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I Am

March 26, 2011
I Am

In 2007, director Tom Shadyac had a severe bicycle accident. Besides the broken bones, he suffered from a post-concussion syndrome, sensitive to light and sound, unresponsive to traditional and alternative treatments alike. But as his trauma slowly ebbed, he was left with the unshakable realization that his isolation had exacerbated his unhappiness, and that the same was true on a far larger scale in the world at large.

At it’s core, this is the central premise of I Am: that we as human beings are naturally cooperative rather than competitive, and the cultural emphasis on competition over cooperation is the single greatest root cause of strife in the world. Shafted approaches this point with two leading questions: “What is wrong with the world?” and “What can we do about it?”

Now, overall I’m sympathetic to his position. Maximizing wealth — especially at the expense of those around us — is not the same as maximizing happiness, even on a personal level. Viewing life as the kind of red-in-tooth-and-claw zero-sum game that an ardent devotee of Ayn Rand would have you believe it is is a recipe for disaster in the long run. And Shadyac even advances some very worthy points from behavioral biology to support this idea of the cooperative as the natural state.

The problem is that I Am runs completely off the new-age rails with this notion of interconnectedness, and stays there for far, far too long. It indulges the HeartMath Institute and the practitioners of “Noetic Science”, and basically spends about half an hour of it’s scant eighty minutes rehashing What the #$*! Do We Know!?. And yes, the word “quantum” gets thrown around willy-nilly.

Which all is really a shame, and not just because that stuff is all just complete horseshit. Outside of that section, the fundamental idea that we all affect each other and the world around us is worth some serious attention. The case is already made on the basis of behavioral biology, so the new-ageism is superfluous on top of silly.

Instead of going down that road, Shadyac could have spent his time better exploring the obvious question he doesn’t ask: why is our society competitive rather than cooperative in the first place? That’s the question that would lead to real understanding of the problem, and which could give insight into what is to be done about it.

But no; Shadyac returns from his foray into the metaphysical hinterlands without that setup, and he doesn’t have the right setup to finish off strongly. What we get instead is a recounting of the way that many small actions build up to a movement. The one way of eating an elephant, Bishop Desmond Tutu tells us, is one piece at a time. But we are left staring at an elephant with no idea what it’s pieces even are. “Be the change you want to see,” but do we really know what that is?

So while I can’t recommend I Am, I can recommend its conclusions: we do better — each individual and the whole group — when we work together instead of separately; we can each of us make a difference in the world, and billions of little differences add up to enormous changes. What I leave you with is the question to help bridge the gap between these two: how do you act separately instead of together? Are you lonely? Why? Do you distance yourself from people or situations or emotions? Why? And what can you do to re-engage?

Worth It: I can’t honestly say that it is, no matter how much I appreciate the effort. Instead of watching it, go for a walk with someone you care for, and make that effort to be present with them.
Bechdel Test: I’ve said before I’m not sure if the test really applies to documentaries. If it does, this fails.

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