When I first read about the movie Craigslist Joe, I thought it sounded a little bit gimmicky, and also like something someone that had done in a blog already. But once in got its hooks in me, I found much of the cynicism had drained from my body like juice from one of the many oranges Joe eats along the road.
Fresh off of working on The Hangover (which would explain Zach Galifiniakis‘ producer credit), filmmaker Joe Gardner had an epiphany not dissimilar to that of the wealthy young Buddha towards the beginning of his life. “I was actually working on The Hangover, shooting in Vegas in ’08, when our country was going through a recession,” he told me on the phone the other day, “devastating reports of people losing their homes and life savings…I was pretty isolated in Vegas and I wasn’t aware of the extent of what people were going through.” This made him wonder what it would be like to lose everything, and whether a person can survive through only the goodwill of his fellow countrymen. “I wanted to use some form of social media your friends aren’t on,” he explained of his decision to use Craigslist. “I literally just left my apartment with a cellphone with a new number and no contacts, laptop, prepaid wireless internet card, and a toothbrush, and that was it.” (And a camera man…whom he found on Craigslist.)
Without any money or credit cards, Joe relied only on the free things one can find on Craigslist, like rideshares and community activities, as well as the small bartering economy that’s grown up around it. “I wanted to take money out of the equation,” he explained.
Watching the movie, I’m surprised by how well Joe is able to get by without any money at all; the number of rides alone he’s able to obtain without having to contribute anything but good company is impressive. Over the course of 30 days, you see him travel from LA up to Seattle and across the country to New York, then down south to Florida and New Orleans, on a pointless little detour to Mexico (he doesn’t really talk to anyone there), and ultimately, back to California. And pretty much everywhere he goes, he finds free things to do, a way to barter favors for food, and nice (if often bizarre) people to crash with. And they’re all remarkably cool with being filmed.
Of course, Joe is not actually poor, so he doesn’t want you to feel bad for him the one night out of 30 he’s forced to sleep on the street. (Maybe that’s why he’s such a good sport about it.) But one thing I didn’t get to ask him about was how he thinks his status as a straight, white, cisgender, able bodied, college educated male affected his ability to get help. After all, Joe is not a neutral observer of society, but a part of it (the top part), and I can’t help wondering how this project would have turned out had Joe checked off different boxes on his census form. And not everyone is working with a computer and an iPhone!
The people Joe stays with are rather diverse, although many fit the mold of the downwardly mobile weirdos I’ve always imagined populate Craigslist. Although you’d think the rich would have the most to share with others, none of Joe’s benefactors are wealthy, but none are destitute, either, for obvious reasons. There’s Daisy the dominatrix, who got into the lifestyle via a college professor but now sees BDSM as merely a job, and doesn’t seem to understand her subs very well. There’s a laid off banker named Karma (heh) who gives Joe a ride to New York. There’s a wacky New Age spiritualist who blesses Joe in a copper pyramid and lets him sleep in her shed. There’s a former actress with homeopathically treated cancer and a hoarding problem (one of the few moments in the film that feels somewhat exploitative). But there’s also Mohammed, an Iraqi immigrant who runs an after school program for refugee children and invites Joe to meet his family (who are now US citizens). And Joe also volunteers for many charitable causes. These moments keep the film from descending into caricature, as well as helping to bring in some larger, more global issues. It’s not just an experiment to see if Joe can live this way; many people have no choice but to live this way all the time, and it’s important that we see them. (I would like to have seen them even more.)
This is not to say, however, that the film takes any kind of political stance. Despite being largely about the recession, it doesn’t delve into any of its causes, and the only glimpse of anger we see is a few seconds of one homeless man saying “the government doesn’t give us nothing!” I want to know more about that anger, because I feel it, too, and think it can be productive! Joe actually does attend one protest somewhat randomly with a guy he met on CL, but it’s about the occupation of Palestine, not our problems at home, and it doesn’t get discussed at all, only filmed. If Joe was so focused about his charity work, why couldn’t he have applied the same focus and intention to his political work? Was he afraid to alienate part of his potential audience by taking a more controversial stance than “people are basically good”?
“I didn’t necessarily go out there to make a political film,” Joe told me. “I truly believe everyone can get something out of it no matter what side of the aisle you’re on. I feel like it does speak to the basic decency of being human.” When pressed on the government’s level of responsibility, he replied, “yeah, I think you can make the case for a little of both worlds…you certainly need personal responsibility, but you also have to be aware not everyone is as fortunate. There’s a lot of things in my life I take for granted, I open the fridge and there’s food in there. There are millions of kids who go hungry on the weekends because their parents are unemployed, and that’s why we still need government programs to help. Theres still so much poverty and inequality, and until thats right I’m a proponent of ‘you need all the help you can give each other.” Spoken like a good, diplomatic liberal.
In the end, what does Joe suggest we do to make the world a better place? “I would say a lot of times for me of course, we all want to do good and want to help out, but some of us are so busy…you don’t have to take a month off and travel the country, you can make a difference in someone’s life today. You can spend a weekend volunteering, go out and interact with people face to face. Having an open mind, hearing people out, treating people with respect. I feel like those are simple things people can do in their lives…there are still some big problems and we need help, whether it’s organizations or people, but we can all do our part.”
This is a noble sentiment, and I don’t want to shit on Joe’s mission; he has, in fact, made an affecting film about basic human decency, and there were many moments that tugged at my heartstrings. But poverty doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and I can’t help feeling like this fact makes the film just a wee bit myopic. Personally, I find it hard to watch a movie about what it’s like to be poor in America and not look at the bigger picture and get angry, because this recession didn’t come out of nowhere, and it’s not going to go away if only we are kind enough to one another. Of course we should be kind to one another. But attacking the disease (as opposed to the symptoms) is not going to be quite as warm and fuzzy as all that.