Our Universe is an entity that depends upon opposites, matter and antimatter made of particles and antiparticles, a system which extends to a theorized equilibrium in nature on Earth. Balance is the essence of our humanity, and human opposition is a driving force of civilization. This is what makes a film like I Think You're Totally Wrong: A Quarrel so entertaining. Two opposites entangled in conflict can hook an audience, whether projected on screens for many or held over wine at a dinner table of a few.
James Franco's I think You're Totally Wrong is an adaptation of a book written by the bestselling author and professor David Shields with his former student and writer Caleb Powell. From their time in the classroom, Powell and Shields have had a contentious friendship, which serves as the inspiration behind I Think You're Totally Wrong. At the film’s start Shields admits into one of Franco’s claustrophobic cameras, “I want [Powell] to question everything about my life.”
The two argue quite a bit in the film about topics ranging from the merits of atrocity porn, the weak artist and the courageous artist, marriage and sex. An off-script conflict between Powell and Shields regarding how much of their personal lives should enter the film (a personal subject of Powell’s intentionally left out of the book is brought up again) causes disruption and the three end up eliminating the script altogether for the most part. This adds spontaneity to the debates and deepens the authenticity of emotion from the two.
In all the contention one theme is constant: the relationship between life and art. Shields believes he has neglected living life for his art and Powell regrets neglecting his art for life.
Franco appears in the film as well, interjecting in the conversation when it seems necessary. In a moment of reflection on the film Franco asks, “What is this thing? We don’t know.” Well, are art and life ultimately so separate? The film in its way seems to blur the line that Powell and Shields' debate tries to create.
In the interview Powell answers questions about making the film and his views on the role of art in our lives.
As Shields' former student how has your friendship evolved overtime?
My last class with him was in 1991. We had some tension, more than average, and I thought he didn't think much of my writing. I questioned his aesthetics and some of the books he made us study. But I respected his intellect and passion. And his aesthetic has proven successful, so there's that.
Until about 2008 we had minimal contact. I was looking for steps to further my career, he was a busy guy, I asked for a blurb, he gave, took back, and finally gave, the specifics of this exchange are in the book. Then I starting reviewing and interviewing him, our first conversation at The Rumpus captures our dynamic where I asked him about "Reality Hunger," his book against the novel and fiction, and in praise of nonfiction and the lyric essay. We'd bat a lot of emails back and forth and I'd offer unsolicited criticism, try to find flaws in his writing.
This led to him asking if I wanted to collaborate and from there a friendship developed as we pursued a common goal.
A consistent theme of the film is the purpose of art in our lives. You and Shields have varying views on the role reality, or perhaps the human condition, should play in art. Has your position evolved since doing the film?
Yes. I've been a more prolific writer since the film, have completed fresh drafts and started a new one, and my writing has changed. For the better, I hope, as my individual relation as an artist to my subject matter focuses more on, I guess, the bigger picture. I've published a half-dozen excerpts in literary magazines of a memoir about my Persian roots, engagement to a Muslim women, and my time in the Middle East. My developing aesthetic is hugely influenced by the book and the film.
From your point of view does the value of art live in the high stakes of exposing some uncomfortable realities within or about the artist rather than its cerebral value? Do you believe art can fully capture the essence of both?
Yes and yes. They're intermixed, but the essence of an artist comes from his or her willingness to face the unflattering aspects of the self.
What I found fascinating was how the very serious moment of vulnerability from you in the film (regarding the little girl in Lebanon) seemed to push the discussion with Shields away from a critique of one another toward a heavier discussion of the human condition and its representation in certain art forms. I see this as a moment of artistic self-reflection. Do you remember how you were feeling in this moment as it was off-script?
Yes. Earlier, when you asked me if my outlook has evolved, this is how, in one specific way. I'd look at atrocity and say, "This is horrible! This is wrong! Let's stop!" Platitudes and bromides. David, rightly, called me on this. He chides me that I "pretend to care about" the lost boys of Sudan or other horrors.
After the book and before the film I watched Waltz with Bashir and the movie broke me. It was an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Language Film in 2009 about the massacre of Palestinian refugees in the Sabra and Shatila camps, but also about memory. There's a certain human guilt underneath Waltz with Bashir. I want to learn from this, in essence, how to evoke compassion. So I hoped there would be a moment in the film to explore [this], and when this moment came it recreated how I felt when I first saw the film.
Do you think unrestrained self-examination is necessary for the artist?
Yes, necessary insofar as improving the art. Unrestrained, naked, genuine, the more the better.
Although there is a moment of upset that forces the script to go unused, did you find the decision to film without it ultimately freeing?
Good question. I don't think freeing or liberating would be how to describe it. I think we knew that the script would be a loose framework, a starting point. And we used a lot of topics in the script that way, but the moment when David wants to talk about secrets we agreed we would not talk about it added another element. In some ways it added tension.
Did your relationship with Franco change as the material evolved from the original intentions?
I don't know James nearly as well as David. James was a student of David's and they've been friends for years. Other than a few emails, James and I had no personal relation [prior to making the film]. But working with him and seeing how he put together the film and gave us direction, the way he recognized good moments and made us dig into them showed instinct and talent.
Did Franco give you more freedom as the director or were there specific boundaries he put in place for certain scenes?
Were there moments in the film when you felt more in your comfort zone than others?
Definitely. The moment mentioned earlier, when David started to reveal secrets and mentioned "strippers and drug dealers," topics which aren't in the book that could affect my personal life and the lives of others. But they're the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I didn't want to go in [that] direction. There are enough topics in the book and movie that will and do affect my personal life. Not so much with David.
The whole film, the experience, acting, talking with other people on the crew, was intense. Revealing intimate things about oneself takes getting used to, especially putting them on screen, and I, in some ways, still am not completely comfortable. I wonder what my daughters will think someday when they watch the movie.
With the split screen showing you and Shields in sync, how did it feel watching the film initially? Did you see things from Shields that you may not have noticed during the filming?
The first time I saw the film it was a rough cut, [and] I thought, wow, somehow the editor Bryan Darling managed to focus on the most pertinent and dramatic moments and make them into a cohesive film. I was impressed.
I thought the split screen worked out for our back and forth. One thing I kept thinking was how unlike a book it was. There's no revision, none of the lines could be re-said, there's no "spell check." In those moments where I'm less articulate, there's no second take. But this makes it real.
[With] David's lines, most I've already heard in some form or the other. He's trying to sum up what he's learned from literature and from aspiring to create maximum output at the highest level. And in doing so he makes coherent and memorable statements about the artistic life.
I Think You're Totally Wong: A Quarrel
will be screening D3B4 - Friday, Aug. 28th at 7:00pm
The Brattle Theater, Harvard Sq.
40 Brattle St, Cambridge, MA
Buy your tickets here!
Adriana Hammond is the writer and content producer for MassIFF. You can reach her at: Adzhivago