Tuesday, June 14, 2011
Shadyac’s Not-So-Great “I Am”
1. What’s wrong with the world?
2. What can we do about it?
Dozens of video interviews with luminaries like Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, and Lynn McTaggart (author of The Field: The Quest for the Secret Force of the Universe) are boiled down into an 80-minute documentary film. The interviews are intercut in an alarmingly noncritical way; strands of thought are woven into a single bland blanket in which the filmmaker wraps us while passing before our eyes archival images of everything from elks butting antlers to Mahatma Gandhi bouncing a baby on his knee. The film’s title is taken from G. K. Chesteron’s famous answer to a survey in which people were asked what’s wrong with the world. “I am,” was Chesterton’s terse reply. The film itself plays like a cross between a Ken Burns history of worldwide advances in civil rights and “The Secret Life of Plants.” It combines liberal social critique and uplift with “noetic science”—roughly the idea that consciousness creates fields of energy and therefore that, for the world to change, all we have to do is love one another. Who could be such a churl as to disagree?
Well, I could.
Diagnosis of the world’s ills takes up the first half of the film, and we hear the usual litany, although it’s never entirely clear which talking head is saying what. “We believe that the economy is real.” “We compete with one another.” “We lionize those who win the competition.” . . . Meanwhile, starvation, poverty, abuse. Why can’t we all just get along?
It turns out that we can get along, as most of the second half works hard to prove. (Here’s the noetic part.) The world is a huge energy field, in which the heart controls the mind. Darwin has been misinterpreted; in fact he taught what science now knows (noetic science anyway), that cooperation is in our DNA. The film ends with Archbishop Tutu reciting traditional African advice on how to eat an elephant—“one piece at a time”—and the obvious conclusion that each of us just has to do his/her part. (Tutu is wonderful, by the way, the one distinctive presence among the preaching pros.) If we each do our part, the world will be a better place, as the major advances in civil rights from the US to South Africa to India have proven since the beginning of the 20th century. A well-meaning film like this never fails to send one dancing out of the cinema, knowing that a better day dawns. I will love my neighbor tomorrow, I promise, I promise.
Yet the entire film—with one striking exception—is nothing more than smart people offering ideological preconceptions and abstract solutions. All but one of the heads captured by Shadyac’s camera is a talking one. In the end the film is dedicated to the single exception, the acting head, the head that jumps out of the middle of the film and screams something different—Richard Shadyac, Tom Shadyac’s father.
At the midpoint of the film, Tom suddenly throws aside the stewpot of edited voices to speak in the first person. He says that he would not be one-tenth the person he is today without his father. Until his death in 2009, Richard Shadyac was the CEO of ALSAC, the fund-raising arm of St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. He stabilized this remarkable charitable hospital for children after the death of his close personal friend, comedian Danny Thomas. Shadyac Senior didn’t talk, he acted. More remarkable still is the single, simple testimony the old man offers on camera in “I Am.” He talks about attending a Catholic Mass, of all things—the first time and the last time Christianity is mentioned by an interviewee. (A couple of bulletin-board quotes from Jesus and St. Francis are thrown on the screen in the last minutes; earlier we read quotes from Emerson and Einstein.) Richard Shadyac notes the remarkable fact of whites, blacks, and Latinos all worshiping side by side in a Catholic church. Although it is not clear from his testimony, whether Shadyac Senior was Catholic or only a fascinated observer, the testimony is so singular that it cannot possibly escape notice. Two hours later, I would ask my wife which moment in the film had stuck with her and she immediately cited this one.
After Richard’s account, which lasts only about 15 seconds, Tom asks, in effect, “Why can’t we all be like that outside church?” Dad agrees that you seldom see that. Then Tom completely abandons the Christian question, slides back into noesis, and moves on to its promise of a better day tomorrow in the universal field of consciousness—where the question is reduced to irrelevancy. Yes, we can get along, yes, we can.
How could a son acknowledge a profound debt to his father, listen to his father’s testimony about Catholic Christian experience, then turn a cold shoulder? Father Luigi Giussani would have the answer: In our culture, Christian faith has become irrelevant. The striking personal testimony of the person closest to Shadyac Junior is drowned out by a cacaphony of disembodied voices shouting from the rostrum of informed cultural opinion.
When the dedication to and picture of Richard Shadyac (1929–2009) come on the screen at the end, one can only wonder: What about the Father? Is his experience really something that we cannot build upon?