New age theme is just old hat
By Mark Jenkins
Friday, March 25, 2011
Falls Church native Tom Shadyac directed such Hollywood hits as "Ace Ventura: Pet Detective," "Patch Adams" and "Bruce Almighty." Then he did something even worse.
In 2007, he fell off his mountain bike and bashed his head, leading to "post-concussion syndrome." Shadyac experienced chronic pain, extreme sensitivity to light and movement and suicidal urges.
When the symptoms finally receded, the filmmaker felt the need to remake his life. He sold his 17,000-square-foot Pasadena mansion and set out to make a documentary, "I Am." (The title comes from British author G.K. Chesterton, not Neil Diamond.) The movie poses two questions: "What's wrong with our world?" and "What can we do about it?"
Among the noted intellectuals, scientists and activists Shadyac interviews are anti-apartheid leader Desmond Tutu, U.S. foreign policy critic Noam Chomsky and the late radical historian Howard Zinn. Such names suggest that "I Am" will offer a leftist analysis, and it sort of does. Shadyac is critical of free-market capitalism (especially as practiced by Wall Street) and extols the sort of communalism that (he believes) once organized Native American societies. He does not think that "greed is good."
But "I Am" doesn't allot much time to that sort of politics. Chomsky gets only a few seconds on screen, and most of those are spent admitting that he has never heard of "Ace Ventura."
While "I Am'' has its boogeymen - especially the rich, the racist and the ultra-competitive - Shadyac implicates himself whenever possible. He even cuts from his tiny childhood Northern Virginia home to his ostentatious Pasadena estate, concluding that the latter "made me no happier."
What really grabs Shadyac are new age notions of life's interconnectedness. He's told that "we are all part of an energy field" and gets a brain scan at the Institute of Heartmath. At one point, he's hooked up to a petri dish of yogurt, whose live cultures supposedly can feel his emotions.
The scientists Shadyac encounters may be involved in serious work; from his movie, it's impossible to tell. But theoretical data suggesting the kinship of all living things doesn't solve the problem of people who behave as if they have no such link. Perhaps this research will be more useful at some point in the future, when BP, Goldman Sachs or North Korea are run by small pools of yogurt.
There are great filmmakers - Chris Marker and Nanni Moretti come to mind - whose cinematic essays render their first-person musings utterly compelling. Shadyac is not in their league. He doesn't assemble diverse sounds, images and ideas with any particular flair, and rarely gets even a step ahead of the viewer. However well-meaning, "I Am" is just a rich guy's self-indulgence.
Contains images of violence.