Leaves of Grass (2010), directed by Tim Blake Nelson

There was a time when “college dropout” was a pejorative term, but no more. Think Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. But as a teenager in the 50s, conventional wisdom was that getting a college degree was a prerequisite for success in life. Now many years later, I have a different perspective. While there is much to say about the positives of college, there are also negatives. I understand that it is a potentially corrupting environment, that it is filled with its own intellectual biases, and that the possession of a college degree does not guarantee success in life.

All this floated through my mind as I watched Leaves of Grass, the story of two twin brothers, one a Classics professor at Brown University, the other the grower of high grade marijuana in an elaborate and sophisticated hydroponics warehouse. Two bright children, same parents, yet radically different approaches to life. Consider Jacob and Esau in broad brushstrokes.

In the opening scene, Bill Kincaid is lecturing about the perfect world of the Greek philosophers, but he concludes by noting that, in spite of their desire for perfection, they and we still live in an imperfect world. All the brains in the world do not necessarily create a happy or moral universe. The Talmud echoes this when it states that the good deed is superior to the study of holy text. Good actions supersede intellectual accomplishments.

The plot thickens when Brady Kincaid tricks his twin brother into returning to their hometown. His motive: to use him as his double to create an airtight alibi for his own nefarious plans. Complications ensue, and the unpredictability of life asserts itself in a series of surprising, improbable, and violent  events, which on a deeper level reflect the dissonance between the academic world of theory and the real world in which we live.

To underscore this tension between theory and reality, Brady describes his view of God to his friend Bolger. He explains that man and God operate on two parallel lines, always following one another but never intersecting. In the end, man’s quest for God is neither linear nor necessarily satisfying.

This conflict is highlighted when Bill meets Janet, a poet and high school English teacher. Enamored with her, he shares his approach to life, which is grounded in the academic virtues of study, order, and reason. She confides to Bill that she entertained the possibility of teaching college students but found them too close-minded, just the opposite of what our own conventional wisdom would say, and contrary to Bill’s perception of college students. For Bill, this is a cathartic insight as he tries to navigate both his and Brady’s world.

These philosophical understandings are mirrored in the Ethics of the Fathers, a revered piece of Jewish wisdom literature, which says that it is not in the power of man to understand the inscrutable universe, to explain, for example, the peace of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous. Finite man cannot comprehend the infinite God. All he can do is to follow the parallel line of God, as it were, and do one’s best in an imperfect universe.

This philosophical reconciliation with man’s imperfection is signaled by the closing image of Bill and Janet, relaxing on beach chairs and holding hands in the rain. Rain which frightened him as a child now is both calming and restorative. Bill now experientially knows that life does not always provide answers, and that our human task is to persevere in the face of ambiguity.

Purchase this movie from Amazon.com.

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