\The Self-Made Man\, a new film by my friend Susan Stern, will have its television premiere on the PBS series “P.O.V.” this coming week (and while I’m boasting about my friends, let me say that “P.O.V.” was created by another friend of mine, the prodigiously talented Marc Weiss). Most stations will air it on July 26, but be sure to check TV listings or the “P.O.V.” Web site for local airtimes.
I have been thinking about this film since I saw a screening months ago. It’s a well-made, lively, engaging story about Susan’s father, who made a logical decision to take his own life. Here’s how she describes it:
“Is it ever rational to choose death? On Independence Day at Stern Ranch in central California, 77-year-old solar energy pioneer Bob Stern finds out he is seriously ill — possibly dying. Meanwhile, an elderly in-law is slowly declining on artificial life support in a hospital. Bob decides to cheat that fate and take his own life. His family tries to stop him. Bob sets up a video camera. Daughter Susan Stern (\Barbie Nation\) tells the story of her father?s quirky, inspiring life and the difficult end-of-life choices faced by an aging population. Part King Lear, part Western, \The Self-Made Man\ is a true-life family drama about a controversial issue: Should we control how we die?”
One thing every artist quickly learns is that none of us can determine the way our work is received, or even say for certain what it is about. The story of Bob Stern’s decision to commit suicide definitely provides the plot line and the focus for the bulk of the film. But for me, \The Self-Made Man\ raises two other compelling themes that have occupied my thoughts: the limits of logic and rational thought as tools for understanding life’s challenges, and by implication, the power of culture. Let me explain.
Based on the film’s portrait, I’d characterize Bob Stern as a vigorous, brilliant, vain man who decided fairly early on to conquer life’s deep disappointments (especially the suffering and death from cancer of his mother, whom he longed to protect) by making himself emperor of his own private world. After serving in World War II, he became a successful Midwestern entrepreneur in steel and real estate, then used his money to establish an isolated family compound in the dry hills of central California, and to pursue a dream of solar energy that was just a little ahead of its time. He ran his family like a corporation with a top-down merit system, bestowing approval as a reward and incentive for accomplishment. Removed from any connection to community or heritage culture, he amused himself by enacting a long string of bright ideas. For example, the film contains video footage of Bob Stern’s self-produced game show pilots and Socratic dialogues, as if every brainwave merited preservation.
In the lead-up to his suicide in July, 2001, Bob Stern documented much of the bizarre and attenuated cost-benefit analysis he performed for his wife and son prior to walking out into the dawn with a loaded gun. In an ultimate act of domination, he dismissed the strong objections of those family members privy to his plans. To the question of whether it is ever rational to choose death, he answered yes — to my mind, without ever offering solid reasons why he should make that choice when he did, while he was still extremely able and fit for a man of 77, and evidently without fully acknowledging the pain he would cause others.
So here’s what I kept wondering: How did he get so isolated? When did the Stern family emigrate to America? Where did they come from? Were they part of a community of immigrants, able to draw any strength or solace from the traditions that so many of us rely on to soothe loss and face difficulties? Was it a family tradition to leave heritage behind, or was it Bob Stern’s innovation to become a law and culture unto himself, severing ties to whatever he could not justify through logic and reason?
\The Self-Made Man\ is a wonderful tribute from a daughter to her father and a provocation that shouldn’t be ignored. To me, the mark of a truly satisfying work of art is that what’s not there — the white spaces — affects you as much as what is. I think there is something useful in this film about the whole post-Enlightenment project of privileging rational thought and concrete considerations over whatever is irrational, true and ultimately sustaining in human cultures. I think it shows us the tragedy of the self — no matter how magnificent in aspect and accomplishment — unmoored from culture and community. I think it will rattle around in your brain as it has in mine, and you will be happy to give it space there.