January 8, 2013

Convenient Truths -- DR. BRONNER'S MAGIC SOAPBOX

This Column Originally Ran on Comics Bulletin

Sometimes the most universal truths can be found in the smallest slices of life. That’s what makes independent documentaries so powerful, engaging and entertaining. Not only do they show you little worlds to which you’ve never had access, but they oftentimes also tell the larger story of what it means to be human. Armed with this intellectual conceit, a bag of Funyuns, and a couple of Miller beers, Daniel Elkin curls up in front of the TV and delves deep into the bowels of Netflix Streaming Documentaries to find out a little bit more about all of us.
Today he and his friend Jason Sacks found 2006's Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox directed by Sara Lamm.

Elkin: I had just graduated from college in 1989 and I was bumming around the East Coast, couch surfing and trying to find an elusive purpose to keep moving forward. I was staying with this young lady I knew from school for a couple of days, plotting my next move and one of the things I most remember about her house was that she had this crazy liquid soap in her shower. It was peppermint and it tingled like nobody's business, but what was most remarkable about it was its blue and white label literally covered with 30,000 words spelling out these totally whacko quasi-religious admonitions and exhortations culminating in the phrase ALL ONE! ALL ONE! I distinctly remember standing there reading this damn thing for what must have been ten minutes or so, water splashing off my back, trying to wrap my head around what this soap was asking of me. Finally, I got out of the shower, found the young lady who owned this soap, and asked her what the deal was. She looked at me kind of incredulously and said, “Oh that? That's Dr. Bronner's Magic Soap.”
Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is supposed to be a documentary about the story of the man behind the soap. I popped this one on the old Netflix because I remembered that young East Coast lady and her soap, and I was intrigued to find out more about this whole story. From this film, I got the rudiments of his tale, but even more I was left with a thousand new questions than before.
According to this documentary, Dr. Emanuel Bronner, born in Heilbronn Germany, the son of Jewish soap makers, emigrated to America in 1929 at the age of 21. His parents stayed behind, only to be killed by the Nazis in the concentration camps. In America, Dr. Bronner began making his own soap and started lecturing around the country about what he called “The Moral ABC.” Bronner had a deep-seated hatred for Communists, an uneasy relationship with his Jewish heritage, a strong belief that he was the nephew of Albert Einstein and an FBI docket that was filed in the “Nut Box.” He also escaped from a mental institution in Illinois where he had been subjected to repeated shock treatments.
He also was a terrible father. After his wife died, Bronner apparently placed his two sons and one daughter in an endless series of foster homes and orphanages so he could continue his lectures on The Moral ABC's. As his soap started selling more, Bronner put more and more of himself into the product being a reflection of his philosophy to the point where the two were basically synonymous. He began covering the label of his soap with rantings of obscure profundity, many exclamation points, All-One-God-Faith, a liberal use of em-dashes, God Spaceship Earth and references to Olympic Gold Medal swimmer Mark Spitz. Eventually both of his sons came to work for the company and it is their story, particularly Ralph Bronner's story that is the focus of this film.
And this is where Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox pretty much falls apart. What could have been a fascinating documentary about an eccentric man and his belief system, or a film about the wounds that obsessive people can cause to those who love them, or even an exploration of the appeal of an amazing niche product becomes instead a rambling unfocused confusing mess, to the point where, nearing the end of the film, we are forced to watch some fucked up dude whose girlfriend is in hospice for a brain tumor weep while he plays his original music on a keyboard in some hotel room for nearly five minutes.
For the amount of dynamism inherent in the personality of it subject, Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox lies flat on its back like a doodlebug, unable to right itself as the sun slowly burns away its underbelly.
Sacks: As you say, Elkin, this documentary is kind of a lost opportunity in some ways – not necessarily the first example of this syndrome we've seen in this series, is it? But I think I may have liked this movie more than you did.
As you say, the two men at the center of this movie are Emmanuel Bronner and his son Ralph and both are vivid and intriguing men with fascinating back-stories. And you are right that this movie rambles and rumbles and tumbles from event to event without a really clear focus or smart editing. But for me the story of Emmanuel in particular is so vivid and intriguing that I couldn't keep myself from dwelling on it, contemplating the sort of man he was and pondering the sort of inscrutable way that he lived his life.
More than anything, I'm fascinated by the dichotomy that Ralph highlights in his stories: Despite the fact that Emmanuel believed with an evangelical fervor in his "all is one" belief system and desperately wanted to join all humanity together to bring world peace; Emmanuel was also completely absent from the lives of his children. "Who has time for family when you're trying to save the world?" was the oft-repeated phrase in the house when dad was late for dinner, but we all know that's a false dichotomy, that it's precisely a basis in family and deep happiness that helps to lead many of our greatest men and women to want to change the world.
Perhaps Emmanuel was scarred by a horrific incident in his youth in pre-War Germany when a bunch of boys flung a bucket of urine on him – the sort of thing that can never really escape your mind. Or perhaps Emmanuel was scarred by something even more infinitely terrifying – the Holocaust that wiped out much of his family. But the dad in this story is honestly one really fucked-up man.
I honestly came to despise Emmanuel a bit while watching this movie. Maybe part of it is that I can't imagine a man being happy to abandon his own children to the care of random strangers found in bars. Or the fact that he spent so much of his life stuck inside his own head that he couldn't relate to people who didn't understand things in the way that he did. Or maybe it was simply the fact that he seemed so strange, so distant, so uncommunicative about the ordinary events in the lives of the people that he was supposed to love.
Maybe I'm just responding emotionally to the horrific events in Connecticut last week, but it's impossible for me to imagine a man who would so callously abandon his own children.
Without stating it explicitly, this movie does a nice job of contrasting Emmanuel with his son Ralph. Ralph was clearly the most unloved of Emmanuel's three children, so that makes it ironic that Ralph is the child who works as the public face of Dr. Bronner's Soaps. Especially since Ralph is completely open emotionally, continually searching for connection with the people he meets as he wanders through life. We watch Ralph meet several random people throughout the film, always looking for a real emotional connection even when the people resist. It would be very easy to attribute that to a lack of connection to his parents (absent father and long-dead mother) that also leads to a good explanation for Ralph's evangelical zeal for his product.
And I liked Ralph because he was open and honest and seemed always to be talking from his heart, but that nakedness makes him stand out strangely in his world as well. He's almost like the quasi-religious figure that his father kind of aspired to be, providing solace and comfort to men and women who are down and out in their lives.
So yeah, this film had a very strange flow and rambled and seemed to follow its own strange internal logic. But I found the stories at its core to be pretty compelling.
Elkin, what were some of the other themes that you wish this movie had embraced?
Elkin: To be honest, Sacks, I was hoping it spent more time dissecting WHY Ralph had chosen to become the spokesperson for his father's soap. You point out that Ralph's “lack of connection to his parents” may have lead to his “evangelical zeal” for the product, but that is supposition. The question is never asked. We are just given it as a fact without any context. Ralph's struggle with the legacy of his family would have made a fascinating movie.
I would have also liked the film to talk more about how the soap is being marketed today. It brushes around this idea in broad strokes, but the details are left unexamined. The film points out that the company was on the verge of collapse, but has since rebounded. I am pretty sure that Ralph's lecture tour and good-will ambassadorship was not the driving force behind the company finding its niche in a new marketplace. If done correctly, this could have been engaging and edifying.
Finally, I would have liked to have seen Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox delve further into the Moral ABC's with which Emmanuel was so profoundly enraptured. What are the direct teachings of Bronner's philosophy? How did he practice them in his life? Was he able to change anyone's life through his teaching? What has become of this legacy? A film like this would have challenged its audience and engaged in a higher level of discussion for this review.
But none of this was the film we watched.
There's an enormous complexity to this story – with Dr. Bronner, his family, his philosophy, and his soap. This documentary tried to take on all of it, and, by doing so, ended up doing a disservice to each idea. Because of this lack of focus, the film fails to document anything, and the results are a mélange of morass. It's less of a documentary and more of a Wikipedia entry.
Sacks: Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox is a bit more of a documentary than a Wikipedia entry, at least for me, Elkin. No matter how much of a short shrift the movie gives to some of its most important central themes – and I definitely agree with you that this documentary was a real disappointment that seemed muddled and frustratingly imprecise – I ended up being fascinated with the film's two main characters, Ralph and Emmanuel. In fact, I've kind of been dwelling on those ideas as I've considered what to write next in this essay.
I have a long and deep fascination with people who are often seen as being eccentric or as innovators. We've explored a few of those deeply eccentric people in this column (I mean, it's hard to get more eccentric than a fan of a pizza house animatronic show, or Paul Goodman, or some of the amazingly odd characters who were part of Inside Deep Throat.) and Emmanuel and Ralph are comfortably in that tradition. And in a few very interesting ways it seemed like the pair were opposite sides of the familial coin.
The father and son have in common their relentless energy and passion for what they do, but they pursue their passions in dramatically different ways. Not to be cruel, but Emmanuel was a tremendous narcissist, carrying around his intense convictions that he – only he – had the secret to happiness and joy and a unified religious world with his "ALL ONE" philosophy. That philosophy overrode everything in his life – family, friends, and to some extent the very business that he was looking to expand. The father is in many ways a real monster. Whether or not you are sympathetic to his horrible history, it's hard to deny that the man treated his family in a completely abominable way, when he even had the presence of mind to think of him at all. If Emmanuel hadn't built a fairly successful family business, I wonder how he would be remembered by his family today.
But Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox presents the son as a completely kind-hearted, incredibly generous man who sees his mission in life to bring happiness to people’s lives any way that he can. Ralph seems obsessed with helping other people remove the pain that they are feeling, if just by being honest and direct and really fucking real in a world of thoroughly fake people.
I also wish that this documentary would have moved into more topics like the ones you discuss above, and they would have been interesting items to include. But I wonder how much of that wish is a bit of projection on your part, a bit of a request for the documentary to be made in the way that you wanted it to be made. Because I think that brings up an interesting question for us to contemplate in this column.
Is it the responsibility of a documentary to tell the whole story of what it's presenting, or does the documentarian have a responsibility to tell the story as it means to him or her? Should a documentary take an objective viewpoint in order to tell a story in full, as we saw with Holy Rollers or The Two Escobars or a more subjective viewpoint as we saw with Anvil! or Gnarr? I'm kind of cool with a documentary taking either route – sometimes even excluding facts or other information that might make the story more well-rounded. After all, few of the documentaries we've watched are what I might call news or information. Some are intended to be informative or intriguing or artful or entertaining (and the best, like Senna and The Two Escobars – my favorite film we've discussed in this column- can be all four) while neglecting the need to be encyclopedic.
Does Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox really succeed in a lot of what it attempts to be? I kind of think it doesn't, because too many loose ends are never tied up and too many interesting stories about the Bronner family are never completely explored. But I did find a lot in the film that was intriguing and made me think about my parenting and my openness to the world.
Elkin: I don't think it is the responsibility of a documentary to “tell the whole story” at all, but I do think it is the responsibility of a documentary to tell A story – one that has a narrative, with rising action and some sort of conclusion. What I don't like is when films have no central theme upon which to revolve. I am no particular fan of when the directors of these films seem to lose sight of why they were making the film in the first place.
It's like I tell my students, “An essay is not a travelogue or a dream journal. It's is a focused argument and everything in it should further your thesis.” I think that should be true of documentaries as well. All the films you mention above have had that single mindedness. There is a story they want to tell, and they arrange the film to reflect that story. Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox fails in this regard. It's as if Sara Lamm decided one day, “Hey, wouldn't it be cool to make a movie about this crazy-ass soap guy,” and then, once she started filming, had no idea what to do with everything she had captured.
But things like that happen in all sorts of creative endeavors, don't they? Artists have a great idea they want to pursue, but, in execution, it doesn't quite pan out. I think it takes a truly brave individual who can look at something they have devoted so much of themselves to and say, “That didn't work. I should probably just trash it and try something else.” That was sort of a thesis I pursued a bit when I was writing the Cheap Thrills column, and I think it applies powerfully to this film. The director of Dr. Bronner's Magic Soapbox became too enamored with what she was doing to toss it in the bin and start again. So we are left with her muddled misstep which she then has to defend.
And now I have to explain why I didn't like it.
Fuck that shit, Sacks. Fuck. That. Shit.
Trailer for the film:

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