Author: Chris Roth
Published in Communities Magazine Issue #155
Disclaimer: the following article about the film Wanderlust contains multiple “plot spoilers.” We don’t think it will spoil the experience of watching the movie, since the plot is hardly its most important aspect—but you are forewarned.
My former community had a ritual we called “The Lighter Side.” Usually done as part of a personal-growth workshop, it consisted of a series of skits we created—planned in advance, improvised on the spot, or a combination thereof—to make fun of ourselves and the dynamics of either the workshop or of our lives in community. Often in response to particular incidents, we exaggerated what had happened for comic effect, relieving tensions that might still linger (embarrassment, disappointment, the awkwardness of miscommunication, etc.) and allowing us to laugh at ourselves. The Lighter Side helped us take ourselves less seriously, while also letting us share insights and uniting us in loving self-parody and laughter. Occasionally, a skit would “go south,” resulting in hard feelings that would then need resolution—but when done in its intended spirit of self-parody rather than mockery, The Lighter Side eased far more tensions than it created.
When I heard about a Hollywood movie depicting the adventures of a couple from New York in a fictional intentional community in Georgia, I was wondering what the ratio of loving parody to mockery would be. I’m happy to report that the filmmakers have made a movie in the true spirit of “The Lighter Side,” fond rather than cruel in its send-up of community life. I am trusting that moviegoers who do not have experience in intentional community will also appreciate the spirit in which it is made, rather than taking its contents literally.
For a movie containing well more than its share of crude sexual humor (parents and the very sensitive, beware), and some obligatory stereotypes, Wanderlust also contains some of the most nuanced, savvy humor about intentional community living I’ve seen. What I Heart Huckabees did for both grassroots environmental activism and New Age psychology/science/mysticism, Wanderlust does for at least some segments of the intentional communities movement. It is not a fair representation of intentional community living; it has little in common with the wave of informative documentaries that started with Visions of Utopia and continues with A New We, Seeking the Good Life in America, and the forthcoming Within Reach—other than the fact that, increasingly, that genre is also becoming entertaining, provoking laughter as well as expanded worldviews. But Wanderlust is an elaborate parody full of what are almost “inside jokes” (though accessible to anyone with experience in the movement), at least some of whose creators appear to have a deep sympathy for community living.
The movie traces the journey of a couple, Linda and George, between two worlds—mainstream America and an intentional community called Elysium. Facing hard economic times in New York and with both of their careers in disarray, they enjoy a transformative stay at Elysium’s “bed-and-breakfast” on their way to a disastrous visit with George’s brother Rick, who has offered George a job in his “construction supply” business. When the contents of Rick’s character prove distressingly similar to that of the Porta-Potties he rents to contractors, Linda and George hightail it back to Elysium, and the real fun begins.
These two worlds could hardly be more different. Like his coworkers, George hates his job with a firm in New York—from which they’re all liberated when federal agents investigating financial crimes shut it down. Linda tries to sell her documentary about penguins with testicular cancer (“it’s An Inconvenient Truth meets March of the Penguins”) to HBO executives who reject it because, although they like to feature violence and heartache, her picture isn’t “sexy” enough. The real estate agent who sells them their “micro-loft” changes her tune about its merits as an investment as soon as they try to sell it back. Once they arrive in Georgia, they find Rick even more insufferable in person than he is via Skype—not only offensive but abusive, flaunting his business success through conspicuous consumption while cheating on his wife and humiliating his employees. Rick’s wife Marisa has a “little bit of a SkyMall problem” and watches multiple TVs all day while on a steady diet of Wellbutrin and margaritas. Rick’s son Tanner is even more rude than Rick is.
In contrast, the colorful cast of characters Linda and George meet at Elysium seem, for the most part, truly happy. They live close to the land and in apparent harmony with one another. They’re eccentric, to be sure: a nudist winemaker/novelist, a guesthouse operator with “verbal diarrhea” prone to gluing sticks to orange peels; a founder who insists on repeating all his co-founder’s names at every opportunity—and they host eccentric guests, including an entire conference of nudist winemakers. While the ex-porn star is sometimes off-putting, for the most part these are friendly, very likeable, happy, healthy people, not only tolerating but appreciating one another’s eccentricities, and appearing much more alive and interesting than the deadened people in Linda’s and George’s former lives.
Like Linda and George, Eva is a refugee from New York (as are a surprising number of communitarians I’ve met). She doesn’t miss “the stress, the Blackberries, the sleeping pills, the triple latte”—nor do her companions, who spend their days enjoying rural life. George gets initiated into shoveling manure as part of Elysium’s abundant gardening operation, while Linda has the new-to-her, revelatory experience of picking an apple, bagging it, and selling it at the community’s fruit stand. Children (much happier than Rick and Marissa’s hostile son) play with one another and with adults, easily mingling in this multi-generational community. Yoga, tai-chi, frisbee, meditation, music-making, dancing, and skinny-dipping co-exist with building sheds, hauling haybales, digging garden beds, harvesting and cooking for the group, and tending the fruit stand.
Cooperation is the currency of choice. One of the group’s first acts after Linda and George arrive is to right their car (upended when George attempts to escape in reverse gear from the sight of the eager-to-be-helpful winemaker’s genitalia). The group also unites to oppose plans to construct a casino on their land—the result of backroom corporate-political deals, initially promoted by a clueless media until Linda becomes the group’s hero by “exposing” the truth (and more) to the bulldozers and the TV cameras. Their group activism (“the people will be heard!”) inspires the founder to declare, “the revolution has begun!”
Elysium members create their own culture. They’re proud to be free of the electronic communication devices and computers that occupy most people’s lives (in fact, they’re so behind the times that some of the technologies they describe themselves as escaping from have been obsolete for years). The scenes of community life make it clear that they have plenty of entertainment and communication among themselves every day without needing to “plug in” to the mass forms of either of those. While actual intentional communities span a huge range of approaches to this question, a significant portion resemble at least aspects of Elysium in its emphasis on homegrown culture—and some take it even further.
Commune? Boo, Hiss, Chuckle…
The response of one member to Linda and George’s description of Elysium as a “commune”—“Commune? Boo, hiss. We prefer the term Intentional Community”—is triply humorous. First, it is a fairly accurate paraphrase (with attitude) of what many communitarians tell those with preconceived notions about communities, and of what the Fellowship for Intentional Community itself states in every issue of Communities magazine. Second, while most intentional communities are not communes, Elysium most decidedly is. Members hold all land and property in common and share income—it’s “all for one, one for all.” The third, least subtle reason for laughing is that the stereotype of a commune as “a bunch of hippies smoking pot and playing guitar” (the reason Elysium members say they object to that designation) can seem to apply to them, especially to the party scenes, though in reality their lives are filled with much more than that.
Elysium’s communal economy—like every communal economy—has both benefits and drawbacks. Rodney immediately gives George his shirt when George says he likes it—the natural thing to do since “we share everything here.” In contrast to other characters in the movie, Elysium members don’t let money (or the lack of it) consume their lives, and appear to have found a comfortable way to support themselves in harmony with the land and one another. Their ideology aligns with their practices: Wayne’s novel is a political parable about “the flaws of capitalistic society,” and Carvin, the founder, insists repeatedly that “money buys nothing—literally nothing.”
But one of the communal economy’s downsides comes to light when George’s car, full of most of the couple’s belongings, ends up at the bottom of a lake because Rodney needed to borrow it. The link between non-ownership and lack of responsibility—the failure to take care of others’ or the group’s things—is a challenge not unique to Elysium, though the unplanned but somehow taken-in-stride car-sinking (“I know, crazy, right?” is Rodney’s assessment) offers an extreme example of the phenomenon. The community’s sometimes appealing but simultaneously naïve attitude toward money is also reflected later on, when one member considers $11,000 fair payment for something worth $10 million (I can’t spoil every aspect of the plot).
Most modern intentional communities are far more sophisticated in their approach to money than is Elysium, but the mixture of idealism, vision, and accompanying liabilities of their approach will also strike chords of familiarity for many in the communities movement.
Values, Curds. Turds, and More
Elysium’s commitments to nonviolence and to ecological sensitivity, which compare favorably with the aggression and insensitivity displayed in the wider culture (notably at Rick’s house), also echo common themes in the movement. Needless to say, Wanderlust lampoons them: swatting a fly means George has a “fetish for violence.” Clapping is “too aggressive,” so Elysium’s members rub their fingers together instead when they want to cheer or express approval. (While I haven’t seen this particular variation in real life, I have spent time in communities where “twinkling”—moving the upraised fingers rapidly—had replaced clapping.) And in a scene probably familiar to anyone who’s lived in a vegetarian or vegan community, new member Linda sneaks off to town for a meat fix, only to find the founder in the same diner, unapologetically scarfing down a wide array of meat products because “you can’t live off macrobiotic bean curd shit all your life.” Meanwhile, most members are truly devoted to their veganism and to their homegrown food—celebrating their first victory against the casino developers by breaking out the tomato chutney.
Again like many communitarians, Elysium members are not only more at ease living close to the earth than most mainstream Americans are, but also more comfortable with their own bodies and bodily functions. No one bats an eye at their resident nudist or at the conference-load of his fellow nudist winemakers, nor is skinny-dipping a big deal for anyone. Linda soon gets comfortable peeing outside, but George never quite gets used to “doing his business” while others casually talk with him in the bathroom. (No community I know of assumes that people will be eager to converse while defecating, or will be comfortable doing that within plain sight of others—but neither of those are unheard of in the world of community either.)
We even witness a natural childbirth, whose radiant mother again compares favorably with the testy, pregnant HBO executive lamenting her “swollen belly, hemorrhoids, and second thoughts.” The parents keep the placenta attached, carrying it around in a bowl with them and the baby as they wait for it to fall off naturally. (This is not something I’ve seen personally in community, and definitely not the most common approach, but I’m sure it happens.)
Underneath the “Herb’n’” Legend
Wanderlust plays on the stereotype of the “drug-filled commune,” which is where its satire is perhaps least subtle and also least accurate. Cannabis (the best George has ever smoked) is freely available, and at one community ceremony ayahuasca tea is passed around. But notably absent from Elysium are evidence of any alcohol problems, tobacco, “heavier” drugs, or synthetic drugs of any kind (whether illicit, prescription, or over-the-counter). The members seem savvy about drugs and their consequences—one of them blames the founder’s mental confusion and repetitiveness on an earlier, less cautious era (“Thank you, acid,” Rodney says in exasperation as he leaves the table at the launch of yet another recitation of the co-founders’ names).
Although Wanderlust’s characterization of pot-friendly Elysium inaccurately represents the majority of intentional communities, the broader picture it paints does hint at the truth: that communities in general may be places not to escape into drugs but to escape from a drug-addled culture, to liberate oneself from both pharmaceuticals and from the destructive drugs of choice of many non-communitarians. (Rick’s house and even Linda’s and George’s former medicine cabinet undoubtedly contain a far larger array of drugs, most of them much less natural, than does Elysium.) In my own experience in community, I’ve lived with many more people committed to physical, spiritual, and emotional health and well-being through substance-free living (and also through mostly substance-free living) than I suspect is typical in the wider culture.
“Doors Are Bullshit”
The movie also exaggerates, to comic effect, the amount of privacy sacrificed when joining a community. Elysium has removed all doors between inside rooms, because “doors close us off from one another.” Flush with the excitement of joining the community, George agrees that “Doors are bullshit.” Later, he has second thoughts, telling Linda that “I can’t have 15 people involved every time we have an argument.” (Again, anyone who has spent any amount of time in community is likely to have heard similar words from those adjusting to sharing their lives more closely with others.)
In reality, most intentional communities in the 21st century honor members’ needs for privacy, and I’ve never lived in or visited a community that had removed all its doors, but this doesn’t negate the underlying truth that community living involves letting down or removing some boundaries and sometimes being “visible” when one does not want to be. The thought of community living often inspires exaggerated fears of loss of privacy—a phenomenon mirrored by the exaggerated loss of actual privacy in Wanderlust.
Trust, Communication, Respect…and Sex
Related to the loss of privacy and boundaries is Elyssium’s attitude toward sexual relationships. When one member approaches George to suggest a sexual liaison, he and Linda learn that they’ve joined a polyamorous community, in which “open sexual boundaries lead to a deeper honesty.” In positive contrast to Rick, who has been surreptitiously having affairs for years, the members of Elysium are absolutely honest about whom they are desiring or having as sexual partners. Hesitancy about “free love” is the final impediment to the couple’s deciding to stay past their initial two weeks, until Linda relents and agrees that she will embrace that practice too. “As long as there is trust, communication, and respect,” she earnestly tells the amazed George, “we can all enjoy each other intimately.” (Which raises the question: was the script transcribed directly from recordings made during its writers’ visit to a polyamory-friendly intentional community?)
Soon thereafter, George is equally stunned to hear these words from another community-mate: “I just made love to your wife in the next room.” But while Elyssium members seem to have relaxed into their polyamorous lives with little drama or nervousness—an apparently natural choice, given that “monogamy is sexual slavery”—the new couple seem to believe that they are obliged to participate in order to fit in, and George’s over-the-top attempts to psyche himself up for polyamorous sex end up backfiring. Nevertheless, the problems caused by polyamory at Elysium seem to reside mainly within Linda and (mostly) George, not in other community members, and the idea that “when you pick a fight with your body’s sexual chi, you drive it inward, creating disease” ends up seeming plausible.
By depicting a community that has open sexual boundaries, Wanderlust may create the mistaken impression that most intentional communities are that way, or that groups that include any polyamory at all are universally polyamorous (whereas in reality, in groups open to this choice, most often monogamists and the celibate coexist with polyamorists). At the same time, Wanderlust paints polyamory (at least among established Elysium residents) as more drama-free than it may be in real life.
“Hit Her with Your Truth!”
And at Elysium—as in many intentional communities—intimacy doesn’t just mean sex; in fact, it often doesn’t mean sex at all. In one memorable scene, a member calls a “truth circle,” in which participants are encouraged to “share something true”—reveal something that will help others know them better, or that will help heal or build relationships. So far so good—I have been part of hundreds of such circles over my years in community, and while not every intentional community incorporates this kind of practice, many do, especially those in which members work and live closely together. Such forums often prove extremely helpful in supporting both individual and group well-being and effectiveness.
But immediately, the circle goes comically awry. Linda hasn’t yet spoken when she is accused of telling lies and being “full of shit.” She wisely defers to another member to start the truth-sharing, but when the attention returns to her and George, the accusations return as well, amped up even more. Circle members interrupt all attempts to speak and prove exceedingly unhelpful with their intrusions: “hit her with your truth!,” “this is when the breakthroughs happen!,” “don’t edit yourself!” Linda and George can barely get a word in edgewise, but when they do speak, they end up bringing out deep issues in their relationship that might not have surfaced otherwise, which finally calms the eager “assistants” to their process. Linda does gain genuine insight into herself, leading one participant to declare, “Linda, you just met Linda.”
If you have not lived through personal-growth workshops that have occasionally gone awry in similar ways, you may not find this scene nearly as funny as I did. But many communitarians will recognize an exaggerated but hilariously evocative depiction of apparently inappropriate (yet paradoxically often breakthrough-inducing) “truth circle” behavior, on steroids.
The free flow of feelings and words at Elyssium also includes such practices as “primal gesticulating,” in which the individual goes to the woods to shout out things they don’t like (war, clearcuts, pollution, climate change, etc.) in order to release “anxieties, tensions, and fears.” While some communitarians (particularly those in urban settings or cohousing groups) may never have witnessed or practiced anything like this—nor heard initially unidentifiable shouting or wailing from the far end of the property, which turns out to be therapeutic self-expression—a good number of us have. Again, this way of dealing with tensions seems orders of magnitude healthier than, for example, how George’s sister-in-law Marisa attempts to cope with her troubles. And while Elysium members are blunt in their speech, they are also generally loving—a stark contrast to George’s brother Rick’s verbal cruelty.
The Elephant in the Room
No discussion of Wanderlust would be complete without mentioning the “elephant in the room”—the flawed charismatic leader, Seth. The group’s “teacher, guide, guru, coach, shaman,” he himself denies being the leader, professing that “Mother Earth is the only leader we need.” But his central role and status as “alpha male” are obvious, as are some of the methods he uses to enforce his authority—including a voice which fluctuates between natural, relaxed speaking and an assumed accent with deepened tones (sounding as if it may have come from the British Isles via treks through the Amazon), with which he seems to assert his position and spout quasi-profundities.
Like many leaders (both within communities and in the larger world), Seth is full of contradictions, intensified by his highly visible role. In this supposedly cooperative setting, he turns a spontaneous guitar-playing session into a competition, leaving George and his strummed chords in the dust by launching into virtuosic fingerpicked solos and demanding that George respond in kind. With George sufficiently humiliated, Seth then improvises a sensual love song on a topic (“The Wind”) suggested by Linda, causing most of the women in the group to swoon and edging himself closer to adding one more (guess who?) to his list of sexual partners. He eventually shows the duplicity he’s capable of by planning to abandon his “brothers and sisters” in Georgia in order to start a new life in Miami with the woman he’s decided is his soul mate, aided by a certain $11,000. “I love you,” he tells the others, “but I love me more.” To their credit, they all abandon him.
Needless to say, human history is replete with examples of flawed or corrupt leaders at every level and in every type of social organization, intentional communities included. Some leaders of both religious and secular communities have abused their power many orders of magnitude more egregiously than Seth does in Wanderlust. In the end, Seth actually seems more foolish, self-involved, insecure, and naïve about the world’s realities than actively malevolent.
But Seth does crystallize several dynamics that communitarians may have run into: a charismatic leader claiming that a group is leaderless (or more broadly, a group failing to acknowledge power differentials); an alpha male meeting his sexual needs and desires by asserting dominance within a group; an articulate, visionary person who is in some respects also a fraud; a seemingly wise person who is also unrealistic and misguided; a proponent of cooperation who is actually highly competitive.
Most communities don’t experience the kind of serious power abuses that make some people wary of joining any kind of organized group (Kool Aid, anyone?). But many do go through a variation of the “Seth phase” before maturing, as Elysium does, into a group more equally sharing power.
From Honeymoon to Transformation
While the movie’s depiction of its subject intentional community is necessarily specific—and therefore couldn’t be universal even if it were literally accurate—its tale of its protagonist couple’s journey may strike near-universal chords of recognition among communitarians of all stripes.
Like many newly-arrived community visitors, Linda and George quickly get over their shock and fall in love with Elysium. “Who are these people?” George asks Linda in wonder. The promise of lives consciously filled with “nature, laughter, friendship, love” soon draws them back, and, welcomed “with open arms and open hearts” as resident members of Elysium, they feel as if they can “breathe for the first time in years.” (The one slight letdown in this initial honeymoon period occurs when they discover that their accommodations as new members will be significantly less luxurious than they were as guests—another pattern that may ring bells in several communities.)
Then another common pattern emerges. Linda grows into life in the community—feeling “alive every day,” playing with the children, and eventually becoming the hero of the group with her inspired protest at the casino ground-breaking—but George has more and more doubts. Linda proclaims, “I really feel like this is my home…for the first time in my life, I feel like I have a purpose.” George, on the other hand, misses “meat, air conditioning, and being able to close the bathroom door.”
In real-life communities, too, equal levels of enthusiasm for community living between partners can sometimes seem like the exception rather than the rule—with possible outcomes being separation, both partners staying, or both leaving (often, with one having serious regrets). In Wanderlust, George and Linda finally do see eye to eye about their priorities, and, true to their philosophy and general good nature, the community members cheer the couple’s commitment to each other even though it doesn’t include staying at Elysium.
Community as Catalyst
Linda and George start their adventure as a frazzled New York couple with little sense of control over their lives and with little time or opportunity for non-harried communication, self-expression, or self-examination. Elysium catalyzes their personal growth and transforms their lives in ways they could never have imagined—and they return the favor not only by helping precipitate positive changes at Elysium but by empowering former community-mates and themselves through the new business they establish when they return to New York. By the end of Wanderlust, far from melting down, Elysium has emerged from its casino land-deal trials stronger than ever, more egalitarian, and with a more positive “media image” to boot.
This kind of story may seem like the stuff of Hollywood movies—but I’ve personally witnessed similar transformations both within intentional communities and within those who spend time in them. Even years later, communities often receive letters of appreciation from those who see their lives forever changed for the better by experiences there.
This doesn’t mean that intentional community—or any one style of community—is for everyone, indefinitely. Wanderlust highlights some of the reasons why a place like Elysium will not work, long-term, for people like George. But it also affirms community living as a legitimate choice—one that may be a lot more fun (and full of more material for loving parody) than the disconnected, unhappy lives of many modern people. At the very least, it asks its viewers to shake up their assumptions, and maybe explore a little—even if only to find that the community best for each of us is whatever we can create in our own lives, once we’ve learned what we need to learn in order to create it.