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Can You Relate?

People enjoy things they can identify with: songs, TV shows, novels, and much more, including movies that evoke an experience they’ve had. How often have I heard - or even said - “I just couldn’t relate to that movie.” I frequently talk about this feeling during my library movie presentations, especially when someone tells me they didn’t like a movie because they couldn’t relate to it in any way.

A few years ago I screened Blue Collar (1978) at the library. About 20 minutes into the film, a man stood up from his seat, put on his coat, approached me at the rear of the room and said, “I can’t stay for this. I have no interest in these characters,” and departed. Blue Collar, directed and cowritten by Paul Schrader, follows three friends, all Detroit autoworkers (Richard Pryor, Harvey Keitel, and Yaphet Kotto), all tired of being mistreated and having their needs ignored by their union. They make plans to rob the union, which seems like it would be easy. The robbery actually is easy; the consequences aren’t.


Although he didn’t say so, the man who walked out of the screening was probably not used to the picture’s profanity. He’d probably never rubbed shoulders with a Detroit auto worker, never considered taking something back from his employer that was due him, never thought breaking the law was the answer to his problems. It’s understandable that many people haven’t had that experience. But if we’re not willing to understand what we haven’t experienced, doesn’t that say something about us?

Blue Collar was part of a series I presented called “What Were the ‘70s Trying to Tell Us?” Maybe the movie was trying to tell this man that he should walk a mile or two in someone else’s shoes. We’ve all been mistreated, gypped, scorned, ignored, belittled by someone. If you haven’t, you’ve led a charmed (and probably boring) life.

The degree to which we are willing to listen to someone else’s experience, especially their problems and trials, reveals much about us. If I’m not willing to watch, listen to, and empathize with a certain onscreen character (or a character in a song, story, etc.), I’m probably not going to give a similar person in real life much consideration. The great thing about encountering those characters in a creative work is that it’s not real.

But don’t let yourself off the hook. It is real.

That character the songwriter/screenwriter/novelist created came from somewhere, from some experience, and was probably based on a real person or combination of real people. Maybe the story is how that creator actually dealt with that person or maybe how they wished they’d dealt with them. Or perhaps the story is a rehearsal for how the creator hopes you’ll respond when faced with the real thing. That creator is giving us the tools for dealing with people we might prefer to avoid. They probably aren’t the only tools, but it’s a start.

I recently read Miracle and Wonder: Conversations with Paul Simon (2021) by Malcolm Gladwell, Bruce Headlam, and Paul Simon. Actually I didn’t read it; I listened to it, which is the only way you can access the work, since it contains songs and sound clips. Also, Simon frequently picks up the guitar and sings to demonstrate how he writes songs and what makes them work. If you’ve listened to his music since the Simon and Garfunkel days, you know that Simon’s work is all about experimentation, exploration, and discovery. And although he is frequently allusive in the audiobook, Simon hints that what he’s really after is understanding. Sometimes he’s seeking to understand others. Sometimes he’s seeking to understand himself. Sometimes it’s both.

Let’s take a song many people know, “You Can Call Me Al,” from Simon’s Grammy-winning album Graceland (1986). It’s a catchy, fun track that offers an honest look at the song’s protagonist. Look at the third verse:

A man walks down the street

It's a street in a strange world

Maybe it's the third world

Maybe it's his first time around

Doesn't speak the language

He holds no currency

He is a foreign man

He is surrounded by the sound, the sound

Cattle in the marketplace

Scatterings and orphanages

He looks around, around

He sees angels in the architecture

Spinning in infinity

He says, "Amen and Hallelujah!”

The first line could take place anywhere. What could be more generic? “A man walks down the street.” So what? But then, “It’s a street in a strange world,” a place he’s never been before. It doesn’t have to be a world, per se, but a part of town you’ve never visited, perhaps a place you’ve avoided out of fear or a feeling you wouldn’t want to find yourself in that kind of neighborhood, you wouldn’t stoop to that. Like Dylan’s protagonist in “Ballad of a Thin Man,” you know that “something’s happening here, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?”

What do you do with that? You realize that you’re helpless because you don’t understand. You have no common ground with these people, this culture. You don’t fit in. You’re the foreigner. How do you like that feeling?

He is surrounded by the sound, the sound

Cattle in the marketplace

He can’t escape the unusual, unclassifiable sounds, sounds made with strange, unrecognizable and unpronounceable instruments. Not only that, but with the next line, “cattle in the marketplace,” you can’t help but add in the smells of the place, the aroma of animals, dung, dirt and mud, the stench of food that hasn’t sold and has been sitting out for too long. This man is uncomfortable in these surroundings, and it feels as if these walls are closing in on him.

Scatterings and orphanages

Scatterings. Things or people that once belonged together. Orphanages. Children that once belonged to parents, now separated by distance or death. There’s also the odor of injustice here, overwhelming injustice.

You’re in the middle of this. You’re out of your element. You aren’t cut out for this.

How do you respond? Can you relate?

Although the song’s chorus is based on a humorous case of mistaken identity at a party, this third verse is what Simon faced when he traveled to Africa for the first time in 1985 with the idea of using African music and musicians for his new album. Where does he find solace? He sees angels in the architecture, in the structure and rhythm of African music. He spends time learning, understanding, empathizing.

Amen and Hallelujah.

I am also reading a book called Art and Faith: A Theology of Making by American artist Makoto Fujimura. It looks at creativity in a different way from the audiobook on Paul Simon, but they’re both passionate creators. Fujimura argues that artists - creating any kind of art - should not be content with only the utilitarian function of their art. Art doesn’t have to be functional, it doesn’t have to do anything. But Fujimura shows that art and creativity drive us to deeper thoughts, reflections, and a desire to become more aware of ourselves and others, coming to spiritual understanding through the lens of art. Martin Scorsese says of the book, “Makoto Fujimura’s art and writings have been a true inspiration to me. In this luminous book, he addresses the question of art and faith and their reconciliation with a quiet and moving eloquence.”

As I mentioned a few days ago, art matters. Art goes beyond consumerism, beyond profit and making money. Art is for the soul. Art is also for the future. It can bring us together, it can bring us to tears, and it can bring us tremendous joy.

These are the things I want to explore. Can you relate?

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