One of Hollywood’s most successful film directors returned to J.E.B. Stuart High School in Falls Church, Virginia this week to present his latest work, a documentary exploring, among other issues, the connections between spirituality and science, wealth and happiness, and how one goes about changing the world. The film, titled simply I AM, is the best documentary production I have seen since this year’s Academy Award winner, Inside Job.
Its creator, Tom Shadyac, is one of the more intriguing characters I have ever run across. With long dark hair down to his shoulders, a puckish sense of humor and the self-effacing style of a monk who has renounced millions in search of the meaning of life, he charmed a crowd of more than 800 high school students, their parents, his classmates and curious neighbors. “Last time I was on this stage, I was playing a toilet,” he began, adding that he later used the talking toilet idea in a Jim Carrey movie. Long before he directed such hits as Ace Ventura, Bruce Almighty and The Nutty Professor, he was cracking wise doing the daily PA announcements at Stuart and playing basketball. From a start as a joke writer for Bob Hope, he became the Hollywood Golden Boy with huge estates, private planes and limousines. A serious bicycle accident and a severe concussion changed everything for him.
As he describes in the movie, he and a crew set out to try to answer two questions: What is wrong with this world? What can we do about it? His interviews with philsophers, theologians, authors and scientists are woven together with a cornucopia of visual images chronicling the history of western civilization and the evolution of modern science along with its influence on popular culture and politics. Since he is a feature film director, the music for the sound track is lush and a wonderful counterpoint to the images.
Bishop Desmond Tutu, Howard Zinn and others offer some fascinating insights about the human character, the science behind how animals and people are hard wired to relate to each other and how many believe our lives are controlled more by our hearts than our brains. I don’t pretend to be able to evaluate the science or the religious philosophy (he includes all faiths) but I found it thought provoking and uplifting. I was amazed at what scientists are doing to measure and test the powers of human emotion.
Among the interesting tidbits: Charles Darwin mentioned “survival of the fittest” only twice in Origin of the Species. He used the word, “love,” 90 times. The film raised powerful questions about how Darwin’s work has been used and distorted to justify many subsequent social models, including the culture of greed that drives Wall Street and the politics of capitalism.
As one of the interviewers said, in effect, if we don’t discover new ways to live on the planet, we won’t be around in two hundred years. And from Bishop Tutu: The truth of who we are is that we belong.
Tom Shadyac is a religious person and he is messianic about his mission to create change. But he is careful not to prescribe a faith, preferring instead to describe his message as “not about saving the world, it’s about personal revolution.” You can find out more showtimes at his website: www.iamthedoc.com.
(Note there is a religious film out with a similar title)