[10 August 2012]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
Joe Gardner worries. He wants to believe in people, to feel hope for the future, but he’s unsure. He wonders, “If you take a snapshot of America today, what would it look like?” It’s not an easy question to answer, but he tries anyway: “Like we’re wealthy, diverse, and technologically sophisticated, but we’ve lost the sense of community that used to carry us through tough times.”
Joe worries about this idea of “us.” Or, more accurately, he assumes an “us,” an unspecific population that he imagines is increasingly disconnected, because we spend more much time in isolation, working more hours and earning less money, feeling perpetually insecure. We’re damaged by the recession, Joe sees. But how? Before he heads out, Joe worries some more: “Have we become so caught up in our own lives that we don’t look outside our bubble?” Maybe his own reliance on technology has made it “hard to relate to the struggles of others around me.” What better way to remedy that than by conjuring struggles for himself? And so Joe decides to do something, hoping to prove his broad assumptions wrong or right: he decides to try to live off Craigslist for 30 days and also, to make a movie.
The result, Craigslist Joe, follows Joe as he travels from Los Angeles to the east coast and back in a month, carrying a laptop, a cellphone, and a backpack to carry his toothbrush. (He makes sure to show his phone, listing no contacts, to demonstrate how “out there” he’s left himself.) Shot by the “camera guy Kevin” (whom Joe finds on Craigslist), it features more than one scene in a vehicle, framing a goodhearted driver who’s given Joe and Kevin a ride, as well as a few in diners or coffee shops, where he uses the wireless to scour Craigslist for places to go, groups to join, and job listings.
Embarking on his journey without money (but access to friends and family, lest he run into a crisis), Joe quickly learns how important it is to have it. He’s told his mom he will rely on the “good will of good people,” and on his first night out, that’s what he finds, in Alan, who lets him crash at his house. “You’re not gonna meet many nice guys like me,” Alan smiles, offering him stuff from his pantry, disposable razors, a bag of oranges, and two packets of instant oatmeal. But the next morning, Joe meets exactly that, a guy who gives him a bicycle for a month (“That’s the power of community right there!” Joe says) and, among some friendly patrons at a comedy improv club, a retired professor and widower who lets him stay over. A day or so later, he’s found Travis, who offers a ride and some philosophical musings (“There’s lightness in the dark and goodness in the bad”).
These early encounters set Joe alongside people who look a lot like him; a couple of later scenes feature people he might not have run into save for his adventure. In Seattle, Mohammed and his family invite Joe home for dinner; when he hears about the wartime difficulties they experienced in Iraq and the racism they’ve run into in the US, Joe is moved to tears: “Just sitting in this living room with all of you, just your spirit,” he blubber, “is so positive, just inviting us into your home, it really means a lot.” We can only imagine.
Just so, when Joe volunteers for a few minutes minute in New York with Children of Promise (which serves children of incarcerated parents, kids who are, you learn, “seven times more likely to end up in prison themselves”) or answers an ad placed by Fran, in need of able bodied boys to help clear out her tiny apartment. “Sometimes I have a thing about letting things go,” she doesn’t quite explain as Joe and his NYC companion gaze on piles of newspapers and boxes of costumes. “It’s like I’m not gonna be taken care of by the universe,” she adds, “It’s some kind of mentality, but it’s part of what I’ve got to deal with.” Joe and his friend decide not to throw anything out, only rearrange to reduce clutter, in case she changes her mind the next morning.
The boys nod and can’t know what to say when Fran suggests she can’t be insane because, “It’s sane to know you’re insane,” seem barely to fit in the space, their limbs sometimes falling out of frame. This moment, so sad, so strange, and in the end, so indefinable, hints at what Craigslist Joe might have been. But it’s not. Instead, the film brings Joe—who means very well—round to all kinds of clichéd observations, from commending the variety of urban spaces he visits to remarking how hard it is to be poor. Still, Joe doesn’t remark other possible lessons, those that might emerge if he met some other poor people, who don’t use Craigslist, don’t have laptops, and don’t have couches where he might sleep. That part of “us” remains unseen.