Cattle Being Herded In A Heat


Co-Written by Richard Martin Oxman and Matias Pineiro

The extraordinary achievement of Claire Simon’s latest film, The Graduation, relies on its ability to capture power at work. The film documents the entire selection process that hundreds of young candidates go through at La Femis in Paris to obtain a seat at one of the most prestigious film schools in the world.

Entrance exams are unavoidably dramatic. They are uneven duels: two forces face off in a battle that consists of one side trying to prove its singularity and talent to the other. The examination room becomes a stage where performances are judged. Simon records the scenes from a precisely chosen distance, finding in cinema a device to expose the mise en scene of this play of power.

At first, the anxiety of the young candidates in front of the older judges reflects a certain cruelty, but Simon’s camera also focuses on the judges who, as they express their points of view, show their limitations and prejudices.

The Graduation shows how power circulates and affects everyone. At the end, the audience gets to see the selected candidates, those who play out the final scene, arriving and posing for a series of institutional photographs. These portraits show their happiness, confusion and pride — all expressions of how the power of the judges is now within them.

Simon’s film is a potent cinematic achievement: it doesn’t exalt the role of institutions but exposes their limits, absurdity and humanity/inhumanity. It allows audiences to see how the invisible energy with which institutions infuse individuals travels from body to body, without belonging to anyone exclusively.

In 1922, James Joyce wrote, in Ulysses,

“Beware of what you wish for in youth because you will get it in middle life.”

We know that Goethe said it long before he died in 1832, and if the origin could be traced, some say that we’d find that it goes all the way back to an ancient Chinese proverb. Who knows, but it does seem like a wise bit of advice.

A vice that often brings down the wicked worldwide — the proactive, incessant worship of personal advantage — plagues the average person in the West, unquestionably. I want this, I want that. [Pause.] That mantra is nurtured in our schools. Decide on what your passion is, educate yourself to honor it, and get going with your game plan come hell or high water. [Pause.] That saying is believed to have come from late 18th-century/early 19th-century America in reference to cattle herders traveling from Texas to the Midwest, forging deep rivers and crossing large prairies in the summer heat. Killing indigenous people along the way.

The way one graduates these days is to submit to tests that are deemed important by the powers that be, who have little, if any, interest in promoting the whole child. They control the schools and could care less about graduates growing up to be healthy in heart, head and soul. Rather, they are obsessed with making sure — as we know — that obedience and fitting oneself into the status quo is honored above all else. To the exclusion of all else, if necessary.

Their rank ranks must be filled by the energy of others one day. And Simon’s film demonstrates how that dynamic operates. Who fills those shoes and why, the bad energy ruling individuals.

Enough to make Liberal Arts educational products like us cry.

Why do you want to graduate from college, secure a degree from a prestigious institution if you can? That’s a very serious question that no one seems to ask these days. That no one has time to ask, apparently, courtesy of the pace of life now being set by self-appointed authorities. Dictated by utilitarian mindsets.

In the few cases where we’ve asked the question, the dreams of youngsters expressed haven’t been anything that Joyce, Goethe or any wise Chinese elder would approve of.

Talk about cattle being herded in a heat.

Richard Martin Oxman and Matias Pineiro can be reached at [email protected].


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