THIS IS BULLSHIT: WHY THE INTERNET’S MOST POPULAR SHORT FILM IS SERIOUSLY PROBLEMATIC
(aka i skipped lunch and got cranky.)
Real talk: This short film is everything that’s wrong with movies, today. Actually, that’s not entirely fair. “This is Water” is actually emblematic of everything that’s wrong with our current regard for visual storytelling of any kind, a maddening testament to our impoverished and unrequited relationship with images. Don’t be fooled by the ease with which we can capture and produce images – once upon a time they were at our mercy and disposal, but “This is Water” reminds us that there was an uprising at some point, and we lost.
Now, I don’t want to be cruel about this, at least not more cruel than necessary. Judging by their taste in commencement speeches and the humility of their film’s YouTube description, the folks responsible for this hyper-literal illustration seem like kind and well-meaning people. Listening to the unabridged audio recording of David Foster Wallace’s address, I can certainly understand the impulse to share his profound sentiment, packaging it in such a way that as wide an audience as possible might get to enjoy the source material. In that last regard, the success of this attempt is both undeniable and astounding, as “This is Water” has amassed more than 5 million views since it was uploaded on May 6. Seriously impressive stuff, and untold numbers of people who otherwise might never have heard of David Foster Wallace have now been enlightened to his prevailing ethos.
And yet… everything about it makes me cringe. And, so far as I can understand my own antipathy, I think it’s primarily because the cinema can’t afford for people to think that this qualifies as cinema, at all. This isn’t filmmaking, this is transposition. This is, somehow, actually a step down from the process by which Zack Snyder adapted “300″ for the screen by essentially animating panels from a graphic novel. In so literally illustrating the words of David Foster Wallace’s speech, the filmmaker’s don’t make the sentiments of the speech more palpable or immediate, but reduce the universal to the generic. The beauty of the address is that Foster speaks to the collective narcissism of the human experience, using specific examples to express the extent to which each of us is at the mercy of our egocentrism, stuck in our own heads to the point where we struggle to appreciate the splendor of those around us and the world we share with them. Ultimately, as with most any good commencement speech, David Foster Wallace invites his listeners to make his words their own, to apply them to their own lives. Like a horoscope, the value of these sentiments hinges upon us meeting them halfway, hearing broad pronouncements like they’ve been whispered to us, the hot breath of a secret blushing around the hollows of our ears. “You get to consciously decide what has meaning and what doesn’t.”
But with this film, you don’t. The presentation robs you of any choice whatsoever.
Here, in a speech about the inestimable value of awareness, your eye is so busied with lamely literal graphics (which are nevertheless clearly the work of a skilled designer) and relentless music that alternately sounds like outtakes from the “Secret World of Alex Mack” and Explosions in the Sky b-sides, that the video fundamentally defeats its own supposed message. Relying on blunt stimuli and Hallmark emotion to convey a commencement address that’s attuned to the perils of both, the video actively attempts to disarm your awareness, becoming nothing more than another example of the emotionally pornographic stuff that discourages us from remembering how to appreciate the wonder of our daily existence. These images don’t ask you to engage, they ask you to submit. These images illustrate the difference between seeing the water and drowning in it. If anything, the video speaks to the urgency of David Foster Wallace’s concerns, and I can only hope that the millions who took the time to watch it will give themselves the same opportunity to actually glean something from it that was offered to Kenyon College’s graduating class of 2005.