THE WHOLE HISTORY OF MY LIFE
THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD
Recently, I had the urge to write about the films I really love, the films that have demonstrably meant something to me in my life, that have changed my thinking about the world and made me into the person that I am. I wanted to write about these movies and explain them, explain how film as an art-form can hold a deeper meaning and how the art has the ability to get down into a person's soul and do something to them. I wanted to write about films I struggled with and returned to, the decisions I made in life and the ideas I have floating around in my brain that can be directly traced to movies. And not just my firm belief that mogwai shouldn't be fed after midnight. The 6 films I am going to write about in this series changed the whole history of my life.
<< part one: THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE >>
<< part two: NAKED >>
THE SMARTEST MAN IN THE WORLD
"I am closer to absolute truth than any man has been before me. Do I think that
makes me better than anybody else? No. I still work in a bar."
An episode of Errol Morris' excellent television show First Person, this half-hour documentary is built around a simple and elegant irony: how could such a smart person be so fucking stupid? Even further: how could someone found (by one objective measure) to be the smartest man in the world be so amazingly lacking in almost any of the qualities generally associated with high intelligence? One of two episodes in the seventeen film series focusing on a subject with an extremely high I.Q., The Smartest Man in the World focuses on a surly, brawny failure of a human being named Christian Langan who once held the Guinness Book of World Records approved title of "Highest Recorded I.Q." From the beginning, Langan is an entirely off-putting character: he's prone to a lot of transparently false humility, telling cocky and lurid tales of his difficult up-bringing, smirking self-satisfaction, citing examples of how his genius has been misunderstood and thwarted at every turn - and that's even before he elucidates his grand plan for saving humanity through "anti-disgenics" (a.k.a. eugenics) and indulging his delusional fantasies that the world would best be served by giving its complete control over to him and other members of "the high I.Q. community." Did I mention he works as a bouncer in a bar in Bozeman Montana and has never accomplished anything of note in his entire life? I guess that's not fair: when he was four years old, he wrote on "an illustrated volume on snakes, lizards and turtles." As with all but one episode of First Person, there is only one subject interviewed and Morris' voice occasionally intruding on the proceedings with a series of barked questions that are strangely aggressive in tone but inviting in nature. Morris doesn't want to catch anybody in anything other than the Alan Funt-esque act of being themselves - and Langan paints a portrait of himself far more humiliating just about anything caught by a candid camera.
Morris has frequently been accused of making fun of his subjects and his portrait of Langan could easily fall into that category of "Morris points his camera at an idiot and they say ridiculous things." That Morris might not have the upmost respect for all of his subjects has greatly troubled the documentary community, a generally liberal and well-meaning group of folks with has a natural tendency towards respect for those willing to allow a camera crew and filmmaker into their lives. That one of the inarguably greatest documentarians of all time frequently presents rubes, morons and deluded losers in an unflattering fashion has never sat well with a filmmaking community that tends toward the earnest and socially conscious. Over the course of his life, Morris' philosophy on the problem has evolved: "I used to defend myself by denying it. Now, I am less excited about doing so. Properly considered, filmmakers in general and documentary filmmakers in particular should not be creating ads for humanity. Wow. Look how great the human race is. I never thought that being human could be so wonderful. Nor should I be protecting my subjects from themselves. If they are ridiculous, why can't I show that?" Morris' work is driven in no small part by an interest in human failure (of our legal systems, of our governments, of our ability to understand ourselves, of our ability to interpret history and reality) and in Langan he finds one of his most striking examples of failure. But what I think the criticism of Morris gets wrong is the implication that he can't both find Langan to be ridiculous and sympathetic - at very least, he is genuinely concerned with the deeper nature of Langan's being and not simply looking to score easy points for no reason beyond the comedy itself. Morris' films are a sharp contrast to "assorted weirdoes" films like those of Harmony Korine, Catfish or Heavy Metal Parking Lot, which don't have much on their mind beyond a "look at the freaks" mentality. You could even argue that "look at the adorable freaks" films like Spellbound and Murderball are guilty of a simple-minded reductionism of which there's absolutely no way to accuse Morris even in his most aimless grotesqueries Gates of Heaven and Vernon Florida. Mr. Death is about a yellow-toothed, deluded, chain-smoking, 40 cup of coffee a day drinking, Holocaust-denying electric-chair repairman, but Morris uses Fred Leucther to explore themes concerning history, justice, system-building and self-deception. I think it's fair to say that even if Morris doesn't identify with his subjects directly, he identifies deeply with the difficult issues they raise: the problems of Langan's existence matter deeply to Morris, even if I would be surprised to hear that he has any respect for the man.
Morris is a strange figure in my film-going life in that he has been one of my favorites from the beginning. By "from the beginning" I suppose I don't mean when I was five years old and decided if I couldn't be Indiana Jones because he was a fantasy figure made up for the movies, then I wanted to be one of those people doing the making up. I'm thinking about that point in high school when I made the transition from "guy who likes movies" to "guy who is too damn serious about everything including movies - ahem - le cinema." Errol Morris almost instantly became one of my favorite directors due to his brilliant The Thin Blue Line, a film that combined my love of lurid true crime tales with a piercing intelligence and an unrelenting demand for social justice. It was a funny, strange film about repulsive police corruption, the futility of life at the bottom the social pyramid, the cosmic injustices of everyday being, violent murder and milkshakes. It got my blood boiling and had a stone-cold sense of humor: two perfect elements for a teenager such as myself who (like many teenagers) probably enjoyed being outraged more than I understood. But I've cooled on many of the things that most inflamed me at that age, which is common enough for anyone. I think with art, the more you experience the harder it is to stay impressed - the Coen brothers were exciting when my frame of context was Jim Carrey movies, less so after I had been watching Fassbinder, Busby-Berkley and Hollis Frampton. With Morris it's the opposite: the more films I see in general, the more I love his work in specific. I think as I've gotten older, the things that trouble and fascinate me have continuously aligned themselves with Morris' work to a greater and greater degree: if I loved Hal Hartley's Simple Men when I 16, it was because my greatest anxieties were over "trouble and desire" with an agnosticism-yearning-for-transcendence kicker. If I love Morris now it's because I think a lot about self-deception and the failures of social systems with a depths-of-human-darkness-dissected-with-scientific-precision kicker. I'm not sure if it's that I just understand him better, but I find his films to be funnier and more intelligent each time I go back to them.
The "scientific precision" element is one that can't be understated either: Morris approaches his subjects like a biologist; as unpleasant as it sounds, he treats human beings like animals and pulls apart their behaviors like a medical student digs into a cadaver. There's a complete lack of sentimentality to it. As he once wrote, "You have had some trouble figuring out why people are acting in a confusing or contradictory fashion. You can't provide a plausible explanation of their behavior. Just imagine that they are gorillas. Or, if you prefer, some other kind of monkey. I find this very helpful. Once we have dispossessed ourselves of the notion that we are rational, consistent or even make sense, then we are in a much better position to analyze our own behavior and the behavior of others." I can see why some people would find such comments off-putting or even excessively cynical, but I think they're missing two things: 1) Morris is funny. What he's saying is not a joke, but it is funny. 2) Morris is one of the few filmmakers to have grasped and elucidated the animalistic, biological components of humanity: he's a scientist by nature, but a really, really funny one. It's no mistake that many of his subjects are culled from the scientific community: Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time, the mole rat expert and the A.I. visionary in Fast, Cheap and Out of Control, the charming medical school museum curator in Smiling in a Jar or the Ahab-esque giant squid hunter in Eyeball to Eyeball. This tendency allows him to effortlessly deconstruct the bad science of Fred Leuchter and pseudo-scientific rationalizations of "IBM machine with legs" Robert McNamara. His films can even be oblique arguments against non-fiction writers like Oliver Sacks, whose analysis of Temple Gradin was annihilated by Stairway to Heaven. There are few filmmakers that tinge their material with such an unpretentiously cogent air of examination and investigation - he often compares his film work to his time as a private detective, but he's quick to point out his detective work mainly consisted of sifting through reams of paper looking for errors and anomalies, for meaningful signals in all the noise. That sounds like Niels Bohr, not Philip Marlowe.
From a scientific perspective, The Smartest Man in the World is a fascinating dissection of intelligence as a concept. As I've mentioned before, a great deal of my identity is tied up in the fact that I am repeatedly identified as being a "smart" person. That's what makes Langan such a harsh reflection: he 's a guy who has essentially nothing going for him outside of a ridiculously high score on a test he found in the back Omni magazine. Growing up, I spent a lot of time clinging to the idea that effortlessly getting high scores on standardized tests and being stuffed in advanced-placement settings inherently meant something. I will say this: people are very enthusiastic and forceful about it when you are young: I heard constantly about my potential from every source of authority in which I came in contact and was always given the benefit of the doubt, intellectually-speaking. But what about the fact that I was a terrible student who more or less failed his way through high school and accomplished absolutely nothing of note? How about the fact that my teachers hated me and I was little beyond an obnoxious disruption any time I could be bothered to pay even the slightest attention? Langan clearly had a similar experience: he was fast-tracked to high school and then spent his final years in exile in the library after getting kicked out of class for constantly fighting with the older students. It's creepy how much his continuing adult contempt for those teachers resembles my teenage anger: I'm the smart one here, dammit. I'm surrounded by idiots and they're wasting my time. Langan went on to get kicked out of college, bum around doing construction work and then settled into a life as a bouncer at a shit-kicker bar in the middle of nowhere: "I want to apply authority to other people. I want to apply it forcefully, if need be." But everywhere he goes, he's still the Guinness Book sanctioned "Smartest Man in the World." For me, to look at Langan is to consider, "Just how much am I like this guy?" Sure, I find him ridiculous: his story about losing a sheet of paper on which he wrote about a "whole new way of conceiving of neural networks" slams back and forth between delusionally smug and totally pathetic. I also find him frequently appalling: his vision for "a benign form of eugenics... anti-disgenics" is full of racially coded language about final solutions. But I can also see myself clearly in him. That strange contradiction perfectly sums up what Errol Morris is able to capture in his work: a complex identification beyond "respect" or "sympathy."
At one point in the film, when bragging about his I.Q. being somewhere in the "190-210" range, Langan belittles Charles Darwin for being "down in the toilet at 120." It's a funny moment that immediately brings to mind the work of my favorite non-fiction author, Stephen Jay Gould, the noted Simpsons-cameo-ing paleontologist. One of Gould's intellectual heroes is Charles Darwin and I have read enough of Gould's work - most of his books like Leonardo's Mountains of Clams and the Diet of Worms and The Lying Stones of Marrakech are compilations of articles written for Natural History magazine - that Gould' affection for Darwin rubbed off on me; and Langan's derisive assessment of Darwin's value becoming yet another example of how Langan rubbed me the wrong way. Darwin is undoubtedly one of the most important thinkers of the past 200 years and, obviously, few scientists have as greatly challenged and re-modeled our collective view of nature and humanity - does the irony even need to be pointed out of some self-important jackass who works in bar crapping all over the intellect of one of history's most crucial geniuses? But I bring up Gould as an intermediary between Darwin and Langan (and Morris) because my relationship to The Smartest Man in the World is one of the most prime examples of how an essentially unrelated body of work (Gould's books) has enriched and complicated my understanding of a film. Sure, I would have engaged the simple and obvious aforementioned irony that Morris highlights, but I wouldn't have noticed that Langan is intellectually at war with Darwin in a much more complicated way (even if he's almost certainly not aware of it.) Langan's over-arching, super-villain-ish premise is that a group of high I.Q. folks should be in charge of the world and collectively go about solving the world's problems; that's where his awful "anti-disgenics" idea comes from: one of the things the I.Q. community would decide is who gets to breed and who does not. He states that the reason that folks need to have their lives handed over to him is that otherwise "We'll end up wasting all our resources and killing each other over the remainder" - there's a component of nobility to his goals, but I personally am unconvinced that his motives aren't more megalomaniacal than benevolent. Still, what he is proposing, a controlled orchestration of human evolution conflicts directly with the deeply upsetting core of Darwin's idea of "survival of the fittest." Part of the fittest* surviving implies exactly what Langan wants to circumvent: that generations of species will be wiped out because of the exhaustion of resources and the remaining organisms forcing the extinction of those less fit competitors.
* "Fittest" meaning "most appropriate" not "strongest" as it is commonly misconstrued. Although, I would bet that the physically impressive Langan probably sees a lot of "survival appropriateness" in his massive muscles.
(continued on page 2)
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