The title of the documentary I Am is neither an affirmation of individual empowerment nor a reference to the biblical imperative stated in Exodus. Rather, it is an answer to the question: What is wrong with the world?
The "I" in question is filmmaker Tom Shadyac. Known for lowbrow comedic fare such as Ace Ventura, Liar Liar (a favorite of mine), Patch Adams, and Bruce Almighty, Shadyac isn't someone you'd expect to make a movie asking philosophical questions about the nature of the world and what man is doing wrong in it. Shadyac admits as much himself.
Shadyac lived large in Hollywood until a serious bicycle accident left him with a post-concussion syndrome with side effects that included constant ringing in his ears, massive mood swings, and depression to the point of contemplation of suicide.
Shadyac says he was done with life. It gave him a sense of clarity and purpose though: What did he want to say before he died? He felt that the world he had been living was a lie and that he might have actually been helping to destroy the world, through his consumerism and drive for recognition at the expense of others.
But then his physical pain subsided, and he returned to a point of health where he could live normally again. He sold his property and moved into a more modest abode. And he got a film crew together and made a movie whereby he would ask some serious thinkers — Howard Zinn, Desmond Tutu, Noam Chomsky, David Suzuki, and Lynne McTaggart, among others — what they thought was wrong with the world, and what we could do about it.
His philosophical journey takes him near the deep waters tread by Robert Pirsig in his all-time great Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, where slavishness to science and reason is found to be part of the problem of modern man's ills. "Science is just a story," Shadyac proffers. The story it tells is that the world is a machine, and individuals are separate objects rather than interconnected beings.
Strangely, though, the film uses science to convince the audience that it has been misinformed by science. I Am essentially tries to answer if humanity's basic nature is to cooperate or dominate. It investigates generally accepted ideas on evolution and less studied theories on the biological response people feel to helping others and the role of the heart as the emotional intelligence center versus the brain — along with fairly trippy ideas about argon gas in the air we breath. It's like a good NOVA scienceNOW episode about researchers trying to prove the existence of the soul.
If its ideas are intriguing, I Am isn't necessarily great cinema (fittingly, I suppose, in light of the filmmaker's oeuvre). Many images seem like they're culled from stock imagery: lots of birds flying across the sky.
For Memphians, the film holds special significance. The filmmaker is the son of Richard Shadyac Sr., a co-founder of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital and CEO for years of its fund-raising arm, ALSAC. (Tom is also brother to the current ALSAC CEO, Richard Jr.). "If I have any generosity, it's because of him," the filmmaker says of his father.
The film talks about St. Jude and Shadyac Sr., saying the culture at the hospital he helped create is a model that should spread.
The filmmaker interviews his father before his passing in 2009. Interestingly, in asking why the St. Jude model hasn't become widespread, Shadyac Sr. answers that it's easier said than done. He compares it to a church service, where there is an outpouring of love for an hour and a half a week and then everyone goes about their typical uninvolved lives for the rest of the week. We behave one way on Sunday and another on Monday. For it to be otherwise would be unrealistic, Tom's father tells him.
St. Jude battles against the "Sunday-only" mentality by institutionalizing that feeling one gets at church. In other words, St. Jude is a pragmatic solution to the problem that humankind isn't as charitable as it should be.
Opens Friday, May 13th