In one of my favorite second-season episodes of The Simpsons, titled "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish," Homer thinks he has eaten poisonous blowfish sushi and has only hours to live. He crams all the things he will miss most into that last few hours, savoring every second he has left on Earth.
The next morning, Homer wakes up, glad to be alive after having obviously not been poisoned after all. But his newfound appreciation for the joys of life is short-lived: The show ends with the image of Homer on the couch that afternoon, zoned out while watching golf.
That gag came to mind as I watched Tom Shadyac's documentary, I Am. I wondered: Does it take a near-death experience to open our eyes to the wonder of life and force us to reckon our place in the world?
Or to put that another way: Why does every jerk who had a near-death experience suddenly feel compelled to make a documentary film about it?
Shadyac's film focuses on the questions that obsessed him after a bicycle accident that left him with both a concussion and post-concussion syndrome, which was worse. Shadyac was convinced that unrelenting concussion symptoms were going to kill him - and made him wish he were dead already.
When the symptoms unexpectedly abated - and Shadyac felt he had regained his grip on life - he set out with a film crew to try to answer two questions: What do you think is wrong with the world? What can we do about it?
He started with himself: a successful, rich movie director of comedy hits such as The Nutty Professor and Ace Ventura, Pet Detective. With his success, he created a giant carbon footprint with the numerous cars and homes he owned.
The "new" Shadyac went on the road and began interviewing people who had spent their lives contemplating these questions: people like Archbishop Desmond Tutu, philosopher Noam Chomsky and historian Howard Zinn, as well as talk-show host Thom Hartmann and others.
Ultimately, Shadyac's quest focuses on the healing powers - in the broadest sense of the word - of love, compassion and cooperation. He has talking heads who say, in essence, that we are constantly exchanging molecules and feeling vibrations from each other's heartbeats.
And what we're tuned into is a genetic imperative to share, cooperate and be democratic, traits that we see as being distinctly human. In fact, as Shadyac discovers, that tendency can be seen in organisms as diffuse as flocks of starlings and schools of fish, when they seem to abruptly turn as a group. Researchers have found that, in fact, it's a group decision achieved when more than half of the flock or school have the same impulse - decisions that are made with practically every stroke and flap.
We're all connected, as the phone company commercial used to say. Shadyac's point is that we are not just connected to each other as people - but to the entire planet. As a result, we're responsible for its deterioration and for taking charge of revitalizing it.
Um, yes -- and? There may be movie-goers out there to whom this is news. They are, undoubtedly, exactly the audience least likely to see this movie.
I Am is sincere without being self-serving. But Shadyac makes connections with both his words and his juxtaposition of images, without coming to a conclusion any deeper than "we need to take care of each other."
Unfortunately, an entire political party and most of its corporate supporters feel otherwise.
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