May 12, 2011


When I was an undergraduate, my college put juniors through a grueling set of qualifying exams before they could enter their senior year. These exams occupied eight hours so that by dinner time, students staggered to the cafeteria, squinting like ground hogs on the first day of spring. That evening a group of my fellow juniors and I arranged to see a movie. The only requirement was that the film be the goofiest we could find. We wanted to laugh, let go of our inhibitions and throw popcorn at the screen… a fitting end to a period of prolonged sobriety. The film we chose was a B-flick called, “The Incredible Shrinking Man,” an adaptation from a book written Richard Matheson.   

As it happened, when we arrived at the theater we discovered that, but for ourselves, the place was empty — a good sign we’d picked a dog of a movie.   

The story was simple. A man on his boat sees a cloud drift in his direction, little knowing it is radioactive. After a few days, he notices he is growing smaller.  His clothes no longer fit and he has lost several inches in height. Eventually he is reduced to the size of a midget and falls in love with a young woman who is the same. For a time he is happy but soon he discovers he is shrinking again.  Eventually, he finds himself at a level of existence where he is obliged to avoid cats, then mice and eventually spiders. The film’s final scene shows him at the razor’s edge of the microcosmic world looking up into the macrocosmic one. Still able to see the stars, he takes comfort in them and realizes that whatever his level of existence, life has a purpose. 


As the theater lights came on, my companions and I sat blinking and not from the brightness only. The film had given us a profound view of our relationship to the universe and we were subdued by it. I left the theater with a new appreciation: that my perspective on the world contained no more than a sliver of truth.