We might call Joseph Garner’s Craigslist Joe game cinema, when the filmmaker establishes basic ground rules for his documentary and lets the rest simply unfold. We’ve seen this at its most gimmicky in Super Size Me, and at its least in The Five Obstructions. Lacking the infectiousness of a Morgan Spurlock or the artistic sensibility of a Lars von Trier, Garner sets out to cut contact from his family and friends to travel across the United States for 30 days, surviving through Craigslist, where he’s to find his lifts, his food, and his entertainment.
Delivering platitudes like “How did we become so caught up in our own bubble?” and “It’ll be a cold night, but in the morning the sun will come out” when it looks like no stranger is willing to offer him a couch to crash on, Garner finds his share of quirky characters and good Samaritans. There’s the guy offering free lunch for whoever helps install his new plasma TV; scruffy, lonely men with cars falling apart and a penchant for bromance; some horrible musicians; a cancer-stricken hoarder with a Hollywood past; an unassuming dominatrix who doesn’t have sex with her clients (“No handjobs, nothing,” she promises); and an Iraqi family of altruistic non-terrorists! This scene, during which Garner is overcome with emotion for having dinner with the Iraqis, who, it turns out, are discriminated against, is indicative of an American youth so deprived of actual contact with otherness it can only experience it when cooked up like a cinematic experience in ersatz happenstance—as pleasant astonishment. The scene is also revealing of the unwittingly perverse dynamic that Garner sets up for himself, as he exercises the luxury to choose his own obstructions according to his filmmaking fancy, while his subjects’ only choice is whether or not to accept his camera’s touristy gaze.
As hard as he tries, we never truly believe there’s a lot at stake for Garner, who seems to cruise through America like a gringo taking a favela tour in Rio (in search of temporary humility), as genuinely interested in difference as he is blinded by his privilege. He even stops by Juarez, Mexico for some quick fun. Garner’s good intentions are only matched by his often embarrassing naïveté and romanticism (“I have confidence there are people out there willing to help other people”). Unlike The Five Obstructions or The Gleaners and I, another filmmaker’s flanêur experiment in which the game rules leave room for negativity, and even thrive on the ugly, the non-heroic, and that which can’t be accounted for, Craigslist Joe finds exactly what it wants to. Its way of seeking joie de vivre through the strangeness of others can only be read as white-guilt management, or the vanilla subject’s voyeurism made safe in a hyper-controlled environment with firm rules and a warm comfy parental home to go back to after the self-imposed exile.
The scene in which Garner learns that an otherwise regular-looking girl sticks her male clients’ heads in the toilet at their request presents us with the same kind of liberal politeness that envelopes what’s actually a self-centered and unimaginative way of looking at the world: “Why would anyone like to be degraded?” is all he has to ask. I’m not sure if Garner would have been more or less incredulous at pleasures that don’t coincide with his, had he taken that favela tour in Rio instead and witnessed the baile funk spectacle of pleasure in degradation of scantily clad Brazilian women dancing to infectious lyrics that order them to go down real low and get spanked like bitches. Of course, he could have listened to a very similar list of commands to beats just as infectious by going to his local club, but then again, otherness must always lie elsewhere.