This is a question I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about because of the film The Long Goodbye. It does ask you to answer that question (the novel does not). And the question fascinates me because loyalty is really important to me. That may seem odd, since I am anti-tribal. But that’s not really that difficult to explain. Tribalism is about labels, not actual bonds. Friendship is, for me anyway, about love.
Now, I can’t say that I would kill my best friend, because I don’t endorse that under any circumstances. But I would rollover on my best friend, which is ultimately the same thing: the abandonment of loyalty.
Marlowe Makes the Film
The truth is that The Long Goodbye is something of a mess of a film. Yet I’ve always loved it. It’s somewhat embarrassing to admit, but I feel much like Marlowe (Elliott Gould) in it. He’s a man out of time. He’s constantly interacting with a world that makes no sense to him. But he has what amounts to a mantra, “It’s okay with me.” Note his amused indifference to his young women neighbors. When Harry (David Arkin) says he thinks their naked stretching exercises indicates that they are lesbians, Marlowe says, “They’re just doing yoga.” What? “I don’t know what it is, but it’s yoga.”
What’s critical in The Long Goodbye is that Marlowe knows he doesn’t fit in, but everyone else thinks they have him completely pegged. It’s only Wade (Sterling Hayden) who thinks he’s odd, and that’s simply because the two of them suspect each other. (Marlowe thinks Wade killed Terry Lennox’s wife, and Wade thinks Marlowe is having an affair with his own.) Everyone else in the film plays him for a fool. Of course, he isn’t a fool. He’s just from a different time.
When People Peg You — Wrong
I had an experience recently that made me feel much the same way. I was running my errands — walking from the library to the Target — and these two young women singled me out to ask if I had a light. There were a lot of other people around, but I was the one they picked out. This is not all that uncommon, but the example was so stark that I couldn’t pass it off as people simply asking anyone nearby. It was the first time that it became clear to me that people see me as someone at the margins of society — a smoker, drug addict, whatever.
I’m well aware that I don’t fit in. But I thought that I came off as simply eccentric — absent-minded professor who doesn’t care what he wears or if his hair is combed. I wanted to yell at the young women, “Wrong stereotype!” But they have to be forgiven. Whereas Marlowe dresses for his stereotype, I give decidedly mixed signals — usually wearing jeans, a CAT hoodie, and a badly faded San Francisco Giants baseball cap. And even as the distracted intellectual that I am, there is little continuity — I’m as likely to be watching an old B horror film as I am a new translation of the Aeneid.
The Long Goodbye
But I do have a strict (some would say rigid) moral sense. Like Marlowe in The Long Goodbye, “It’s okay with me” — until it isn’t. And that’s what makes the ending of the film so powerful. For Marlowe, being liberal about the universe he finds himself in is not really a choice; there is no other universe that he can live in. Naked girls next door make no sense, so he has a cat. But we all have limits, like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof.
In The Long Goodbye, that limit is when your best friend savagely beats his wife to death. And after that, Marlowe walks away, playing the harmonica and dancing with a woman on the street. “It’s okay with me.”