My wife and I saw the documentary No Impact Man, about a guy who decided to spend a year giving up everything in his life that had a negative environmental impact-- no trains/planes/buses/cars, no food that wasn't grown locally, no electricity, no TV, no toilet paper....
Apparently he got a ton of press back in 2007 when he was doing this-- NY Times article, morning shows, Colbert-- but I really hadn't heard about it at all until I watched the trailer for the documentary on the apple.com trailers site last week (I love the apple.com trailers site).
And somewhere along the line I seem to have become a sucker for documentaries. More and more, I'll find myself reading about a documentary that I really have no reason to be interested in, no reason to want to see-- and I'll become convinced I have to see it. Team Qatar, for example, about a debate team in a Qatar high school. I bought tickets to see it in the Tribeca film festival, had to sell the tickets when it turned out I couldn't go, tracked it down online.... Or Jimmy Carter: Man of Plains, which I almost saw last year at a free writer's guild screening, was bummed I couldn't go, and then, again, tracked it down online... and watched 14 minutes before deciding that I really wasn't that interested in a really long Jimmy Carter interview. Or a documentary about Hunter Thompson that I paid money to see-- excited to see, even though I have never read a word of his writing-- and didn't really enjoy the film. I can go on. It's insane. I don't know what happens when I watch a trailer for a documentary. It's as if the part of my brain that is relentlessly negative and picky about everything else-- certainly scripted movies-- turns off.
In any case, turns out the compelling piece of No Impact Man isn't so much the environmental stuff but it's the guy's relationship with his wife, a writer for BusinessWeek who went into the project on the other end of the spectrum from her husband, drinking loads of coffee every day, buying designer clothes, spending a thousand dollars on a new pair of boots....
Basically, the movie is the story of the guy imposing the Year of No Impact on his fairly reluctant wife. Ostensibly the "lesson" of the movie is that over the course of the year she realizes that this is actually not so terrible, and even if, yeah, it's nice to have toilet paper and a refrigerator instead of using a ceramic pot filled with sand to store your milk and wiping with reusable cloths, the benefit of not having a TV and not having air conditioning and not using artificial light is that you end up going outside a lot more, spending quality time together, and enjoying life.
And I got that lesson from it, I guess, but what bothered me about the movie was that I found the whole thing a little too disingenuous. He acknowledges that it's a gimmick, that it's being done for the purpose of writing a book and making a movie-- but I'm not sure he ever really owns that piece of it. What the movie ignores is that to do all of this-- to shut off your electricity, to hand-wash your toilet paper, to shop at the farmers market for all of your food-- you have to be living in a pretty privileged position. If he didn't have the luxury of being home all day to cook, of being home all day to build his fake refrigerator, of being home all day to tend to the compost container and wash the clothes and walk up and down the 9 flights of stairs instead of taking the elevator, he couldn't have done this. They live in a Manhattan apartment, his wife can afford $1000 boots and Starbucks and take-out every night... I don't know... it's hard to feel the lesson really take hold when as soon as the year is up they flip the lights back on and plug in their refrigerator again.
I guess I also felt like the environmental angle took a backseat to what would make for the best story, for the best press, for the most publicity. They don't talk about whether this stuff really did help the environment-- is it better to waste all that water washing your rags by hand in the tub than to use paper towel and toilet paper? I assume it is, but they didn't tell me. Is it all that great to buy your vegetables from the farmer's market even though the farmers truck their food down 200 miles from upstate New York four times a week, in a motorized vehicle? Is it really worthwhile to unplug your refrigerator even though you're going to end up with lots of spoiled food and create waste?
And the question the movie asks but doesn't answer-- his wife works for BusinessWeek. Aren't the companies they write favorably about doing more damage to the environment than the elevator in his building?
But what bothered me beyond all of this-- he and his wife started out on such different pages, and the whole first half of the movie was about him imposing his will and this project on his wife no matter what she thought and no matter what she wanted. He was a bully. And I say that-- and I say it confidently-- because what he did was what I kept worrying I was at risk of doing throughout my wedding planning. Taking my point of view, taking my opinion, and elevating it to some higher plane, so that you're "bad" if you think any other way than how I think. That it's not just I want this and you want that, but it's that I'm right-- morally right-- and you're wrong and therefore we have to do it my way or else I'm going to make you feel bad and sulk and pout. He was mean.
And at the same time, I'm tempted to say he was right because she was ridiculous. She didn't know how to use their oven or roast a vegetable. She was drinking quad-espressos all day. She was buying thousand-dollar boots. She was everything stupid about our modern consumer culture.
So mostly I just didn't understand why they were married to each other and how either one could stand the other. They had completely different values going into this. They didn't seem to like each other for very much of the movie. And her magic turnaround, when suddenly she decided the project was fun and good and she should play along-- it felt contrived, it felt phony, it felt like one day she decided she was coming across poorly on camera and should change her attitude so she wouldn't ruin the movie.
Hey, but the good news is-- (1) clearly the movie made me think, (2) the movie's actually pretty interesting to watch, even if I suspect I found it interesting for all the wrong reasons, and (3) at its core, I think the lesson is a fine one-- we all do tons of stuff that's bad for the environment and probably isn't any good for our lives anyway, and if we thought about the little things we could do to help the environment and improve our day-to-day satisfaction at the same time, we'd be better off. I love the farmers market. I don't like buying things. Granted, neither of these are environment-driven for me, but, hey, if it helps, what's the difference where my motives are?
So, after all that, I recommend the movie. And am really curious to hear what other people think after seeing it.