(2021) Documentary (Semicolon) Rick Rawlins, Heidi Julavits, Robert Krulwich, Joshua Glenn, Arianna Huhn, Eri Yasuhara, Eugene Wong, Margaret Bynum Hill, Marie Kondo, Jad Abumrad, Rob Walker, Mindah-Lee Kumar, Isabelle Corey, Caren Wheeler, Lynn Levy, Nelson Dale, Amy Gesick. Directed by Vincent Liota
I sincerely believe we all need a little bit of clutter. I distrust too much order; there is something that is authoritarian, almost fascist about it. If life is ordered, there are no surprises. No deeper meaning. At this time in our history, we seem to worship order. Clutter is a sign of an undisciplined mind (although studies prove the opposite); clutter is a sign of an undisciplined life. Clutter is bad for the environment; it means we need more space to hold it and tiny dwellings are better for the environment (poppycock, by the way; tiny dwellings can have as large a carbon footprint as a larger dwelling in the right circumstances). Memories aren’t connected to objects; they are locked inside our brains.
But that’s not really true. Most of us have keepsakes; a stub from a ticket to a concert that has meaning for us, or a gift from a loved one who is no longer with us. The point is, we impress meaning on inanimate objects that others may not share. The value of an object is directly related to its meaning towards us, not in how much it would fetch at an Antiques Roadshow auction.
This documentary explores the hold objects may have on us, but not in an obsessive/compulsive manner (although it may seem that way to some at first). Three subjects – former NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich, graphic designer Rick Rawlins and author Heidi Julavits are all of the school that objects tether us in time, connect us directly to positive memories.
Julavits is of the opinion (that I honestly don’t disagree with) that every object, no matter how insignificant, has a story to tell. The story may have meaning only to the object’s owner, but that story is a part of the fabric of their life nonetheless. As I sit here writing this on my laptop at my dining room table (where I do all my writing because it is comfortable, I have a great view of my back yard and the woods beyond from the window, and it gives my dogs a place to hang out with me), I can see literally dozens of objects that we have collected over the years. Some have pragmatic value – our good china for special occasions, a Von Briggle vase that my wife – Da Queen – and I bought while on a trip to Colorado Springs where she grew up, a miniature Spanish flag from a Transatlantic cruise, a gravy boat that was a wedding gift. Some of them may have intrinsic value (the vase, for example) but the flag certainly does not, although I think both my wife and I would be loath to give it up.
All three of the film’s subjects have stories like that. For Julavits, she was drawn to some clothing that she found on E-bay that once belonged to the obscure French actress Isabelle Corey, who passed away in 2011. She became almost compulsive about finding more of her things. Part of it was an interest in the woman herself; why did she suddenly stop appearing in films in the early 60s, just when her career seemed to be at its height? Julavits felt that the artifacts from her life might give her a clue, but she found herself being connected in an unexpected way.
Krulwich has held on to a tuft of grass for fifty years. You see, back when he was 15 years old, he was madly in love with a young girl and it appeared she returned his affection. They were in Central Park in New York, in front of Cleopatra’s Needle (an obelisk that is a well-known landmark in the park) and it was a big moment for the young man. He wanted something to memorialize the moment, but there was nothing around. Impulsively, he grabbed a handful of grass and put it in his pocket and has kept it ever since. This might seem to be a little out there, but as Krulwich puts it, whenever he sees the grass he can connect with the excitement of his 15-year-old self and for a moment, the memory is so vivid that he IS 15 again. Who needs a time machine when you have a handful of sod?
Maybe the most affecting story belongs to Rawlins, who as a young boy described himself as “socially awkward.” That might have been because his father’s job required him to move regularly so the family was rarely in one place long enough for the young lad to develop friendships. However, there was a boy by the name of David Turley who did seem interested in pursuing a friendship with young Rick. He invited Rawlins to a birthday party, but as it turned out, the family had to move yet again – on the very day of the birthday party, to make matters worse. Rick, distraught, decided to run over to the Turley home anyway but didn’t know what to say once he arrived there, so he stood on the porch, obviously close to breaking down. Young squire Turley, perhaps sensing his friend’s emotional turmoil, gifted him with a sugar egg – a confection that is very much like a hollow egg-shaped sugar cube. Young Rick was so overcome by the kind gesture that he kept the egg and still does to this day, in a special wooden box (whose significance is also explained in the film). Although I wondered how the egg went so long without getting moldy, it becomes the center for emotional resonance for the film, particularly during a segment about a radio show…well, I won’t get into it but I found myself unexpectedly connected to the story.
And that unexpected connection basically is the story of the movie. Things have a habit of finding a wavelength that matters to us, and we find outselves using that wavelength to recapture the feelings the original moment brought out in us to begin with. That wavelength isn’t just about possessions, either – we find that resonance in particular songs, in smells (my grandmother’s perogies were such an integral part of my childhood that smelling ANY perogies can take me back to that feeling of warmth, love and comfort) and every other sense you can imagine.
Surprisingly, there isn’t a whole lot of scientific explanation in the film, surprising because Liota has a background in science journalism. In the press notes, he mentions that is a deliberate decision on his part because he wanted to concentrate on the emotional side of the equation, and he does exactly that, successfully.
But the other side of that is that we get something of a one-sided conversation. Julavits’ searching for further memorabilia from Corey begins to show signs of obsession and compulsion. And while none of the main focuses of the film could be called hoarders, where is the line properly drawn?
I think there is a happy medium to be had here. On the one hand, too much order is unnatural. Sometimes, it’s not all about what we need, or even what “sparks joy” (because there is always a matter of degree) as Marie Kondo, the maven of decluttering your life (whose book Julavits searches for in her cluttered apartment, one of the more amusing vignettes in the film) puts it. Sometimes a bit of clutter is what we need to prove that we are inhabiting our own lives. Too much order is sterility; it makes the house look unlived-in, not a home at all. And the objects that bring us a connection – with out own past, with friends and family, with important events – are to be prized and treasured. And nobody can put a price on that.
REASONS TO SEE: One of those movies that grabs you unexpectedly.
REASONS TO AVOID: The conversation is a little bit one-sided.
FAMILY VALUES: Perfectly fine for all audiences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Liota is an Emmy-winning filmmaker who was a senior producer on PBS’ acclaimed science series NOVA scienceNOW.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: DOC NYC Online (until November 28)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/16/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10