Friday, January 25, 2013

‘I Am' (2011) directed by Tom Shadyac

I try not to be too much of a cynic, I really do.  Snidely pointing out flaws in people’s arguments, especially when they seem to be a person of principle makes me feel innately unhappy.  I think it’s important not to prejudge people on their past.  So the director of ‘Ace Ventura’, ‘The Nutty Professor’ and ‘Patch Adams’ wants to tell me about what’s wrong with the world, and how to fix it.  Fine.  I’ll give him a fair shake.  Hell, I likeAce Ventura’ (granted, I haven’t seen it I was 12 but hey).   So I went along to watch ‘I Am’ in Leicester Square with as few preconceptions as I could muster.  The film wants to teach us lessons about the importance of kindness, of how we’re interconnected and the illusions that modern society weaves around us.   Important lessons all, but head and shoulders above these is another, clearer lesson: Tom Shadyac is a fucking idiot.

Some background.  A few years ago obscenely rich and successful director Tom Shadyac was cycling around California.  He fell off his bike, broke his hand and banged his head.  This developed into Post-Concussion Syndrome, leaving him with blinding headaches and subsequent depression.  No treatment could help him, and he faced the possibility of a lifetime of sheer misery.  Apparently many sufferers of this end up committing suicide, but thankfully his symptoms eventually receded, leaving behind a more thoughtful, contemplative Tom Shadyac; one hungry for knowledge.

Tom Shadyac
Realising that his material possessions weren’t bringing him happiness he sold his vast Beverley Hills mansion, donated some of his fortune to setting up a homeless shelter and moved into a mobile home in Malibu.  Admittedly it’s an enormous and luxurious looking mobile home, but still, it’s a downgrade.  I can’t fault the man for any of this, after all, it’s not like I’ve set up any homeless shelters recently.  So a positive change all round, the man whose life was dominated by the voracious pursuit of material goods has had some kind of awakening and decided to try and improve the world. 

Fuelled with the characteristic zeal of the new believer he then set out to try and engender this awakening in a wider audience.  To this effect he’s made ‘I Am’, a documentary that consists of him travelling around the world meeting intellectuals like Noam Chomsky, spiritual leaders like Desmond Tutu and new age quacks like Rollin McCraty.  Interspersed with this are vast amounts of stock footage, the occasional animated explanation of a concept and the odd bit of film of Tom himself.

Tom chats to Desmond Tutu
Let’s leave aside the validity of the philosophy and message behind ‘I Am’ for a moment and focus on its merits as a piece of cinema.  It is awful.  Stock footage is cut together in a crushingly literal way, so for example when he talks about loneliness we see a man walking through the desert, when he talks about water we see a shot of a drop of rain hitting a pond and so on.  It’s a numbing exercise in saying what you see, a cinematic tactic that, ironically in a film about raising consciousness, stops us from thinking for ourselves.   

The meat of the film are the interviews with various luminaries.  These are edited together in such a way that it’s generally impossible to tell what question they’re responding to, and suspiciously you hear the audio of their answers being clumsily chopped together.  Naturally none of the interviewees in the film had any idea what the other talking heads were saying, so inevitably things get confusingly juxtaposed, twisting some of the messages.  One of the reasons I was eager to see the film was that Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn were involved.  I figured that their involvement with this, signified a certain mark of quality.  No such luck.  Chomsky and Zinn’s involvement is minimised, they get perhaps 5 minutes of screen time.  Unfortunately, what’s concentrated on more is smug, moronic Californian new agers talking utter shite.

I Am’ begins spiralling down this inane rabbit-hole by questioning “the official story” of science.  Shadyac points out that the scientific consensus has been wrong in the past, so why can’t it be wrong now?  He follows this up with a half-baked analysis of Charles Darwin, then misunderstands the Selfish Gene theory.  The thrust of the ‘science’ that Shadyac presents us is to convince us that co-operation and kindness are the true nature of mankind, rather than (as we are apparently lead to believe) competition and conflict.  To support this notion, he travels to meet some incredibly dodgy looking characters at places like ‘The Institute of HeartMath’ and the ‘Institute of Noetic Sciences’.  These people set out to prove to us that we’re all connected through various pseudo-scientific ways and therefore we should all be kind and compassionate.

Here, we see Tom Shadyac and a petri dish of yoghurt that is detecting his emotions. 
I watched this portion of the film through gritted teeth.  We see Tom Shadyac talking to a petri dish of yoghurt that can detect his emotions.  We hear that the heart can predict events “3 to 5 seconds” in the future and that it might even be the true centre of human consciousness.  We hear about how the biggest disruption to the human emotional magnetosphere was September 11th, which had such an impact that random number generators worldwide stopped being random.  Inevitably ‘I Am’ brings quantum physics into the equation, predictably equating subatomic events to humanity on a macro scale.  

Even if this ‘science’ wasn’t a crock of shit it would still be irrelevant.  Why should anyone need scientific justification to act in a humane manner?  We are kind and compassionate not because it’s the logical thing to do, not because we’ve been convinced of benefits to ourselves, not because there is some ill-defined energy field connecting us all, but simply because any considerate empathetic human being finds the needless suffering of living creatures to be repulsive. 

I Am’ is especially frustrating because Shadyac has accurately worked out a good chunk of society’s problems.  He’s right when he decries the never-ending rush to accumulate possessions.  He’s right when he points out that a global economy is a man-made illusion.  He’s right when he shows the problems with raising and educating children in competition with each other.  But his crucial problem is that he either consciously or unconsciously fails to join the dots.  One word is never uttered throughout the film, the word that’s the root of practically all his problems with modern society, one word so obvious that it’s the elephant in the room: capitalism.

Tom in conversation with Oprah Winfrey
Whether through cowardice or stupidity, Shadyac avoids directly criticising capitalism for the entire film.  Considering the subject of the film is what’s wrong with the world, it’s an outrageous oversight.  I suppose the argument could be made that politics is inherently divisive, that if ‘I Am’ came right out and said that capitalism inevitably leads to misery and exploitation then he’d be branded as anti-American and lose much of his Oprah-friendly audience.  But this reeks of hypocrisy.  He’s trapped in a particular kind of fuzzy Californian liberalism, frantically trying to justify his continued greedy suckling on the teat of global capitalism.  His enlightenment is the most shallow kind of political awakening, a willingly shortsighted altruism that allows him to act like he’s a modern Diogenes for downgrading from Midas-like opulence to ‘mere’ luxury. 

Throughout ‘I Am’ we hear about the many ways in which we’re all interconnected with each other.  We hear how inert atoms of argon pass forever between living organisms, and how the beating of a butterfly’s wings cause hurricanes and that outpourings of human emotion can even affect the mood of the earth.  Shadyac rides waves of elation on discovering these universal connections, but ignores the dark side.  We are indeed all connected to each other, but primarily through inflicting human misery via the developed first world’s exploitation of third world labour.  You want to see a real picture of the connection you have to the teeming masses worldwide?  Take this test and find out how many slaves work for you to support yours and my cosseted Western lifestyles.  I’ve got 26 slaves working to support me.  How many do you have?

By ignoring the political implications of his conclusions, Shadyac has inadvertently created something monstrous; a philosophy that espouses guilt-free capitalist exploitation.  Ironically, in merely seeking to make us feel better about ourselves rather than pushing for genuine societal change, Shadyac ends up reinforcing the very chains he’s trying to break.  A personal philosophy that concentrates on disconnected, small acts of kindness in a vast sea of cruelty is the equivalent of spitting at a hurricane.   Ultimately, the impression ‘I Am’ gives is that Shadyac is either unable or unwilling to conceive of true change in the world, preferring to swaddle himself in a comforting blanket of pseudo-scientific bollocks than engage with the consequences of his continued pampered existence. 

After the film there was a Q&A with the director, author Ed Halliwell, writer/comedian Tony Hawks and Director of Communications for 'Giving What we Can' Stephanie Crampin.  Tony Hawks was the only person to come out of this unscathed, politely pointing out some of holes in Shadyac’s philosophy.  Halliwell was a complete non-entity, afraid to put even the most mildly controversial question to Shadyac, and Stephanie Crampin was largely ignored, apparently not even warranting a round of applause at the end even though she was easily the most qualified person there.  Shadyac on the other hand blathered on endlessly, to the extent where in over an hour’s Q&A there was only time for 3 questions. 

The first was a question about the potential of technology to bring humanity together.  Shadyac didn’t seem to understand the point of the question, launching into an extended and rambling response without much content.  The second question was less a question, and more an advert for someone’s prayer based poetry YouTube channel.  The third, and most important question was whether Tom Shadyac would return to making populist comedy films.  The answer, predictably, was ‘yes’, although Shadyac assures us that he’ll take the minimum salary allowed by the Director’s Guild of America.  Naturally, he could take his normal full wage and donate the difference to some kind of charity, but for some reason this option eludes him.  FYI, the minimum salary for a DGA director on a major film is $16,797 per week.  Truly, a pittance. 

After this some tweets are read, the most memorable being a comment that tonight is “Rich people telling poor people that money doesn’t matter”.  Shadyac defends this by essentially explaining that yes, people living in poverty may be starving to death, they may be riddled with preventable and treatable diseases, they may be harried and hunted by armed militias, they may have their homes and lifestyles destroyed by pollution, agribusiness or urban development, they may have horrifying levels of child mortality, they may be under constant threat of rape and murder but in a way - in a very real way - aren’t they the truly rich, and aren’t we the ones living in poverty?  Really makes ya think huh?

In conclusion:

Fuck ‘I Am’.

Fuck moronic new age bollocks.

And Tom Shadyac, fuck you in particular.  Piss off back to your sunny life of Californian luxury and do what you apparently do best, make films about people talking out of their arses.

No stars / *****

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1 Responses to “‘I Am' (2011) directed by Tom Shadyac”

bobspez said...
May 5, 2013 at 9:34 PM

Great review. I agree whole heartedly. But Noam Chomsky is just an intellectual Tom Shadyac. Great for articulating problems but never a single sreal solution. A master of the college bull session school of solving the world's problems, then having another pint.

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