"We're all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn't. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing". (Charles Bukowski, "The Captain is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship")
Mark Manson's name invaded western pop culture in 2016, the year in which his second book, bearing the boisterous title The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, was published and made the author's name synonymous with a major disruption in the stagnant waters of the so-called self-help genre, a sub-category of nonfiction. The book, which has sold more than 15 million copies and spent 279 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list, brought a revolution in terms of both style and content as Manson opted to utilize a a conversation-like tone in his text that becomes perfectly aligned with the penetrating sincerity in which he discloses his inner thought process and central ideas permeating his reasoning. The contrast is stark if we consider the uniformity of self-help books and their proclivity for glamorizing their own guidance which is often presented in neat bullet points, offering supposedly insightful instructions loaded with sugarcoated positivity and a loathsome sense of self-worth. Manson's intention was to write a kind of "anti-self-help" book that would establish a new way of approaching the subject, always keeping on the forefront the values of honesty and philanthropy, which are expressed through a philosophy of being that owes its influences to the teachings of various schools of thought, while also being close to the worldview of the notorious German-American novelist Charles Bukowski. In an interview that he gave to Simon Thompson and was published on Forbes website on January 4, 2023 (you can find it here), Manson stated: "A big goal of the book when I wrote it was that I wanted this to be a self-help book that scrambles and disrupts everything that people understand about a self-help book and creates something very new and unique out of it".
The final result was so well-received by the global readership that many critics hailed it as a singular work communicating simple, yet riveting, ideas and concepts while at the same time chastising the ailments of the modern world, especially as manifested in the western culture, that disorient and distract the contemporary man from what truly matters. Manson doesn't embrace a nihilistic stance by claiming that we should not give a fuck about anything, on the contrary he is a fervent advocate of ascribing meaning and value to those things which are essential to the human condition and are achieved through pain and suffering rather than a frivolous desire for an ill-defined "happiness", a concept that has been radically distorted by the professionals of self-help. The author despises the "be positive" way of life as he believes that it leads to an inflated self-esteem of the individual who strives to circumvent his problems rather than solving them. The latter entails a certain level of effort, or "suffering" as the author puts it, which is, according to Manson, the quintessence of human existence and the only path for the individual to engage in values that can be deemed truly important. The greatest moments in life are rarely linked with pleasant feelings and even less with the concepts of "success" and "positivity" that dominate the contemporary pop psychology. As Manson sees it, the wish for a positive experience becomes itself a negative experience and vice versa, the acknowledgement of a negative experience is itself a positive experience.
There were many who read the book and found affinities between Manson's thought and that of the Stoics, however the author wrote an article titled "Why I Am Not a Stoic", which was published on his personal website (https://markmanson.net/), where he rebuffed any influences by the philosophical system of the Hellenistic period and named Buddhism as well as Existentialism as the two primary philosophies that shaped his thought and provided him with the necessary conceptual framework to structure and present it in a comprehensible way. It is true that the frantic search for meaning inside a godless universe that lacks any form of inherent sense is the backbone of Existentialism, a philosophy that wasn't only introduced through the dissertations and essays by thinkers such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus but was also revealed in great works of art with the most prominent example being the Theater of the Absurd as well as several novels and plays which made that particular school of thought accessible even to those who didn't have an academic background in the field. Manson's advices are dipped in the opaque liquid of the Absurdist thought as he claims that it is the individual's responsibility to create meaning and, even more importantly, it is through the act of choosing that we become involved in this arduous, nevertheless vital, process. All our problems are our own responsibility, even if they are not our fault, and by accepting responsibility we make our first big step towards solving them. Victimization and blaming others for our misgivings is a sinister distraction that could entice man but have to be avoided if we want to lead an authentic life.
Since the book's publication seven years earlier, Manson has been approached by numerous prospective producers who declared their interest in adapting the work into a documentary, however the author was very apprehensive and rejected several proposals: ""We got all sorts of pitches and crazy stuff (...) Reality TV shows, sitcoms, kids shows, just crazy stuff. With 90 percent of them, I was like, 'What? Are these people high? What are they thinking". Eventually it was producer Matthew Metcalfe and director Nathan Price who convinced Manson not only to sanction an on-screen adaptation but also to be the sole protagonist in this documentary that feels more like an one-man show as it consists of a series of sequences featuring the book author who talks directly to the camera, or sometimes in voice-over, and attempts to transcribe the text's potency into the cinematic language while also recounting his personal story beginning in his childhood years that were marked by loss and self-loathing. The truth is that the whole production feels a bit poor as it would be conducive to watch a wider range of people, scientists or specialists of any other kind, supporting Manson's narration that comes across as a lecture rather than a fully-fleshed documentary imparting the essence of a much-discussed book. The author himself admitted that there was a lack of purely documentary material like archive footage and interviews, with the narrative core being limited to "stories, anecdotes, and timeless concepts". Manson and Price worked closely together and during pre-production the two of them conducted a series of interviews that lasted for 15-20 hours over the course of three days and provided the production's foundation. The author has stated that the filming process felt comfortable as he is used to talk about his own work to dozens of interviews that he gave since the book's publication and also added that he asked to be as involved as possible, showing eager to be proactive.
There is a treat for the book's fans as the production features scenes with the beloved "Disappointment Panda", a character created by Manson and whose trademark is its tendency to tell people the harsh, unvarnished truth, a kind of the author's fictional alter-ego. Despite the fact that the most critical points of the original source found their way to the silver screen in The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck, there are some omissions. Regarding that matter Manson has said to S. Thompson: "I had a good five years or so, feedback on what parts of the book resonated with people. It was also clear what parts of the book I had never really heard from people about. I knew what my greatest hits were by the time we got there, which helped a lot in understanding what took priority when it came to putting things into the film". However, I found some things to be irritating and retracting from the overall vigor of the project. While Manson is quick to berate consumerism and its effects to our lives, he remains suspiciously silent about the role of capitalism in the general scheme of things, thus making his analysis weaker and susceptible to criticism. Plus, there is an unevenness in his discourse regarding the balance between the personal and the philosophical aspect, the result being confusing to the audience who can't tell if this is primarily a personal account of the narrator's life story or a manifesto of his theories and ideas about the individual's place in a world crammed with signals and information bombarding modern man's everyday existence.
Those who are not familiar with the book, will find certainly more enjoyable Price's documentary. On the other hand, the audience who has read Manson's lauded work will feel that something is missing, mainly due to the production's inefficiency in taking full advantage of the possibilities offered by the medium, failing to present a rich adaptation that would become a landmark for 2023. I would expect something more by the director, something that would help to further highlight the -indeed- interesting set of ideas expressed by Manson and prove to be a first-class companion to the primary source. Regardless whether you will or won't watch this documentary, I would suggest that you take the time and read the book, it will change your perception about how a true self-help book looks like.