinema in 1984 or 85. The film starts with a barren desert landscape and continues in that vein. Albeit now the barrenness is in the life of the main character, Travis Henderson, played by Harry Dean Santon with an eerie assurance. The atmosphere is drawn out by the guitar chords of Ry Cooder that at times are almost disturbing.
Travis Henderson isn’t actually mentally ill; he’s just suffering from the after effects of a world that doesn’t know what relationships are. In this blog I speak frequently about the central role of conversation in human activities, an inability to converse easily implies a serious problem. Not just with a person’s relationships, but in everything they do: business, work, friendships. The film starts with Travis as a mute, the ultimate incapacity to converse; as the film draws out, it becomes clearer where the roots of this lie in his life.
Travis’ brother Walt comes to collect him; it’s been so long that Walt thought Travis lost, or worse, dead. Walt doesn’t have so much of a problem with conversing, but unsurprisingly, finds it difficult to accept someone who doesn’t. It took me long enough to work out: it’s not something I expect others to comprehend swiftly. However, it’s Walt’s lack of compassion for Travis that is telling in the early part of the film. But then, Walt is a go-getting businessman who expects things to fall into his lap, and being in advertising, that probably means it does. Meeting someone who isn’t interested in talking is not what Walt lives for. The trouble here is that this is his brother and, well, blood is always thicker than water. That really is a serious problem for modern society, perhaps the central problem for modern society.
After all, you’ve grown up with your family (apols to those who didn’t), you know their every nuance and gesture. You learned long ago where their sensitive spots lay and that means they are left well alone. Which is really where all the problems begin. Isn’t it? We have a psychological ‘comfort zone’ in the way we have a home: we have a place to retreat to when it all gets a little too tiring.
The problem with families is that it’s so easy to be comfortable that it becomes a narcotic: it’s what you need most. That is when the real world takes on a darker shade than it should. The psychology of the comfort zone is one of continual shrinkage and withdrawal: without the conscious activity that literally broadens the mind, the comfort zone will shrink. It will do so because the individual is no longer willing to meet things that aren’t comfortable. My friend Hendrik keeps cats, and does so because it means he has an excuse not to go on holiday. Normal people keep cats so that they can go on holiday.
But this isn’t a post about normality. It’s a post about a man who is a metaphor for the state of our modern way of life. Travis is mute, his ‘normal’ brother is irritated by this. As well he might be! Travis has been missing for four years, there are explanations required of him. Walt is acting the schoolmaster to the pupil who claims that the dog ate his homework. But this isn’t a child trying the same trick for the third time: this is a seriously damaged individual. Someone who it turns out, had serious problems with his relationship with his partner, Jane (played by Natassja Kinski). Not that Walt has any time for this! He wants talk and means to get it.
The problem is that like the businessman expecting his customers to buy from him simply because they always have, Walt is expecting something that is not rightfully his. But that’s the comfort zone inverted: when something has happened often enough, it becomes habitual. Having become habitual that implies that the causes of those events are now lost: the businessman expects because it’s how life is. His customers have always bought from him. He’s never known anything different, how can life be different? People will behave as you tell them because they always have.
My question to you is this: what expectations do you have of others?
I’ll tell you the truth: I don’t have any. It’s always nice if they want to talk, in fact, the rare occasions that it does give me the greatest pleasure imaginable. If there is one credential that I seek in those who have access to my private blog, it is the ability to converse fluently and openly. The more usual case is that when a person speaks fluently, they’ll start to contradict themselves. That is to say, they’ll hang themselves with their own rope (1).
It’s how the comfort zone works. Those who are ready and willing to meet others are employing their comfort zone in the way it was intended to be used. As mentioned, they are rare exceptions in our modern world.
So here we have Walt demanding things of Travis that Travis is in no position to explain. Life has become so normal for Travis that it needs no explanation; indeed, the very reason for his wanting to be alone was so that he didn’t have to explain! He’s been alone for so long that it’s his ‘new normal’ – and new normals are always preceded by a pattern of events that lead to this eventual normality.
Travis was running away from the very thing he wanted most: a relationship with a woman. His problem was that he expected too much of her, she was too young to know how to cope with this. Expectations and reality are hard task masters, and it shouldn’t surprise us that most people seek to avoid them. Our upbringing has left us empty handed when it comes to dealing with these challenges.
The result is the emptiness of the places Travis seeks, walking and walking and walking to try and numb the pain that is expressed in the steel strings of the guitar. Only to be found by his brother Walt, and to be taken into the custody of his Los Angeles home. Albeit that it is a comfortable and engaging custody that I will speak of in a future post.
(1) See an example of this in my post, “Why Is It Always Me That Has A Mental Disorder?”