Maybe we’re no longer as postmodern as we were: freedom, responsibility and the myth of autonomy in Kaleo La Belle’s Beyond this Place
Last Tuesday, filmmaker Kaleo La Belle screened his documentary Beyond This Place at the Vista Theatre in Los Angeles. The documentary was filmed firsthand by La Belle and chronicles a 500-mile Oregon cycling trip taken by La Belle and his father. Watching the documentary, the audience is made voyeur to the awkward and often painful moments as La Belle and his father reconnect after 30 years of estrangement. The film is quite stirring and, at times, almost impossible to watch. Through the scenic, evocative videography, the emotional score written by Sufjan Steves and Raymond Raposa performed live on stage, and the compelling first-person narration by La Belle himself, the viewer is invited to feel a small portion of what must have been an enormous gamut of emotions felt by La Belle as he attempts to understand his father, Cloudrock, a man who proudly declares that he has spent the last forty years of his life stoned.
La Belle was born in Maui, where his mother and father were part a hippie commune. At birth, La Belle was named “Ganja” by his father, after the thing his father loved most—marijuana. Years later, after La Belle’s mother left his father, taking La Belle with her, his mother suggested La Belle change his name. La Belle chose “Kaleo”. Kaleo grew up in Detroit, knowing Cloudrock, who lived in Oregon, only through the written letters Cloudrock sent, which often included hand drawn cartoons of Cloudrock cycling and scrawled messages like “I love you, Kaleo”. These letters are a huge source of contention in Kaleo’s relationship to his father and are discussed repeatedly throughout the film. When Kaleo asks his father why he never invited Kaleo to come visit him, his father points out that Kaleo didn’t respond to most of his letters. I was a child, Kaleo responds. Cloudrock doesn’t accept his excuse.
For Cloudrock, freedom is ultimate, freedom to do what he wants, go where he wants, smoke what we wants. Cloudrock’s value of freedom, sadly, comes at the cost of actually being a father to Kaleo. The viewer’s mind is spinning throughout the documentary as Kaleo, behind the camera lens, questions his father about his lack of involvement in his life growing up. Cloudrock’s responses are puzzling and humorous at best, heart-breaking at worst. As the documentary continues, the questions and their responses become more and more heated. Kaleo becomes increasingly unsatisfied with Cloudrock’s denial, blame and distortion of reality. Cloudrock becomes increasingly exhausted by the fact that Kaleo has not “accepted the past” and is therefore not able to fully embrace Cloudrock’s presence in the present.
After the screening, I rode home with some friends. We were discussing the film—Cloudrock’s frustrating refusal to take responsibility for the pain his freedom has caused, Cloudrock’s disturbingly constant use of psychedelics, and Cloudrock’s obvious detachment from reality (the result, probably, of both the distorted freedom and the forty years of shrooms). “The entire film is about the relationship between freedom and responsibility,” my friend said. This friend is currently reading Jonathan Franzen’s book Freedom, which explores the dynamics of this relationship. According to Franzen, indifference, rather than stark hatred, is the opposite of love. My friend paraphrased Franzen so eloquently: “The opposite of love is indifference–not giving a shit.” That’s to say, if you love something, you fight for it. If you don’t love something, you don’t give a shit what happens to it. For Cloudrock, giving a shit for his son would have infringed on Cloudrock’s freedom, so, instead, Cloudrock kept his freedom and Kaleo was left without the love of his father.
In the film, Cloudrock serves as a sort of archetypal character for postmodernism, a philosophical ideology which generally values individuality and freedom over communal dependence. The siren song of postmodernism is what’s true for you and works for you is fine. And what’s true for me and works for me is fine. But, as Beyond This Place proves, there’s one place in particular that the siren song of postmodernism loses its allure: relationships.
Our generation is one of the first to experience the new phenomenon of the 21st century: emerging adulthood. Young adults are, on average, getting married later, starting families later and, in general, exercising their indifference to responsibility for as long as possible. Most of my long-term relationships have ended because relationships are hard; relationships require self-responsibility, the willingness to fight for something–a willingness most of my partners did not desire to possess, apparently. Being an individual, on the other hand, maintaining your freedom is easy.
I’m worried that our postmodern ideals have fed us a myth of autonomy and have bred indifference, which, over time, are forcing us to evolve past an ability to even be in relationships. Because, as it turns out, indifference is relational kryptonite.
But then there’s Kaleo’s character. In the film, Kaleo is obviously haunted by his father’s destructive exercise of freedom-without-responsibility. Kaleo refuses to ever sanction his father’s lifestyle of absence and autonomy. The farthest Kaleo comes in the film is to a place of acceptance. He learns to accept Cloudrock for who Cloudrock is and will always be—a man who will probably live the rest of his life stoned in the woods of Oregon, a man who does not know Kaleo’s own children and probably never will.
Kaleo’s refusal to sanction his father’s destructive exercise of freedom gives me hope that maybe our generation isn’t as postmodern as I’ve feared. Maybe we are realizing that this postmodern myth of autonomy we were raised on is incompatible with fulfilling relationships; freedom cannot be exercised outside of the responsibilities of being human. I want to believe that Kaleo, rather than Cloudrock, is the archetypal character of our generation. I want to believe that we will never allow ourselves to evolve past an ability to be in relationships. I want to believe that we are no longer as postmodern as we were.