The following post is a continuation of Busted Halo’s coverage of the 2010 South By Southwest festival.
Because the movie was shot to simple effect in my much-loved city of Austin, it was especially easy to imagine this scenario playing out in real life: Young guy, out of work but needing to make some sort of living, buys a food cart and sets it up in a park. He puts his heart into it, tenderly hand-making and selling every sandwich and snack himself.
The cart was designed to be a hot dog stand, but this “Happy Poet” (Bill, a thirtysomething would-be creative writer), is a little more New Age-y in his dreams for it. He styles it as an “all organic, mostly vegetarian” stand, with idiosyncratic offerings like eggless egg salad.
Now, Bill doesn’t market test this or anything. He’s not a sharp business mind, or organized or ambitious or a go-getter. He doesn’t care about advertising, or making money — his simply takes pleasure in making people healthy food, day by day. And even though he can hardly afford to, he gives his food away freely. He’s the kind of person lots of us would term a slacker.
Attracted by both Bill’s generosity and his laid-back attitude, other people start hanging around the stand. There’s Donnie, who starts doing sandwich deliveries for the little business — but uses the rounds as an outlet for selling weed. Slyly, he seems to take a too-large cut of what he earns on the sandwiches to boot. And then there’s Curtis, an enigmatic yogi who Bill believes is homeless and feeds every day. Turns out Curtis has a lakeside mansion and plenty of money, even while Bill is edging ever closer to losing his humble little food stand.
Bill and his guileless, giving approach to life called to mind Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot.” In this classic Russian work (perhaps flawed as a novel but wonderful as a play), Dostoevsky creates in protagonist Prince Myshkin a “positively good man.” He’s honest and genuine. Unlike most of us, Myshkin doesn’t calculate. He has no artifice. An epileptic, he is also poor and vulnerable. Dostoevsky is clear that this character was designed to be Christ-like.
The story is ultimately a tragedy. Myshkin is humiliated by the people he tries to befriend and love. These people are each by turn greedy, arrogant, and selfish, and in the end, they are all destroyed. Myshkin’s naivete, despite the truest intentions, leads others to murder and prison and exile. Myshkin too is destroyed, deserted by all.
Back in Austin, our Happy Poet fares better. Donnie and Curtis, who give every sign of being self-serving guys who will take advantage of anyone they can, suddenly come through. They help Bill expand the business to a cafe. They even join in as partners. As the story ends, the three are grinning and getting along beautifully in matching “Happy Poet” shirts. Definitely a “happily ever after.”
Bill’s character probably wasn’t designed to be Christlike, but there’s a striking similarity to me in this lovable slacker’s attitude — giving, guileless, unselfish, unconcerned with money — and Christ’s.
As for the divergent outcomes between the story of Bill and the story of Myshkin, maybe they’re due to the difference between the peaceable folks of present-day Austin and the tortured souls of 18th-century Russia (which Dostoevsky portrays as being in a near-apocalyptic state of moral and spiritual decline).
Or maybe the faithful are called to be more giving, more loving, and more vulnerable than is safe in this world. And maybe that doesn’t always lead to a happy ending.
To get more information about The Happy Poet, visit http://www.happypoetmovie.com.