Saving Money, Finding Smallness: On “Downsizing”

Marshall McLuhan was the first person to announce how through TV – and its displacement of the book (and the solitude and individualism it proffered for centuries) – we are becoming a part of a “global village.” He had no idea of what was to come. Today, with the internet, social media (such as Facebook and Twitter), and media like YouTube, the world has become much much smaller. Things that were once far away are now in our daily feeds. For instance, some of the most watched videos that circulate on Facebook these days come from NAS – an Arab-Israeli who is traveling around the world with a camera crew and a close friend to show us things most of us have never seen. Things that can prompt us to think differently about the world.

NAS is a humble/small person who has a vision that is growing in each new adventure he takes. He takes the Global Village concept and turns it into something full of discovery and wonder. NAS puts a positive spin on it. And in many of his videos, he shows how – in different places around the world – little things (that we may usually overlook) matter. To be sure, all little people – in his little videos – are stars. While smallness made many modernist artists feel alienated, today, smallness seems to be taking a different turn.

Whether we like it or not, we are all becoming smaller as the vastness of the world and its inhabitants becomes more and more present. What we need to ask – something that has been asked by different religious and secular spiritual traditions (from Judaism to Zen Buddhism) is what is the meaning of smallness.

How can one – through becoming small or experiencing smallness (the infintesimal) – bear witness to the infinite? Alternatively, what can be learned about morality and living-together, globally (or locally) through the figure of smallness (whether in literature, film, or music)? Smallness has a message for all of us, in general, and for each individual, in particular. (Hence, my love for the schlemiel character and its relationship to smallness.)

What is most brilliant about Downsizing (2017) – a film written by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor – is how it brings us through an American understanding of downsizing (to save money and live better) to an existential and geo-political understanding of smallness.

The films opening premise is clearly American. The main character Paul (played by Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (played by Kristen Wiig) are not fully living the American dream. Paul is a humble American from a small state (Nebraska). He doesn’t need much. But his Audrey wants a bigger house. The problem is that they simply can’t afford it. When they learn about how a Norwegian scientist has discovered how to shrink people – so as to help the planet save its resources – they read it not in terms of its moral goal but in terms of how much money “downsizing” (as the process is called in the film) will save them. Through downsizing, they can live in a big home and live like wealthy people (but instead of a big house, their house will be the size of a doll house, their car, the size of a Matchbox Car, etc).

The twist happens when – after Paul goes through the process – Audrey chickens out. He remains small and must now live a life without her. He is forced to find a new way of life. She divorces him and he embarks on a path of self-discovery (which is, in this film, the path toward discovering the meaning of smallness).

What happens -as a result of the divorce – is that he can no longer afford his (small) luxury home. He downsizes, moves into a small apartment, and takes on a telemarketing job that takes up most of his time. The life he lives in “Leisureland” is nearly the same as the life he lived in Omaha, Nebraska.

Paul is back to square one.

In the midst of his new downsizing and becoming small (without his wife around), he meets a neighbor who has friends from all around the globe who hang out at his place to party and have a good time. Paul feels he is on the cusp of a new world, but he feels small. He doesn’t know how to speak or act in relation to these people from other countries. After the party, in its aftermath, he runs into a Vietnamese woman, named Ngoc – a dissident – who “downsized” in order to escape her tyrannical government. She had to have her leg amputated because she lacked proper medical help after being wounded. (Paul had heard of her in the news – before meeting her.)

Ngoc introduces Paul to another community that lives outside of Leisureland – to be sure – outside its walls. In the global economic scene, they are the third world, they are the smallest. They are the workers in Leisureland. Through them, he learns a different meaning of smallness that is shared (by way of poverty, lack of resources, etc).

The long and short of it is that the life Paul discovers is a “truly” small life. It is a life of humility that is shared with Ngoc who dedicates her life to helping the needy. She thinks little of herself and Paul learns that he, too, has the potential to be small (in terms of being selfless, humble, and loving). The movie suggests that an average American, like Paul, can only learn this if he goes outside the boundaries of his large American life or beyond Leisureland.

This movie suggests that smallness means seeing oneself in terms of a global, post-national community that needs one’s help. Each and every individual – as the movie suggests – can be cared for if and only if one downsizes one’s ego or one’s American-ness. The implications are – obviously – far reaching. It suggests that this film is a critique of American greatness and a moral call for becoming small.

This film is not a tragedy; it is a comedy. Smallness is not demeaning unless, that is, one lives outside the walls of Leisureville and its first world economy. Smallness is – as the film’s writers and directors suggest – an imperative and an antidote to the other kind of smallness. As we the world gets larger and we get smaller, smallness will become (more and more) a theme in our lives. This movie suggests that we make thought about smallness central to not only understanding the world but ourselves. In this scenario, saving money (downsizing) can lead to finding smallness (and saving ourselves).

Piece crossposted with Schlemiel Theory.

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