Searching for a heart

. June 6, 2012.

Davy Rothbart is somewhat of a local hero. He’s the man behind FOUND, the annual magazine which publishes found objects. He’s also a frequent contributor to This American Life and an established author. (He was the winner of Current’s inaugural Fiction and Poetry Competition in 1999). But he’s also a hopeless romantic. And on April 22, a lot of people at the Michigan Theater are going to watch a lovesick, teenaged Rothbart cry quite a bit. Those are the opening scenes of My Heart Is An Idiot, a documentary about Rothbart’s conflicted feelings about love, which has its world premiere in Ann Arbor this month. It opens with archival footage of Rothbart in his teens and early twenties crying in front of a VHS camcorder after various break ups. In his youth, he made a habit out of documenting some of his most vulnerable moments, and those videos introduce a narrative about Rothbart’s present love life.“It might freak some people out,” Rothbart says. “I was in a really rough state.”

“Davy’s archival footage is really fascinating. Here’s this person who obviously is in a ton of pain, and yet he still has the wherewithal to get this enormous video camera, set it up, aim it at himself, and then position himself perfectly in the center of the frame so he can have his crying fit,” said David Meiklejohn, the play’s director.

A portrait of a friend

My Heart Is An Idiot is Meiklejohn’s first feature film. He met Rothbart after submitting a found object for the magazine. It was an algebra test he’d found where the student clearly didn’t know the multiple-choice answers: he bubbled in a smiling face, a frowning face, and wrote a poem on the back. When Rothbart came to Meiklejohn’s hometown Portland, Maine on a FOUND tour in 2002, he was showing audiences the test at every show.

“Davy and I just hit it off right away when he got into town,” Meiklejohn recalls.Their friendship grew from there, and eventually, Meiklejohn joined Rothbart on the FOUND tour in 2005. Originally, the plan was to document Rothbart’s FOUND Magazine tours across America.“We didn’t really know what we wanted to film. We just knew that I would show up with a camera and I would film what happened on the road,” Meiklejohn remembers. “But for whatever reason, all of our conversations, whether they were on camera or off camera, were about our relationships. It was no surprise that it became a film about his love life, but that wasn’t planned explicitly.” Rothbart recalls that it was after the first tour, and after realizing that they’d spent so much time talking about love, that Meiklejohn decided to make the movie about Rothbart’s love life. Meiklejohn said they had talked about remaking the film Sherman’s March for a new audience. But really, everything just fell into place.“It just became so obvious that there was nothing else this movie could be about other than Davy’s romantic situation,” Meiklejohn says.

“gruelingly self-revealing”

The film follows Rothbart’s burning questions about love—is this girl the one? Should he move away to be with her? But while My Heart Is An Idiot is a documentary about love, it’s far from the puff piece that the subject becomes in many other films. The film depicts Rothbart weeping uncontrollably, being called a “con artist” by his own mother, and chasing women who tell him “it’s never going to happen.” Also, the film offers a surprise twist to the “guy falls in love with girl” formula. And for all the vulnerable moments it captures of Rothbart, it also features a lot of honest portrayals of his ex-girlfriends—many of whom have seen the film. “Maggie, a college girlfriend of mine who got married to a window repair man, called the movie ‘gruelingly self-revealing,’” Rothbart states.

It’s true. My Heart Is An Idiot doesn’t paint Rothbart as a folk hero or even, really, as a protagonist. He’s a human being with flaws and emotions. This isn’t new turf for Rothbart—his autobiographical writings all deal with the harsh realities of his personal life. In many ways, the film plays out like an extended episode of “This American Life”—it’s a narrative about a person’s problems shown in a storyteller’s unapologetic light. It’s familiar ground for Rothbart. However, he was still hesitant when he saw how he is depicted.

“Davy’s a little nervous about how he comes across in the film overall, but his entire career and life and personality is as someone who shares a lot of himself and is not afraid to air his mistakes,” Meiklejohn says.

“I’ll be honest, there was a time where I grew queasy because I thought, ‘What if people see this movie and don’t like me? What if people see this and they’re less interested in the other work I do,’” Rothbart comments. “But it’s an honest story. This is me.”

Newt Gingrich: love guru

Throughout the film, Rothbart, Meiklejohn, and their friends ask a lot of different people about love. There are responses from Rothbart’s mother, a few of their friends, and quite a few celebrities. There are sound bites from 500 Days of Summer star Zooey Deschanel, Stephen Malkmus of Pavement, and Tommy Chong, to name a few. But some of the most profound advice came from a fairly unlikely source.

“Newt Gingrich, for example—I could not effing believe it,” Rothbart says. “For him to actually give a thoughtful, considerate response, it was stunning.” Another piece of sage advice came from Rothbart’s “This American Life” boss.“Ira Glass is money,” Meiklejohn said. “There’s no way around it. He’s the man. It’s impossible not to be amazed by him.”

hometown world premiere

Although much of the movie follows Rothbart on tour, Ann Arbor definitely takes center stage. The archival footage all takes place in Ann Arbor (Rothbart bought an ex-girlfriend an engagement ring in Arborland), local businesses are discussed, and most of the music in the film comes from local artists. Rothbart and Meiklejohn are both excited that the film will have its world premiere in downtown Ann Arbor. “Premiering at the Michigan Theater is going to be amazing. It’s such a beautiful place,” Meiklejohn says. “This film was made in Ann Arbor with a person who spent his entire life in Ann Arbor. So this is the real hometown show.”

looking back

It’s been five years since the film was shot, and obviously, a lot has happened in Rothbart’s life. Partially, Rothbart feels  he’s learned a thing or two about romance and love. “I think I used to have very romanticized ideals about love,” Rothbart recalls. “Just because you fall in love with some girl you see putting gas in her car or working behind a bar or waiting for the bus, it doesn’t necessarily mean a relationship with her is going to be successful.” And despite the film showing so many unflattering moments, Rothbart is still happy to have My Heart Is An Idiot as a document of what he went through in 2005 and 2006.“While I cringe at so many of the things I did and about how I was at the time, there’s also something really special about having such a record of a part of my life,” Rothbart says. “Even the little things—the little moments are nice for me to see.”

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