In flight and bookending our Sonoma County vacation, where we enjoyed winding wine-country roads, redwood forests, and sunbathing seals at the mouth of the Russian River, I watched three documentaries about three unusual people: Brian Wilson, Julia Childs, and Jane Goodall.
I tend toward fiction in my cinematic and artistic tastes, but all three of these films had the same welcome effect on my psyche – they made me want to work harder on my own art and purpose.
“Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road” opened a window into Wilson’s sadness and mental illness that haunted me for days. Like other portraits of artists, this film reveals the difficult chasm often found between the deep soul that an artist plumbs and the mundane give-and-take of everyday life. Wilson is painfully shy and remote in conversation, experiencing his feelings with deep anxiety and fear as if every public moment is a struggle.
The film is built around Wilson’s relationship with Rolling Stones editor Jason Fine, who gently attempts to get Brian to talk as he drives him around Los Angeles. But Wilson seems to be in perpetual mental anguish, constantly biting his lip and gripping the car seat. There is mention of the drugs and the famous acid trip that changed his life, and some talk about his mean and overbearing father, but it seems clear there is something else, too, something hidden, unknown, and heartbreakingly insidious locked inside of him. Or still growing inside.
“Julia” was made by the same two women who made “Gabby Giffords Won’t Back Down,” a film that I referenced months ago in my column about gun violence. You likely remember Julia Childs for her cooking shows and her high, breathy voice, but the film also portrays her commitment to political activism. She was a passionate supporter of Planned Parenthood, risking her career back in 1982 when she went on record with this: “Few politicians will take the risk of supporting either contraception or abortion – and who is ‘for abortion’ anyway? We are concerned with Freedom of Choice.” And in 1986, she became an advocate and fundraiser in the fight against AIDS.
Meanwhile, in “Jane Goodall: The Hope,” we see another passionate, driven, and focused woman, now in her eighties and yet still Teaming Up for Good with other do-gooders around the globe. What struck me about her story is that she would have so happily spent her life studying and interacting in nature with the chimpanzees that she loved – but instead, she realized that the world needed something else from her. She responded with soulful generosity, leaving that quiet life behind for one of incessant advocacy and speaking engagements. Her success became something of a cage of its own, and yet she continues to do her work, speaking through its microphone.
None of these films are the first of their kind, and all three of these individuals have been portrayed in Hollywood feature narratives in addition to other documentaries. What I find interesting is that together, they left me with a strong feeling of: DO IT NOW. I titled this column “The value of” these films because I am oriented toward doing things and making things for a reason.
“Long Promised Road” makes a point about how little we understand mental illness; I felt like a better person for having watched it. “Julia” and “The Hope” both gave me a sense of what those women saw as their “value” in the world. And all three of these films made me want to contribute more. All three were inspiring.
It’s strange and notable to me that after a vacation full of transcendent experiences of natural beauty, with redwoods everywhere and I mean everywhere, plus seals sunning and seal pups swimming and pelicans diving and enormous rock formations jutting out of the sea... Still, it is the work of other people that inspires me to work.
Money, of course, is often motivator. But what motivates you to do the work you are not paid to do? It is, I suspect, your desire to do good. To contribute. To give. It’s in all of us.
Larry LaVercombe is a writer, filmmaker, and activist, born in Detroit and arrived in Minneapolis in 1975. He lived in a treehouse in San Diego before getting an MFA from the USC Film School. He writes most days, and as Team Larry he has been selling residential real estate in Minneapolis for 26 years.
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