If you think back to the “old days,” meaning just a few years ago, you may remember that people used to get together and talk. They still do, of course, but we now have a substitute for human interaction. It’s called “social media,” where people “get together” online. There are any number of ways to do this, one being “Facebook,” which now has over 550 million subscribers around the world – one out of every 12 people on the planet! You can see the movie The Social Network if you’re curious about how this phenomenon got started. Or, if you prefer, you can just get together with some friends and talk.
A few years ago I saw a very different sort of movie called The Station Agent. With the help of Netflix (they only have 16 million subscribers), I recently saw it again. The movie tells the story of two men and one woman. Finbar, the central character, is played by the actor Peter Dinklage, who is a dwarf. Early in the movie Finbar inherits an abandoned train depot, left to him by a fellow train store salesman. Finbar, a railroad buff, moves into the one room station.
Is he riveting because of his size (four feet, five inches he tells a grade school class while giving a talk about trains near the end of the movie)? Yes and no. To be sure, it is hard not to notice the size of a dwarf. As the story develops, however, we see Finbar the person – intelligent, lonely, angry – and his size become just one aspect of a complicated human being.
The second principal character is Joey, played by the very tall actor, Bobby Carnivale. Each day he brings his motorized hot dog stand to the depot, and he tries every way he can to engage Finbar in conversation. The movie has a lot of great lines, but my favorite is when he asks Finbar, “So, do you people have clubs?” Finbar glares at him, obviously thinking he is referring to dwarfs. “I mean train clubs,” Joey explains.
The third principal character is Olivia, played by Patricia Clarkson, a middle-aged woman going through the heartache of losing her young son. “I just looked away for a second,” she laments. Wracked with guilt, separated from her husband, she too is alone in the world, trying to cope with life’s unfairness.
I write about this movie because I’ve been reflecting on today’s social media, not just Facebook but Twitter, Linked In, Plaxo and various others that somehow manage to find us. The Station Agent is my idea of the ultimate anti-social media movie. Finbar doesn’t even have a working phone. Joey does but only uses it to talk to his ailing father in Spanish. Olivia won’t answer her phone, since it’s her husband calling, and there is nothing left to say.
These characters become a community of three. They cry, they get drunk, they laugh, they console. The do so together, not online. Today’s social media, the critics say, reflect new attitudes towards privacy. According to Time Magazine, it’s “Person of the Year” Mark Zuckerberg, creator of Facebook, and runner-up Julian Assange, the notorious Wikileaks leaker, “both have a certain disdain for privacy.” That’s like saying Red Sox fans aren’t crazy about the Yankees.
The Station Agent suggests another way of looking at the subject. Barriers recede and ultimately fall, not by the click of the mouse but by the development of trust. Maybe the critics have it wrong. Maybe the only way we can really relinquish our privacy is by being with another person, and allowing him or her to see, to hear, and to touch us.
If you only have time for one movie, I recommend The Station Agent and you can skip. The Social Network. As for Valentines Day, I suggest you get together with someone you care about or, if that’s not possible, send flowers or a personal note. Whatever you do, if you really want someone to be your valentine, don’t do it on Facebook.