In I Think You Are Totally Wrong: A Quarrel, long-time frenemies David Shields and Caleb Powell have a conversation about the virtues of life versus art, with weird and unexpected consequences. James Franco directs the documentary, which will play this Wednesday, February 8 and 15 at Northwest Film Forum. Caleb Powell will be in attendance at the February 8 screening, while David Shields will show up on February 15.
The film’s based on the duo’s book of the same name, which consists mainly of dialogue and bickering on a variety of subjects. For the movie version, Shields and Powell aim to continue the conversation in front of cameras on a four-day trip together in a cabin in the Cascades. In the opening scenes, we see Shields on his way to pick up Powell for the adventure. We learn that Shields was Powell’s student once some twenty years ago and that the two of them are writers with varying degrees of admiration for each other’s work. They seem to get a lot out of so much verbal sparring and hope that an audience might get a kick out of watching the exchange.
Shields explains the premise of the movie: “There’s a number of books and movies where two guys bullshit, essentially.” Early on, they mention My Dinner with Andre, a classic 1981 film which consists entirely of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory engaged in a spirited dinner conversation. I thought as well of a more recent road trip picture, The End of the Tour, meant to re-enact the real-life conversations between the late author David Foster Wallace and the journalist sent to cover him, David Lipsky.
Shields gets out of his car with his rolling suitcase and walks up to Powell’s front door. The film seems frontloaded with awkward realism. At this point I’m thinking: Are we going to watch this entire trip in real time? But it doesn’t take long before the meandering nature of these long cuts starts to grow on you. Their conversation is fluid and loose, and the two of them say clever things. About Shields, Powell says: “He’s read a lot of my work and doesn’t like it. He’s among the most quarrelsome people I’ve ever met […] There’s a one in a thousand chance that Caleb will kill me.”
Once they get together, there’s a transparency and a vulnerability to their conversation. They talk a lot about what the movie might become while they’re making it, how they feel about the camera rolling and what their evolving positions and characters will mean for the final outcome. Powell’s a writer who bases his work on real life experiences. It doesn’t go far enough into the why of it all, Shields says. But does Shields even have any worthy life experience to draw from? (Powell fires back.) Powell’s a stay at home Dad without a career, which Shields goes out of the way to point out. Meanwhile, Shields is an esteemed college professor with a six figure income who’s never changed a tire.
The plot thickens when Powell gets an unexpected call from a female friend of his who may or may not come by the cabin. What will her presence mean for the film? The girl becomes a kind of Waiting for Godot McGuffin, the results of which are beside the point. Her potential presence brings up one of the biggest challenges when it comes to making good non-fiction. I know from personal experience that friends don’t like to be included in your art, but it’s a real compromise to the finished product to leave them out. What’s more important, your art or your life? Maybe the trick is not having much of a life in the first place.
At one point in the debate, things get heated, and James Franco steps into the frame to help mediate. It’s sort of hilarious and irreverent because you’ve forgotten that of course there are other people there. I wish James Franco would jump in for some of my at-home arguments.
Watching the film, I find myself wanting to pick sides. On the one hand, I’m immediately sympathetic to Powell, because he personally asked me to see his movie, he’s said complimentary things to me about my fiction, and his voice is deeper. But Shields has a sharp wit and an admirable amount of self-awareness. At the end of the day, it’s hard not to like them both. And despite their fighting, you see that they’ve really grown to like and respect each other, too. “You seem like this wounded bear,” Shields says. “And I want to take the thorn out of your paw.”
I Think You Are Totally Wrong is a warm, strange, often funny and intellectually rewarding film. The conversation in the final minutes about Shields’ C-Pap machine is worth the price of admission on its own.
I Think You Are Totally Wrong: A Quarrel
When: Wednesday, February 8 & 15, 7:30pm
Where: Northwest Film Forum (1515 12th Ave)
Tickets are available online