Guest blogger Dorothy Gambrell cartoons for Cat & Girl every Tuesday and Thursday and lives in an “up and coming neighborhood.” She went to college in Williamstown, Massachusetts.
I. Good Will Hunting is my Least Favorite Movie of All Time
“Art” can mean a lot of things. Almost anything, really. But surely it has never referred to the movies I saw at art cinemas in the late 1990s. Emma. The English Patient. Shine. Movies whose running times were spent complementing the audience on their fine taste in movies. Movies that feigned intellectual discourse by taking place in a foreign country or at a past time or by being based on a well-received novel. You know – middlebrow.
I was home from college for the summer when I saw Good Will Hunting. We watched it together, my family, on the couch in the den where the television was and where we spent most of our time together. The living room was reserved for guests we never had, and the Christmas tree. Middlebrow.
My parents – like most of the world – loved Good Will Hunting. But not me. No way. If Good WIll Hunting had just dressed up the cheap thrills of a coherent narrative in vague sentiments of educational merit, well, there was nothing novel in that. But Good Will Hunting was different. Good Will Hunting was insincere. Good Will Hunting was 126 minutes of Gus Van Sant encouraging his audience to congratulate themselves and then mocking them when they did so – with a sly wink at those of us cultured enough to “get it.”
That was me, all right. I was in college. I had read Walter Benjamin! I got it.
A movie that tells you you’re smart is a movie that appeals to people who want to be smarter, an audience that spends even its leisure time aspirationally. An audience that sends its children to expensive colleges, that believes in education as the surest path upward into the meritocracy. An audience that wants to better themselves and believes that such a thing is possible.
II. On Just Now Rewatching Good Will Hunting, Previously My Least Favorite Movie of All Time
As Will drives away from Boston we can feel safe assuming he ends up in California with a job and a girlfriend. It’s the promise the movie has made to us. We can assume that four years later, when Skylar graduates from medical school, Chuckie and Morgan are drinking beers across a pickup truck at a construction site. But the futures within movies take place in an infinite present. And fifteen years later Will Hunting will be fifteen years older in a world that’s never seen a Governor Schwarzenegger or a war in Afghanistan. Or the gentrification of Southie.
Clark the obnoxious graduate student thinks he can impress Skylar with his academic browbeating of two townies. But when Will proves more than his equal, Clark resorts to the sheer weight of social privilege. In the future – the future world of Good Will Hunting, where characters grow older but the year remains 1997 – we know that if Will and Clark meet at that drive-through it will be as two upper-class tourists. In the future where it is 2011 the joke is on a guy getting a Humanities Ph.D. who thinks he’ll end up making more money than anyone. In 2011 Clark gave up his part time adjunct position at Florida Gulf Coast University to go to culinary school, and the locally sourced lamb burgers he sells at a drive-though in Vermont have been featured in the New York Times Style Section.
He will never finish paying his student loans.
Will’s intelligence is unquestioned, but the opportunity to leave of Southie doesn’t present itself until he catches the attention of an MIT professor. His therapist teaches at a community college, but they only meet because the therapist’s MIT roommate was Professor Lambeau. Will’s relationship with Skylar isn’t just a relationship with someone who can recognize his intellectual gifts – it’s a relationship with the people she’s met at “Private school, Harvard, and now Med. School.” You can get a Harvard education at the library for a dollar and fifty cents in late fees, but you can’t get the social contacts.
Good Will Hunting is the myth of the self-correcting meritocracy written by two guys who went to fancy colleges and had some personal interest in the continued relevance of that meritocracy’s institutions. And when I saw it as a college student – as an incipient if reluctant member of that meritocracy – I bristled. I bristled at the aesthetics I was in training to leave behind, and values that had sent me on my way. I bristled at the new aesthetics and expectations I was encountering, like I had entered a religious order and was only now realizing what vows I had sworn to uphold. And I realized, suddenly, on that old couch whose worn center springs pitched everyone towards the middle, amid shelves heavy with twenty volume collections of “the classics,” in the room with the television where we spent all our time, what it was I was losing.
But now, fifteen years later – now that meritocracy and its advantages are a distant smudge on the horizon – now I can’t bring myself to care.
Now I don’t hate Good Will Hunting very much at all.
III. But I May Have Overthought This
Images Cinema is currently showing The Help.