When I entered sixth grade, my crowded elementary school transferred its sixth grade to a jr. high school with a varied school population. No longer was I in a safe cocoon; I now roamed the halls with kids from different neighborhoods who in the 1950s were considered “wild and dangerous.” Being a young boy wanting to impress his peers, I gradually grew side burns and affected an Elvis Presley haircut and a Marlon Brando attitude. Outwardly I was cool, but inwardly I was still the same kid I was before changing schools. I recall very clearly that I was placed in classes with low achievers because of the way I presented myself and the teenage girls in my school thought I was mysterious. It was a mask, and eventually I removed it and became my real self.
I thought of this as I watched The Mask, the story of Stanley Ipkiss, a shy, confused bank employee who serendipitously finds a mask that gives him a new identity, much more aggressive and unpredictable than his true self. How he deals with his split personality and how others view him in each of his different incarnations is the subject of this very silly movie that is only slightly redeemed by a few funny lines of dialogue delivered by star Jim Carrey impersonating several Hollywood icons such as Clint Eastwood, James Cagney, and Edward G. Robinson.
Stanley Ipkiss is taken advantage of by everyone around him: his boss, his landlady, and even his car mechanic. His only friends are his dog Milo and his co-worker Charlie. Things change, however, when Stanley finds a strange wooden mask near a pile of garbage. In jest, he tries it on, and discovers that wearing the mask gives him superpowers. He becomes an aggressive trickster who can twist his body like rubberized plastic and is impervious to physical harm. Moreover, he is without any inhibitions. All this allows him to take revenge on those who have hurt him and to act in ways totally foreign to him as Stanley Ipkiss.
For a time, Stanley loses the ability to control his use of the mask, and he seeks the guidance of a health care professional to assist him in dealing with his alter ego. Dr. Neumann tells him a profound truth which Stanley begins to grasp: “We all wear masks…metaphorically speaking.” When Stanley asks him what mask he should wear on his date later that night, Dr. Neumann sagely counsels him to do two things: to be himself and to wear the mask because the mask is part of him. His alter ego may need to be repressed, but it is a part of him that needs to be integrated into Stanley’s entire personality for Stanley to be a whole human being.
Jewish tradition has an interesting take on human nature. It recognizes that each one of us is composed of good and bad personality traits. Broadly described, they are the good and evil inclinations of man.
In the Talmudic tractate of Shabbat there is a provocative statement that someone with a warlike personality will be a shedder of blood, but not necessarily a soldier. He can be a surgeon, a thief, a ritual slaughterer, or one who circumcises children. The key point is that we are able to sublimate our base instincts in the service of good. That is our everyday challenge: to employ the negative forces within us for good purposes. We can do very bad things if we let our evil inclination rule. Alternatively, we can become strong by ruling over it. Stanley Ipkiss’s ultimate recognition that he can triumph over his evil inclination allows him to remove his mask and be the good person he really is.