A few weeks ago, I stumbled upon the movie “The Art of Getting By” — a 2011 American indie film created by Gavin Wiesen. The film’s protagonist is a young man, a teenager who asserts himself as an outsider in all aspects of his life. He is characterized by a general disinterest with everything, taking on a rather nihilistic perspective of the world. He is marked by his isolation from his classmates, and claims that he is “a misanthrope”, “not [by] choice, just a fact”. While such a mindset can easily be categorized as being that of a typical angsty teenager’s, George does not quite fit into that archetype. He is not necessarily angsty; rather he remains detached and apathetic to his surroundings. What was interesting then about his character was his passive refusal to do any schoolwork at all. He attends school regularly, but refuses to participate in class and complete his assignments (despite his intelligence). For instance, a scene from the film:
As George sits in class, drawing, his teacher comes up to him and asks:
“Do you have your work, George?”
To which he nonchalantly replies:
“[…] Everything seemed meaningless. Including this assignment, unfortunately.”
Looking at George’s passive rejection of the “system”, I could not but help but think: George is like the modern day, teenage Bartleby. Just as Bartleby’s coworkers, George’s teachers become frustrated with him — not knowing how exactly to deal with someone who is so assertive in his passivity.
Interestingly, the movie also portrays a man (George’s stepfather) who is struggling with being laid off from his typical, working class American office job — we see images of him sitting hunched at his desk, working, working and working non-stop. Perhaps this is reminiscent of the other worker’s in Bartleby’s office — Nippers and Turkey. The contrast we see between Bartleby, the man who “prefers not to” and Nippers and Turkey is evident between George and his step-father, who is so deeply entrenched as a working class member within the bourgeoisie led superstructure.
However, what is different about this film is that in the end, George does indeed decide to participate. The ending works to wrap everything up with a neat, little bow. Unlike “Bartleby, The Scrivener”, the film does not leave room for ambiguity and the lack of closure. “The Art of Getting By” seems to communicate the message that, in order to “get by”, ultimately we do have to accept our place within the system. However, as George does (through pursuing his artistic endeavours), we do have the ability to manipulate the system to an extent, in a way that we do not “feel” our powerlessness. Thus, the way I see it — “The Art of Getting By” is in many ways, the modern day, pop-culture “Bartleby, The Scrivener”, but a much more optimistic narrative that insists that it is possible to retain one’s individuality even if we insert ourselves into society.