Monday, April 16, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction's Sentimental Materialism

The word "materialist" conjures up various disparate images in my head - phantasms that are paradoxically appropriate and true to materialism yet at wide variance with each other: Neitzsche's frenzied Dionysian ideal, Marx coldly calculating the human soul out of existence, the debonair and cultured nihilist, and the slavish "last man." Our country, however, is overrun by a materialism that is of a distinctly different sort. This eureka moment came to me while watching Stranger Than Fiction, a disappointingly banal movie whose novel premise couldn't sustain its unexpected grave seriousness.

At the beginning of the story, Will Ferrell, the grossly miscast protagonist, is in a state of stultified existence, calculating with insensate precision his way through a comfortably drab life as an IRS agent. The first tingle of "life" that makes its way to his spine is a feeling of lust for a young baker, a feminine Ché Guevara who (instead of killing people) exhibits her liberal ideals by refusing to pay taxes and by baking cookies for the underprivileged. Ferrell's torpid rationalism begins to undergo rapid transformation by the liberating influences of a guitar, lust, and the novelty of going without a necktie.

Sparks inevitably fly between the awkward IRS agent and this liberal apotheosis. The way in which the sparks fly, though terribly clichéd, was extremely telling for me. Ferrell approaches his lustful object with only the words, "I want you"; she, feeling wanted, invites him up to her apartment, though she cautiously "has to make sure first" before...well, you know. The confirmation she was looking for comes in the form of a sentimental song Will Ferrell reluctantly sings. This relationship, forged on promiscuous sex, is elevated to life-giving status, though Ferrell never shares with his intimate lover his struggles with imminent death, which is the driving conflict of the story.

This is nothing new; we have seen this countless times in innumerable movies. What struck me after watching it was an entirely new image of materialism for me: the sentimentalist. Squishy and sentimental Oprah-style emotion is the dominant trait of American materialists today, who build their loving relationships, ideals, values, and goals on the rock solid foundation of a poignant feeling. Ferrell's relationship in Stranger Than Fiction is the marital ideal for many people today, so full of tender feeling and absolutely lacking in anything that could be called substantial.

It's no wonder that The Secret, a new book that is a cross between a New Age religion and a self-help tome, is selling millions upon millions of copies. The Secret claims to expound the one and true metaphysic, which is based on the simple principle that you get whatever you want by simply imagining it. The "universe" (whoever that is) understands nothing except the imperative to give displaced adolescents whatever they imagine. The author of The Secret is laughing to the bank, of course, cashing in on this widespread sentimental brand of materialism.


Gregaria said...

That's an interesting thought. I'm just launching myself into the workforce and I find this kind of "sentimentalism" everywhere! Not only in romantic relationships, but also between co-workers and friends. It really does seem like a value system people build trust and friendships on. They always seem surprised when those friendships fall apart.

Michael Barber said...
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Thom said...

I understand what you mean. This movie had so much potential, if it wasn't for the shallow relationship that it portrays in a good light. There needs to be something more substantial for relationships to flourish, not simply "wanting" someone.