(or) Why Stereotyping is as Ineffective in Films as it is in Life
I wrote a screenplay based on my experience at Spa Samui, a holistic health/detox spa in Thailand. Thus, I was excited to see the film Wanderlust, produced by Judd Apatow and starring Paul Rudd and Jennifer Aniston. I laughed a lot and enjoyed many moments. It’s one of those films where you are pretty sure where it’s headed, so I’m not too worried about spoilers (though stop now and read this after you see it if you want to keep the suspense).
The film starts by showing us two versions of the miserable life you get when you focus on stuff and status—first in a New York City micro-loft and then in a suburban Atlanta McMansion. When our heroes head to the commune, it seems like a welcome respite. We see all that’s good in the world about sharing, living off the land, minimalism, free love, and connecting to nature. Your typical viewer might think this is all too good to be true, and the film-makers don’t disappoint. Sure enough, we learn that the leader turns out to be a conniving fraud and that the founder sneaks off weekly to a diner to gorge himself on meat. This perpetuates the stereotype that nobody really likes being a vegan and that the ideal of communal living is only an ideal.
I could criticize the writers if only I didn’t use some of the same conventions in my own script. The fact is that there are many people living their bliss in cramped studios in the West Village and sprawling McMansions in suburbia just as there are many vegans who actually dig wheatgrass and don’t crave meat. In a film, in part because there is so little time, it’s often most convenient to go for the stereotype. Yet in doing so, it sells the film, and more importantly, its audience short.
When Jennifer Aniston’s character starts to evolve and come into her happiness on the commune, it’s a beautiful metamorphosis. For the first time in her life, she feels a sense of purpose and bliss. So why must it end? Why, in the front or back of our minds, are we thinking that you can’t actually live here? Where will you send the kids to school (even if you don’t have any)? What about your 401k? What will you eat on Thanksgiving? And how will you explain this to your friends and family living in the “real” world?
This hits so close to home for me because I lived a version of this fairy-tale. I left New York City in December of 2006 for a two-month vacation. After spending three weeks on the island of Koh Samui–twelve days of which I fasted–I came back to America, sold my half of my literary agency and moved back to Koh Samui. I was there for six months straight (and more than a year in all) and everything fell into place.
I wasn’t living in a commune. It was more of a little town that had everything from million-dollar homes to $6/night A-frame bungalows. It had all the great things you associate with a commune (nature, yoga, healthy food) and yet also had all the conveniences (wireless Internet, air conditioning, a thriving economy). I lived with a woman I loved (monogamously) in an amazing house that was a two-minute walk from a spa on the beach with a world-class restaurant, a steam room and an infrared sauna, a book and video library, and a great mix of travelers, businesspeople, students and healers.
With the exception of the bedroom and living room, which had doors that locked, our entire house was outside. There was no front door, and I always laughed about how anyone could steal our pots and pans. I would get a world-class massage almost daily for $9 and then drink a fresh coconut that had just been knocked off a tree. I got in the best health and shape of my life, honed my guitar skills, and made incredible friends. And while a part of me enjoyed it and savored it, a part of me never really believed this was my life.
Watching for the catch? So was I, if only because I never could have imagined that life could be this awesome. You may be looking for the hole in the story, thinking that this all sounds great if you have a trust fund (which I don’t). Even though I was on vacation, I met authors Hajjar Gibran and Jon Gabriel and sold their books to imprints of Simon & Schuster. I could have stayed and lived a country club existence on a tropical island on $900 a month and had plenty of chances to earn income. If I wanted to, I even could have put some of those commissions in a retirement account.
As for the healers and health practitioners, I learned they were human. Some of these hippy-dippy types drank, smoke and wolfed down cheeseburgers. This only made me love them more. While we typically portray people who are health-conscious as preachy and hypocritical, keep in mind that none of these people were teaching anything that they didn’t believe in. You may hold the stereotype that a yoga teacher shouldn’t smoke, eat meat or road-rage, but of the dozens I know, I still haven’t met one who holds out him or herself as perfect. In fact, I never felt more accepted and loved for who I was. Most of my friends didn’t even know my last name, much less where I went to college, and affection came based on personality, not pedigree.
I’m still trying to figure out why I gave it up all to come back to a more “conventional” life in America. Now that I reflect more on Wanderlust, it’s not the film-makers’ stereotyping that bothered me. It’s my own. I’m sure my friend Mark England would remind me that it’s all my own projection. And I would agree. Because just like most viewers of Wanderlust were likely thinking that living in bliss would be too good to be true—that you have to come back to earth and live in the real world—I thought the same thing. And sure enough, I came back down to the real world and haven’t felt that awesome since.
I’m ready to feel that way again. I’m headed to Costa Rica tonight, Northern California in late March, Thailand again in April and North Carolina in June. Who knows where I may find that bliss?
When I do, this time I will know that I am in the real world.
And since I’m the director of my own life, I don’t need to follow stereotypes for the sake of brevity or convention.
When I find that bliss, I can, and will, choose to live in it.