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Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things

Joshua Defibaugh

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A significant number of Americans tend to value the ideals of materialism, to put it mildly. Each year, American shoppers spend tens of billions of dollars on televisions, smart phones, toys, furniture, shoes, clothes and thousands of other things. On Black Friday in 2016, shoppers spent more than $3 billion shopping online alone, according to the National Retail Federation. In July of 2016, Amazon, one of the largest online retailers in the world, set record sales numbers by selling more than 600 items per second during its promotional “Prime Day,” a pseudo-holiday devoted to giving Amazon customers sweet and savory deals.

To put it in more existential terms, Americans are filling the voids of their lives with cheap stuff. In order to satisfy a severe lack of purpose, people buy things. To satisfy children, parents buy toys that will either break or become forgotten in less than a year. Clothing, once a staple of survival and necessity, is now a symbol of expression. To make it worse, the titans of the fashion industry want to capitalize on the new importance of clothing by churning out over 50 “micro-seasons” each year.

How much stuff do you have in your bedroom? Do the trinkets and Tupperware make you feel more complete as a person? Do the rows of sweaters, shirts and sunglasses rarely worn but impulsively purchased give you any sort of peace? Do you value the look of a stack of books but not the contents within them? Perhaps it would be wise to sit down and watch “Minimalism: A Documentary About the Important Things.”

“Minimalism” explores some of the growing trends within the minimalist movement in American culture. The values of minimalism are brief: value people and experiences, not things. Instead of filling your home with tables, chairs, lamps and cookware you’ll rarely — if ever — use, save that money for your future or spend it something meaningful.

“Minimalism” follows Joshua Fields Millburn and Ryan Nicodemus as they travel the country to promote their book, titled “The Minimalists.” In both their book and documentary, Millburn and Nicodemus recount their stories of embracing minimalism. Both were climbing the corporate-executive ladder until something within them snapped. The values and goals for which they strived their entire lives suddenly seemed unending; no longer could a paycheck satiate their needs of living a fulfilling life.

Millburn and Nicodemus’ tour is only half the movie, however. The rest of film focuses on minimalism in real life and, as noted by David Friedlander on the Life Edited website, the overabundance of consumer culture.

Some high-profile figures in the world of culture make appearances to discuss their own personal views on minimalism and to give some of the most compelling commentary on consumerism and materialism. Sam Harris, a renowned author and neuroscientist, talked at length about materialism and its inability to make us feel complete on the neurological level.

“Gratifying desires in a starkly materialistic way is really an interesting phenomenon,” Harris says, as a footage of shoppers in Walmart and the unboxing of a new iPhone overruns the screen. “You have this thing that you were obsessed about but then the new version comes out, which is new and improved in a dozen ways. And now you no longer care about the one you have.”

The problems of corporate lure is also a major point of discussion for Juliet Schor, an economist and sociologist featured in the documentary. Specifically, she takes issue with companies spending millions of dollars advertising their products to children, which can breed corporatist-materialism. The effects are obvious. Studies continually show that children as young as three can identify dozens, if not hundreds, of corporate logos thanks to the enormous advertising they experience on a near hourly basis.

Another aspect discussed in the documentary is the idea of space. Even though American homes continually increase in size every few years, families within those homes only use a relatively small portion of that space.

“Nobody uses a dining room. No one uses the living room,” David Friedlander quips in the documentary. “It creates a big vacuum that you have to fill.”

Jay Austin, a designer and minimalist featured in the documentary, embraced the idea of downsizing. He lives in what can simply be described as a tiny home, a building with the bare necessities: a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom and not much else.

“I think there is this element of affordability, simplicity, and sustainability that just makes tiny houses seem like a perfect solution to a problem we haven’t yet figured out,” Austin says, explaining the lure of tiny homes.

The values of minimalism are, at first, philosophical and sentimental. If an object does not produce a value beyond one of pure materialism, you could probably let go of it. There is, however, another aspect of minimalism not discussed in the documentary, and for good reason.

There are entire online communities, blogs and channels devoted to aesthetic minimalism. People who subscribe to it paint their walls neutral grey. They purchase and somehow enjoy bland furniture, art, food, music and whole list of other things. On Reddit, a social news aggregator, exists a pseudo-competition between users in the minimalist community. The goal is to be as minimalist as possible while shunning those who own more. Millburn and Nicodemus do not subscribe to aesthetic minimalism nor do they associate themselves with it.

At times, “Minimalism” is brimming with optimism about the future of consuming less. There are many parting words from commentators toward the end, however. Patrick Rhone, an author and minimalist featured in the documentary, has the most compelling words to say.

“We think we need those things because we’ve been told we need those things,” Rhone says. “We’ve been told we need those things by our society. It really does come down to a value-based ideal. You want the most amount of good, the most amount of value with exactly what you need. Having too little is not going to give you that, having too much is not going to give you that. Having that balance, having enough; that’s what you’re looking for.”

“Minimalism:A Documentary About the Important Things” is available to stream on Netflix, Amazon and Vimeo. It’s also available to purchase on iTunes, Google Play and DVD.

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The independent student newspaper of Western Illinois University. Serving Macomb since 1905.
Minimalism: A Documentary about the Important Things