The search for truth is an aim many an artist have strived for throughout the history of cinema; obviously, this is especially true in the realm of documentaries. The truth that is found may not always be appealing and/or palatable which is usually a desired outcome when the focus happens to be directed towards bigger societal constructs. However, in Joanna Arnow’s i hate myself 🙂, her focus is fixated on herself and her relationship with her boyfriend, one that may or may not be toxic.
Introspection is not an easy task in private, let alone in public; it isn’t rare either, although, one’s introspection is usually shrouded in narrative creations to dampen and/or conceal its full extent. But, Arnow’s particular brand of introspection is of the splayed-open-for-all-to-see variety, which can be jarring at times given the breadth of intimate interactions she’s willing to share with the audience. Much of it seems ill-advised, but then again, who are we to judge. This is the director’s life, they’re making the decisions (for the most part) and one gets the sense that Arnow is doing this for herself mostly, we’re just spectating bystanders.
It all starts with a question: is the guy she’s currently dating, dateable? Obvious answer is, yes; yes he is, considering the fact that she is dating him at the moment of this inward query. It also becomes quickly apparent that most people would not consider this man, James, to be dateable as a quick highlight reel of his actions and demeanor suggest we are dealing with an individual ripe with deficiencies in empathy and compassion. The dwindling levels of which he attempts to offset through widespread use of the n-word, or ‘mulatto’, or ‘Jews control the world’s financial markets’ during his poet-provocateur routine.
Since Arnow quickly answers her initial question the focus of her analytical eye is therefore directed unto herself thus becoming an investigation of herself and her relationship and its future. During which, Arnow makes it increasingly clear that no aspect of being or her relationship is off-limits, that anything and everything will be presented and discussed with a totality of frankness that can be, at once, uncomfortable yet also refreshing and daring in its candor. Although, James’s performance artist persona and Arnow’s admitted desire to be a performer does create a germ of skepticism as the deeply personal proceedings unfold.
Once Arnow begins the process of analyzing her actions and decisions (with the help of Max, her perpetually naked editor, and his probing questions) that is when things get interesting. When most artist endeavors provide growth, it does so detached from the audience and doesn’t present itself usually until the next artistic endeavor. Whereas with Arnow’s project, the progression of that personal and artistic growth is recognizable on-screen, the changes in the ways in which she carries herself and approaches the film. The wallflower receding to the back of the room to film a lonely fish or the ex-girlfriend from a non-engaged distance we are introduced to at the outset slowly becomes the highly-involved creator that takes control of the production with a resolute hand, even when discovering ugly truths; now staging and coordinating interactions with control and, now, fighting for people to take her work seriously.
It is not a full transformation, Arnow still has her flaws – as we all do – but then again most us do not have the audacity to openly display those flaws and shortcomings with such sincerity the way Arnow does which is immensely admirable. She has created an opportunity to analyze herself in real time, to draw conclusions about certain aspects of her life to adjust accordingly. Much like her mother states towards the end, that it was “a learning experience,” and it is quite evident that it was.