Tuesday, November 17, 2009

American Movie, social class, Kierkegaard, despair

I recently saw the film American Movie. It's a 1999 documentary about Mark Borchardt, a 29-year-old with a passion for movie making. The film documents his struggles to finish a black and white horror film called Coven.

Struggle he does. Perhaps the most overt theme in the movie is how every card in this working class high school drop-out's life is stacked against him. Mark is intelligent, energetic, determined to succeed, funny and personable. He has a vision and a passion. Yet because of his class situation, there's almost nothing to support him. Certainly very little money and almost no access to people with the education and expertise to smooth his path.

His Wisconsin world is bleak, from the barren, frozen landscape to the small, drab house he shares with his mother (and sometimes his three children from a former marriage) to the cramped trailer where his uncle lives in a mobile home park. Mark supports himself by delivering newspapers and doing janitorial work in a mausoleum/cemetery (at one point this involves washing defecation off a bathroom wall). His best friend is a cheerful, overwieght recovering alcoholic and acidhead whose main activity in life involves buying scratch-off lottery tickets, which he justifies as a better use of his money than drink or drugs.

As for Mark's family, they are less than the American Family Values ideal: His brothers say disdainful things about Mark: he won't finish his film, he's a hopeless dreamer, he's a loser, he has about enough brains to work in a factory. His father, who is separated from his mother, won't help him with the film. He self-righteously doesn't like the "language" in it. HIs mother doesn't think he will ever complete the movie, which he has been working on for years. People come to production meetings, then melt away when he needs them. Luckily, he has a girlfriend who actually doesn't undermine him. Possibly his best supporter is his shrunken old uncle in the trailer, who gives him $3,000 to complete the film and makes it through 31 takes of a scene in which he has to say four short lines that he keeps botching. The uncle is no great enthusiast however: At best, he is a verbally abusive skeptic, the unwilling underwriter of a project he doesn't believe in and has been bullied into financing.

With friends like these, who needs enemies? Yet the grace in the movie is the way Mark works with the people around him. He's largely patient and good-humored through what must be enormous frustrations. He's able to laugh. He's able to see the good in what seem like the biggest collection of misfits ever assembled. He's able to inspire them to be better than they are. He's able to pull them together, however imperfectly, into a community that transcends itself. Through his passion, he draws them in and releases their energies: Near the end, it's amazing to see them all working feverishly against a deadline to edit the movie in the hours--even minutes-- before its premiere.

His mother gives him a place to stay and though often unwilling and largely unable, she fills in as an extra and does camerawork. His acidhead friend is nothing but loyal. He even gets his young children to help with the filming from time to time.

You wonder how Mark keeps on. He gets depressed sometimes--and lashes out bitterly at the safest people in his life, his mother and uncle--but he never despairs.

Kierkegaard and Mark

About the same time I watched this movie, an essay ran in the New York Times written Gordon Martino about Kiergegarrd and despair (happydays.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/10/28/kierkegaard-on-the-couch/?scp=1&sq=kierkegaard&st=cse.) This essay, I thought, describes Mark.

According to the Times piece, Kierkegaard distingushed between depression and despair. Despair is the state of not wanting to accept who you fundamentally are, of wanting to get rid of yourself, as Kierkegaard put it. It's a malaise of the spirit. Depression is the blues, the self being out of sorts. Ironically, accepting who you are can lead to depression--if you fancy yourself a wealthy extroverted businessperson but your soul cries out that you are truly an avant-garde musician-- that can be depressing, given the mores of the culture. Yet that very depression--the struggle of the self-- can lead to spiritual growth. Though we've collapsed the spiritual and the psychological in our culture and see despair as a form of depression, a malady of the self, in fact, a person can be depressed and yet spiritually healthy; happy and yet spiritually ill.

Mark, it seems to me, enacts this Kierkegaardian distinction between despair and depression. For as depressed as he gets--and who wouldn't, with his bleak, miserable prospects--he is not a figure of despair. He's fundamentally doing what he was called to do--fundamentally expressing his deepest, most creative self as he enacts his filmmaking. Bad as everything in his life is, including his movie, we respond to his spiritual health and vitality, his integrity. And the rawness, pain and vulnerability of his desire.

At one point in this film, Mark, in many way this most spiritual of people, drives around looking at Macmansions and talks about aspiring to the American Dream of material success. He discusses having a Christian ethic but also wanting money, about being torn, about being half a Christian. It's funny in its naivete of expression, but we're drawn, again, to his integrity, his awkward passion to express who he really is.

In the end, his irony is our irony: Reaching his goal of material success might be the very thing that drives him out of depression and into despair. At the same time, in seeking his goal, he is fully, authentically alive.

Do you agree with Kiergegaard's dinstinction? What blocks us--many of us probably more privileged than Mark--from finding and expressing our authentic selves and how do we do this in a way that isn't narcissistic?

1 comment:

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