Addressing Commencement: a valedictory via videos, for graduation-day takeaways

Addressing Commencement: a valedictory via videos, for graduation-day takeaways
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I confess, yet again, this Spring, no institution of higher learning has asked me to deliver words of wisdom and inspiration to its graduates. This is surely an oversight – but an oversight that has been repeated and repeated, for decades. How can that be?

Ahhh, but this year, this time around, there may be some departures, some vacancies at commencement rostrums. There may be discoveries about heretofore committed speakers; who have financial or personal misdoings in their past. Or there may be speakers whose views make some very vocal students uncomfortable – and who are thus banished from podiums, so as not to upset or offend finer sensibilities.

Unabashed opportunist that I am, I am, even at this late date, willing to fill the void or the vacuum or the vacancy, whatever.

If I were to be tapped for a cap-and-gown gig I would waive a big hunk of my three-figure speaking fee. However, I would stipulate that my “appearance” would be made entirely via video. And not a DVD of me speaking.

Nope. Instead, on the assembled twenty-somethings (and their financially-responsible parties: past and present tuition payers), I would confer a montage of scenes from films that I believe convey sound work-place advice, life instruction, and cautionary tales.

Who knows – many of the grads and their guests might be relieved; even entertained.

Free of what might be thought of as the artificial intelligence of academia, these movie clips would register more vividly than most pompous podium-pronouncements from many a big-day dais. Alliterative tongue-twisting, yes. Thus the video clips.

For the thousands graduating from business-school programs, I’d show Wall Street (1987), Tin Men (1987) and the recently-released bio-pic The Founder. And as pre-ceremony required reading, I’d assign Arthur Miller’s All My Sons (1947).

In The Founder, viewers will be impressed with the behind-the-counter-at-the-grille innovations of the McDonald brothers, who choreographed burger-assembly. There’s the square-dance-like quick-step-marching-band staging, sequencing, and time trials, which are rehearsed for speed and efficiency on a chalked tennis court that serves as the mock-up for the synchronized assembly stations.

For the McDonald brothers, rectitude is its own reward. Not so for Ray Kroc, the salesman who won’t take “No” for an answer as he promotes, schemes, and undermines. His mindset: “If a competitor of mine was drowning, I’d stick a hose in his mouth and turn on the water.”

There’s something of Gordon Gekko in that portrayal of Ray Kroc. Gekko, a Wall Street corporate raider, who takes over souls on his way to taking over companies, is a seducer, a corrupter, a betrayer. He manipulates people so he can manipulate markets. He knows a Faustian bargain when he can engineer one. Money is the way to keep score; self-worth is measured by net worth. Value has nothing to do with values. Early on he must have had a scruple-ectomy.

Wall Street is well remembered for Gekko’s oration at a stockholder’s meeting. At that forum, he justifies his engineering of a hostile takeover:

“… greed – for lack of a better word – is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all its forms… has marked the upward surge of mankind.”

The aluminum-siding salesmen of Tin Men buy into that creed, though at the huckster level where they take advantage of the gullibility of middle-class homeowners who they con into “beautifying” their modest facades. Shamelessly, they exploit, scam and defraud.

One hopes that the job-seeking graduates of 2017 will be able to resist offers to join any such schemes. And not succumb to cold-calling for investment hustlers or hawking for house-flippers, or plotting for spammers and phishers, or soliciting for bogus charities.

Maybe, the 1992 film version of David Mamet’s Pulitzer Prize play Glengarry Glen Ross is sufficiently vivid and chastening to demonstrate what desperation can lead to.

For Political Science majors, there’d be excerpts from Atlas Shrugged (1957) and a full screening of On the Beach (1957).

Sixty years ago, reviewers described Atlas Shrugged as a fable, a thriller, a profound political parable, and a philosophical novel; part science fiction and polemical fantasy, part thesis and diatribe dissertation (running to almost 1,200 pages); a philosophical and psychological detective story; an allegory of self-interest and something akin to a catechism for entrepreneurial free enterprise.

There would seem to be a fair amount of currency to the work, which declares government and politicians to be the enemy of talent, innovation, and, thus, the true good. The work condemns social-consciousness and do-goodism.

Ayn Rand described professors as thought-cripplers, “the soft, safe assassins of college classrooms.”

In its review, The New York Herald Tribune ventured that “a thorough comprehension of the novel’s massive reaches would be roughly the equivalent to mastering a Ph.D.’s knowledge in the separate fields of ethics, economics, political science, physics, and psychology.” I would add Religious Studies and Comparative Religions, for Atlas Shrugged is the gospel according to Ayn Rand.

Of special and frightening relevance is Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. The 1957 film adaptation is haunting, sobering, as it depicts Earth as doomed, not by CGI extraterrestrials, but by Earthlings’ nuclear warhead bravado – and stupidity. More science than fiction, misunderstandings, failures to communicate, and folly on a galactic scale have made Earth an incomprehensibly vast morgue.

On Earth, there is no future, there is no reprieve. Humankind is done for as radioactivity makes its way from the wholly annihilated Northern Hemisphere down to the southernmost parts of the Southern Hemisphere. The story is a sermon without pulpit sermonizing. It’s down-to-earth, literally.

This elegiac chronicle of ultimate extinction is a literary and cinematic crusade for sanity in what was, even then, sixty years ago, a dangerously armed-up world.

International Relations majors would have to contemplate Lost Horizon (1937), along with a full screening of On the Beach (1957).

For those burped from Communications programs – hoping to make their mark in Public Relations or Journalism – I’d show all 96 minutes of Sweet Smell of Success (1957).

The antecedents (arguably, the precedents) for today’s celebrity “news” tabloids and TV programs were the Times Square, Broadway gossip columnists of the 1950s, who relied on the scheming press-publicity agents who cross-pollinated the “rags” with titillations, smears, and scandal.

Sweet Smell of Success takes viewers to smoke-filled nightclubs and Broadway back alleys, where the odious and sordid twists and turns of “faked news” stories (1950s style) are fabricated and fed. The malice aforethought and intentional infliction of emotional distress are purveyed by a megalomaniac gossip columnist; having been served up by a contemptible publicist, who will do just about anything for a few lines of ink in the former’s regrettably influential column.

With a jazzy nighttime pace, the film lets us in on the connivings that can make or destroy a reputation, and a career. In its June 28, 1957 review of the film, The New York Herald Tribune held that the “slimy trade” produced “a world of the promise and the payoff, the threat and the reprisal.”

The dialogue (screenplay by Clifford Odets and Ernest Lehman) is switch-blade edged:

The gossip columnist says the unscrupulous publicity agent is “a cookie full of arsenic.” When the publicity agent fails to manufacture a scandal for the gossip columnist, the latter condemns him: “You’re dead, son. Get yourself buried.”

The publicity agent squirms in his desperation as the columnist’s “dog-collar” turns into “a noose.”

Struggling to maintain some “freedom,” the publicity agent can only respond that the columnist’s manipulations have “more twists than a barrel of pretzels.”

Cynically, the columnist cautions, “Don’t remove the gangplank, you may want to get back on board.” He adds, “You’re in jail. You’re a prisoner of your own fears, your own greed and ambition.”

That “what-it-takes-to-succeed” scenario is a capstone lesson for this year’s grads to contemplate, perhaps along with the aphorisms and maxims of Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People.

That self-help compendium of ingratiation tactics, and its gospel of playing to a colleague’s ego or a rival’s vanity, has been influencing since 1937. There are indeed sound commonsense advisories, delivered through anecdotes, and still more anecdotes.

With grudging admiration, Psychology and Sociology majors might be inclined to re-title the work “How to Flatter, Beguile, and Persuade, Without Arousing Rancor or Resentment, So That Opponents Adopt Your Views as Their Own.”

For those headed to the occult worlds of Computer Science and Information Technology, and to the sensitive world of Human Resources, I’d screen Desk Set (1957) which celebrates the triumphant facilities and resourcefulness of human minds, which best an electronic brain’s capacities and tolerances. The film’s lightly-contentious banter is made all the more interesting by Katharine Hepburn’s deft parrying and jousting with Spencer Tracy.

Tracy is a “methods engineer” – he’s the updated version of an efficiency expert, and the forerunner of the IT pro. He’s bent on modernizing the entire company.

Hepburn, the heroic foil, is incomparably capable. She has a photographic memory, can effortlessly recite stanza after stanza of long poems, and has an uncanny ability to make word and mathematical associations that confound (but also astound and impress) the methods engineer. Her intelligence is artful, not artificial.

The New York Herald Tribune film review (May 16, 1957) observed that Hepburn’s head of research-and-reference “disarmed the methods engineer with feats of memory and thrusts of wit.”

The play’s set and the film’s scenery, themselves, tell a story. Calls are made from bulky black desk-top phones and connect with operator-assistance. The researchers take messages with sharpened yellow pencils. They are flanked by a duplex of floor-to-ceiling bookcases.

The electronic brain (approved by the all-male law department, executive suite, and board of directors) is a ginormous steel gray encasement, whose flashing lights signal the digesting of punch cards. The operator’s console (also gray steel) is the size of a church organ in a mega parish. Its dials, switches, levers, buttons, and keys would confound a premier organist. Its mission: “improve the work-man-hour relationship” and thus, annually, “save 6,240 man hours” – in the all-female research-and-reference department.

The methods engineer offers that “maybe – just maybe – people are a little bit outmoded.”

The head of research-and-reference quips, “Yes, I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if they stopped making them.”

Women’s Studies

Well, okay, Desk Set is an artifact. I’ll strike it from the syllabus, even as the film, along with the play on which it’s based, were of their time: women occupied subordinate (though crucial roles) in the research-and-reference department of the International Broadcasting Corporation. In the film, they are equally crucial to the Federal Broadcasting Company.

Somewhat true to the time, the women are concerned with shopping (for dress-up dresses); with being asked to a country club dance; and with becoming wives. Those occupations aside, they are intelligent, articulate highly-resourceful researchers, who care about true facts and accuracy. They take their job functions seriously, and are to be prized way beyond what they are paid. In their efforts to stave off obsolescence, they rise to research challenges. The moral – which is timely and topical – If you can’t join ’em, beat ’em.

This “beat ’em” thinking was put forward with seriousness (no laughing matter) in Atlas Shrugged. Dagny Taggart, who at Taggart Transcontinental Railroad is today’s equivalent of the strong-minded and strong-willed Chief Operating Officer. Plus (Rand’s calculating dividend), she’s depicted as attractive.

Fine and Performing Arts

And for the truly strong-willed – those who thought Theatre Arts and Fine Arts would be worth student-debt obligations – I would skip the thoroughly enjoyable La La Land, and have these hopefuls view Sunday in the Park with George, which was recently reprised on Broadway.

The story and its lyrics are thought-provoking; they are about priorities and choices; trade-offs and fulfillment; dedication, disappointments and regrets. They tell of obsessions and obsessiveness, which put the creation of artwork above (and to the exclusion of) a different kind of gratification: a meaningful relationship with another person, as the prime example.

Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics and James Lapine’s book came about as a result of a kind of “obsession,” which wound up being rewarded with the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. The productions – which have audiences inspect their own efforts to take in the sweet smell of success – were acclaimed with Tony Awards, Drama Desk Awards, and Olivier Awards.

Sunday in the Park with George is cross-disciplinary, multi-disciplinary. The story moves from the struggles of a painter in 1884 (“there’s no life in his life”) to the struggles, in 1984, of the discouraged creator of what he hoped would be an art-museum-worthy light-projection-installation. The latter realizes that to make his art, in his times, he must be a businessman, a salesman, a marketer, a fundraiser, a publicity agent for himself, a politician, a promoter, a relationship manager, a hustler – someone who can win over well-placed well-heeled potential patrons while, at the same time, being able to favorably influence art critics and museum directors.

Moving, sad, portending in its way, its lyrics and dialogue would leave graduates and their tuition-payers with more “echoings” than most graduation speeches. The book and the lyrics sound many notes of wisdom, and caution – and hope.

“… a blank page or canvas… so many possibilities.”

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