*. An interesting and I think important subject only superficially glanced at.
*. Here it’s called minimalism, but it’s been elsewhere marketed, and I think that really is the word, as decluttering, anti-materialism/anti-consumerism, self-editing, and mindfulness. It’s an idea that goes back to ancient times (the rejection of worldly goods by Stoics and early Christianity) but which has only grown in relevance in a mass consumer society: the world is too much with us so get rid of all the stuff that’s complicating your life and that the advertising industry has tricked you into thinking you need. Simplify! Simplify!
*. The documentary Minimalism basically follows a couple of buddies — Ryan Nicodemus and Joshua Fields Millburn, a duo who call themselves “the Minimalists” — on a book tour promoting their book about, you guessed it, the minimalist lifestyle. You will immediately recognize a sharp dissonance. The Minimalists present themselves as determinedly against advertising, yet the entire movie (which they produced) is essentially an infomercial for their book. There’s even one clip at the end from their appearance on The Today Show where they include the plug the hosts give for the book. My jaw dropped slightly open at this. Was this irony? I don’t think so. The movie is a pitch, just as the name “the Minimalists” is a brand they are flogging.
*. To be sure, lots of documentaries have companion books to go along with them. Just among ones I’ve looked at recently there are Inside Job and Requiem for the American Dream. But Minimalism takes this a whole lot further. It’s a straight-up ad.
*. That’s painful, but there are other aspects of the movie that are just as troubling. Chief among these is the way minimalism is presented as a lifestyle choice indulged in by — and I hate to use this language — privileged, upper-class, white people. At one point Nicodemus refers to the listeners of National Public Radio as their “peeps” and target “demographic.” Meaning older, wealthy, and white. People who have everything and may decide that, since they’re not totally happy, they should get rid of some of it.
*. As I say, there is nothing new in any of this. When Millburn reads a passage from his book I honestly thought he was just quoting from Edward Norton’s monologue at the beginning of Fight Club. I spent most of the movie wondering where all the kids were, and though a couple are introduced at the end nothing much is said about how minimalist families work. Nor, despite the subtitle — A Documentary About the Important Things — is there any clear sense of what these important things are. Self-enrichment (in the non-material sense). Personal growth. An authentic self. It sounds mushy to me, especially as I think it likely that “the important things” will be different for every individual.
*. It’s a shame the movie is such a dud because this is an important subject. As one of the talking heads, a designer of tiny homes, puts it, “we’re not very going to be able to achieve the environmental gains that we’re seeking while still expecting our lives to be the same. We’re going to have to give up a lot. The secret is that a lot of that we’re not actually going to miss.” I think this is right. Our present mass production-mass consumption civilization is unsustainable. We will have to lead simpler lives, making do with less, either by choice or (more likely) by necessity. Such a life can, however, be both healthier and happier than what we have now. I believe in all of this, and my own life is, at least in relative terms, quite minimal. I like the message here. I’m just not stuck on the messengers, or the slickness of the packaging.