The Night Listener: A Warning about the Dearth of Witnesses

Why would anyone go see The Night Listener? It’s a good story. Yeah, but there are lots of good stories. It’s got Robin Williams in one of his prized serious roles. Sure, but you could always make a double feature of Dead Poets Society and Good Will Hunting, in the privacy of your own home. It has one of the Culkin boys doing the angsty teen thing. What doesn’t? It has Toni Collette being excellent and unlike anything you’ve ever seen her be before. I think there’s a whole wall in the local Blockbuster reserved for just that. Seriously, it goes Horror, Comedy, Kids, Toni Collette being excellent and unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.

You can learn something from it. Yes, yes you can. However, and here’s the paradox, what you can, and most definitely should, learn from The Night Listener is a lesson that, if properly applied, will convince you that you should not have seen The Night Listener. Do I have your attention? As much as I love anticipation, I’m not going to hold out on you. I’m going to tell you the lesson I learned from The Night Listener so that you don’t have to see it.

Don’t gossip.

That’s the lesson.

So, nu, what’s the chiddush? I know it doesn’t seem like much but the truth is we are a society infused with gossip. AND WE DON’T EVEN REALIZE IT. We like stories. We like stories about people. We like stories about real people and we like stories about imagined people who we can pretend are real. We like to know, not because it will make our lives better and not because it is practically necessary, as much as we can about as many people as possible. In other words, we like gossip so much that we’ll gossip about anybody, including people we don’t know and people who don’t exist.

A professor of mine in college once told me that our obsession with the lives of celebrities is an evolutionary echo from the time we were cavemen (a sociological appendix, if you will). Back then, our ancestors’ lives depended upon how much they knew about their neighbours. If Shmuel, down the way, had a sick cow, who knew how long until the disease spread?

Consider, for a moment, a crucial part of the Jewish legal system – witnesses. In the time of the Sanhedrin, members of communities let other members know when they were doing something Halachically unacceptable; they warned each other. And, if a person refused to heed the warning, he would see his friends in court. It almost sounds like a society policed by yentas, which is quite ironic given the emphasis Jewish Law puts on the prohibition of Loshon Hora. However, a society could not function for very long if its legal system relied so heavily on pairs of busybodies[1]; it would not only create tension and dissent but would prove highly subjective and inefficient. And we’re still here so I have to conclude that there was something else going on. The role of the witness in maintaining and enhancing the religious observance of the society speaks of a human intertwinement that doesn’t seem to exist anymore. I.e. it was a good thing (indicative of what happens when people actually matter to each other); not a bad thing (indicative of what happens when people are entertainment to each other). Back then, societies were communities and communities watched over each other.

Today, we don’t watch over each other. We just watch. We watch total strangers in California navigate their mind-boggling romantic lives. We watch total strangers in Washingtonnavigate the landmine that is governing in the age of technology. We watch soldiers we don’t know engage in wars we don’t fight in places we’ve never been. And when we’re done watching? We create lives that we can watch. We read any one of the myriad of teen novels about girls and boys – “just like the reader” – going through difficulties and tragedies that, thank God, most of us don’t go through. We read books about people who died of Cancer. AIDS. War. Famine. Abuse. The Holocaust. Another Holocaust. We read about conspiracy theories that supposedly stretch back two thousand years. And when we’re done? We turn on the TV and watch specials on the authors of these books, the making of the movies based on these books, the actors in those movies, the little old lady who waited in line for three days so her grandson could have the first ticket. We do all this and during the commercials we flip to whichever reality TV show happens to be on.

You know what they say about reality TV? It’s just like reality. Except it’s more accessible. And less personal.

I apologize for the tirade but let me get back to The Night Listener and you’ll see what I mean. This movie is about a man who has made a career of telling tales. Gabriel Noone, the main character of The Night Listener, is a radio writer. Each night he regales his many listeners with stories of the inner workings of his love life. You see, Gabriel has just the right kind of love life for his late night radio audience of the poetic and insomnia-driven. His gay lover has been dying of AIDS for eight years. Eight years. Do you know what that means? That means a goldmine of stories from the whimsical to the weepy. 

However, all good things (even dying boyfriends) must come to an end. The boyfriend recovers, realizes that life is for living not watching, and leaves Gabriel. Tragedy ensues. With no dying boyfriend, Gabriel has no stories to tell. What is he to do?

Well, lucky for Gabriel there are abused little boys in the Midwest who are rescued from their awful parents and encouraged by social workers (who naturally adopt them) to write their memoirs and thereby overcome their sorrows. One such manuscript works its way to Gabriel, who reads it and, upon being told that the boy is a fan of his, agrees to talk to the boy over the phone. A friendship ensues. Everyone is happy again. Gabriel has a new tragic drama in which to immerse himself. The poor little boy has discovered that the pen is mightier than the Prozac. And the ever-watchful public can look forward to the boy’s memoirs, a harsh and unrelenting dive into the utter worst of humanity, to sustain their thirst for stories.

Except, the boy doesn’t exist. He’s a figment of a woman’s imagination. A sad woman who wants love but will settle for sympathy. So, she invents tragedy. Boy, does she know her market.

We are a disconnected group of people on this planet but, deep down, we want to feel for each other. We really do. We want our witnessing to mean something, like it once did. Most of the time we feed off of tragedy, real and imagined, to remind us of that side of us that does care.  It is not a valid excuse. Because, in the end, we don’t let it matter.

Gossip is called idle chatter. It is exactly so. Such conversations serve no beneficial purpose. If we are to talk about each other, the goal should be to foster camaraderie. Jewish witnesses do just that. They become participants in the religious observance of their brethren; their brethren become participants in their religious observance. Together, the community works together to be a better nation. It is the difference between curiosity and concern. It is only achievable by those who let others matter to them.

Some might argue that fictional tales cannot truly violate Loshon Hora. Technically this may be true. However, I would argue that our relationships with fictional characters speak volumes about how we aspire to relate to others. Do we read books and see movies about people living lives we would want to intertwine our lives with? Or do we, like Gabriel Noone, become infatuated with the exact brand of drama that we don’t truly want in our lives? Some may argue that those movies without a hero are more realistic, but to me they are much less. They are nothing more than a drug, feeding our society’s love of a good story and fear of good people.

Gabriel Noone got what he wanted out of his interaction with the fictional boy and the boy’s creator – he got a story. I, on the other hand, was very disappointed. Fiction, to me is a multifaceted gift. It offers a person a chance to enter a different world and thereby learn more about oneself and one’s own world. It can contain tragedy and some of the best works of literature and film do. However, it is tragedy for the sake of understanding a humanity that we are all a part of, and not for the sake of observing a humanity we are decidedly outside of. Writers and filmmakers, at least the great ones, cannot successfully separate from their species and produce their art. It doesn’t work. It is probably quite financially lucrative because that is what people want but it is not what we need. The realm of imagination is a realm of infinite potential but only if we use it to make our own world more imaginative. A drawing board is not meant to be the final location of an idea. Quite the opposite, in fact.

Strangely enough, this brings us to the classic debate in the Talmud concerning whether learning Torah is the highest good or doing Mitzvot is. The conclusion is quite the paradox: Torah learning is better because it brings one to fulfill the commandments well. Art should strive to have the same power.

The Night Listener was, above all else, a character piece. Fiction is full of these and I would argue that they are the most potent genre. The creator of the character has played God and created a human being. The audience watches. To what end? I think this is the question. If the character is someone I’d want to know (bear in mind this is not necessarily synonymous with someone I’d like) then I have stumbled upon quite the treasure. The well-crafted character is very useful for deducing more about what kind of people one would like to know and, more crucially, what kind of person one would like to be.

The Night Listener did not do any of this. Instead I learned, from people I would never want to know, the danger of watching people who I would never want to know. It’s a valuable lesson but only in the sense that stepping on glass, in a public park, which teaches one not to walk around barefoot in a public park, is a valuable lesson. It would be a much more valuable world if such lessons were not just superfluous but absurd.

Human beings are not cats. Curiosity doesn’t kill us. At least not right away. But, slowly, it eats away at our communal structure and we care less about those around us. And the less we care about those around us, the more we seek out stories that make us feel for someone, in a safely detached way, to fill the void left by our disenfranchisement. We look to a good story; we hoard such stories. We try to find them all around us and we are shameless in our harvests. Family. Friends. Strangers. Leaders. Fictional characters. We feed our addiction. We watch when we should witness. And we watch so well that we miss the whole point. The point being that while you are watching someone else, someone else is watching you. And no one is watching out for anyone.

[1] Generally Jewish Law requires at least two witnesses in order for the testimony to be valid. See Devarim 19:15 for one Biblical source for this requirement.

Dodi-Lee Hecht