“Indignation”: 50s period drama about campus life and the military draft, with ironic parallels to my first “Do Ask, Do Tell” book narrative

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Name: Indignation
Director, writer:  James Schamus, Philip Roth (novel)
Released:  2016
Format:  1.85:1
When and how viewed:  2016/8/7, afternoon, Angelika Mosaic, Fairfax Va, fair audience
Length 110
Rating R
Companies: Summit, Roadside Attractions, Likely Story
Link: RA official site

Indignation”, directed by James Schamus (his directing debut, but well known as a screenwriter, like for “The Ice Storm” (1997)) is an early 50s period drama based on a socially depictive novel written by Philip Roth, from 2008.

The plot concept, described for its own sake, would sound bizarre at first, but the film reiterates the atmosphere and attending issues of college life (and family life) of post WWII America, and creates an atmosphere similar to what I had imagined for the first chapter of my first (1997) book, “Do Ask, Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back”.  I guess this was the movie for me to see one day after exhibiting my own books at OutWrite DC (yesterday’s review).

Stop, for a moment, and consider what the word means.  which Google shows as “anger or annoyance from what is perceived as unfair treatment’.  Yup, put the word on a high school English vocabulary test. Put it in the SAT’s; the idea is important.  When enough people get mad, they can join together an lash out, even threatening social stability and expropriation, even sometimes revolution.

That’s not quite what happens here.  The lead character is college freshman Marcus (Logan Lerman) who, at about 18, has the same kind of verbal charisma as someone like Jack Andraka or Taylor Wilson (it’s all too easy for me to imagine casting either one of those two scientists if they wanted to be movie actors instead).  The setup is that he is the only son of a Jewish family, whose parents run a (“kosher”) butcher shop.  Graduating with perfect grades and baseball ability, he gets the chance for a college scholarship in Ohio at “Winesburg” (just east of Columbus), after the family has lost other men to the Korean War.  The script has an early line mention that “they keep men who go to college from the draft.”

That idea will in turn become important to the “penultimate” end of the film (spoiler risk), but here I’d say that the film explores the moral universe of the draft deferment issue the same way I do in my first book (where it later fits in to a dialectic about gays in the military) except that it’s transposed to the earlier Korean period, whereas I “do it” with Vietnam. The idea of being a potential sole surviving son still plays here (although it did not in Vietnam).

Jewishness here means minority status, and the college puts him with two Jewish roommates (Ben Rosenfeld and Bryan Burton).  He gets pressured to rush for a Jewish fraternity, where there is only a  hint of potential hazing (which I cover in my book – the “tribunals”)   He starts getting annoyed by his roomies, one of whom plays classical records loud (the Tchaikovsky Symphony #4 finale, and the Liszt Piano Concerto #1) when he wants to study.

Here the parallels for my own freshman semester (to end in my November 1961 expulsion of “admitting” latent homosexuality) appear.  I had a roommate who dreaded classical music, even encountering it by accident on his clock radio dial – particularly the opening of Brahms’s Symphony #2.  But the other parallel is antonymic:  the sexual problems here stay in the hetero world, but are quirky enough.  A wealthy girl Olivia (Sarah Gadon), cock-teases him on a date and then later in the hospital.

To skip ahead a moment, there’s a scene near the end where Marcus predicts Bill Clinton, “I did not have sex with that woman”, that is, no actual intercourse, so he couldn’t be responsible for a pregnancy and for raising a kid he did not sire.  But sex is about a lot more than intercourse, which is part of “the problem”.

Another angle is that Olivia, it turns out, is a mental patient who eventually heads for a permanent nervous breakdown (a fake disorder for the times).  Maybe a relic of the days of electroshock, she was a bit like the female patients I encountered myself while an inpatient at NIH in 1962 (I personally referred to one of them as a “god damn MP” but I also used the word “shim” in those days).  This all creates an atmosphere of near horror, but that’s the early 50s.

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But the pivotal character is the Dean of Men Caudwell (Tracy Letts).  Marcus gets called in to see the Dean after he requests a move out from his roommates – and winds up alone in the “least desirable” dorm sleeping alone.  The twenty minute confrontation is the center of the film (a screenwriter’s “middle”), and Marcus here depends his newly found atheism (or maybe just agnosticism or scientific spiritualism) like a lawyer, especially as the topic of Bertrand Russell comes up (a topic a friend mentioned to me in 1971, lending me one of Russell’s books).  Here an odd and perhaps overly coincidental plot twist occurs – Marcus is coming down with appendicitis (“iv critic”? “need mom”?  Twitter code words today)  and, as does a “Carnage” (Roman Polanski,s’ dramedy) to end the scene.  Now the scene looks a lot like my own confrontation with Dean Carson Barnes at William and Mary om Wren Hall, as I describe it in my book (I was called into the office suddenly late Friday after Thanksgiving) – except that mine ended “quietly”, only to blow up with expulsion when my parents came the following Tuesday. Then, there is another confrontation which will, in a sense, lead to Marcus’s own final undoing and exposure to combat.  Marcus’s story diverges from mine in that he does not get pampered and protected from combat, whereas I would “serve without serving.”  This is good material for Oliver Stone (like “Full Metal Jacket”).  There’s another clever “business” idea behind Marcus’s undoing, where his usual impeccable honesty (like that of Alan Turing) fails him just once, and that’s all it took.

Logan Lerman is listed in the credits as an executive producer of the film. Lerman had played the precocious kid in the WB series “Jack and Bobby“. Remember that line in a campground scene where Bobby says, don’t think I don’t see things just because I’m a kid.

We could compare the film to some others about the period, like Kazan’s “Splendor in the Grass” (1961), which I and my roommate saw separately on the same day in October 1961.

(First picture: Mt. Vernon, Ohio, 2012, my trip; second, inside Wren Building, William and Mary, near where Dean’s office was in 1961)