I must begin by confessing that I hate writing, and I do not consider myself a writer. I might be a reader, but certainly not a writer. The world that pays people to read is the one for me. In such a world, I would happily never write another word. David Shields, on the other hand, is on the right planet. And the fact that he is so productive makes it abundantly clear that he enjoys his art. He loves writing about writing, writing about being a writer, and writing about why he writes. He takes it all very seriously, which is why I enjoy reading him. His heart is in it. He clearly knows what he is talking about. Why do I write? Because I live on Earth. Why does Shields write? Because that's his thing.
And so it is no surprise that Shields's first major foray into film, I Think You're Totally Wrong, is about his art—its present, its past, its future, its limits, its demands. The film is directed by James Franco (a Hollywood star who helped almost plunge the world into the third and final war last year with The Interview), and it is based on the book Shields wrote with Caleb Powell about two writers who travel from Seattle to a cabin in the Cascade Mountains to quarrel about the meaning of literature. Powell, a former student of Shields's, is bighearted and puts too much humanity and feeling into his work. Shields is the opposite. He's intellectual, a bit heartless—he doesn't believe human suffering can be resolved by literature. Art is above all about art.
It doesn't take a genius to see how a film project like this (two middle-aged white guys arguing about art for 80 or so minutes) could become dull and suffocating. But there are two good reasons why that doesn't happen: One, the physical beauty of the mise–en–scène. The trip to the cabin, the cabin itself (which is wood-warm), the nearby town in the snow, the snow on the hills, the winter light in the trees—all of this is quite beautiful. Once again, the Pacific Northwest has come through for cinema.
Reason two is Shields himself. He's a very interesting thinker. It can't be easy to photograph intellectual rigor, but the way he questions Powell and then questions his own questions is strangely exciting to watch. Powell, on the other hand, is just not as articulate as Shields; he can't theorize their relationship or his feelings with the same clarity and dexterity that Shields can. He manages a good line or two, but he is not a writing machine. He is a writer who has to struggle to find the right words and to form original thoughts. And the way he struggles is a perfect picture of the reason I hate writing. We are using such common materials (words), and with this common stuff trying to say something new, or profound, or revealing. This is very hard. How much easier it would be to make something remarkable if our materials were bamboo or giraffe hair.
Though it's obviously brainy, this film has heart. When Powell asks Shields if he would rather write a book that was second-rate but made lots of money or one that was first-rate but brought him neither fame nor Benjamins, Shields says that he can answer with no problem. He would pick art over money and fame every time. The harder question, he says, is this: What if you could write an inferior book that made a positive impact on the world or one that was brilliant but had no social value?
The answer, of course, reveals everything about a writer's character.