Jacket by Nike (Vintage)
“Lately it seems like the dicks have been winning,” contends Max Joseph in the first installment of his short film series, Charismatic Thinker. An installment which is entitled…well…Dicks.
In a sense, Max has made a career out of interacting with dicks, garnering international notoriety as Nev Schulman’s silver fox sidekick and cameraman on MTV’s Catfish, a reality docu-series which investigates online relationships and exposes the deception that can often accompany them. In case catfish is still a noun and not yet a verb in your lexicon, the meaning is to lure into a relationship via a fabricated online persona. Inspired by Shulman’s personal journey through the perils of catfish victimization (about which he made a full-length documentary before spinning the concept into episodic gold for MTV), Nev and Max travel the country shedding light on a phenomenon that— whether it’s symptomatic of postmodernity, metamodernism, or the post-digital revolution—is undeniably specific to this historical moment of cyber obsession and the ensuing alienation of humanity. Max and Nev have certainly encountered their fair share of dicks as they vigilantly expose the pitfalls of virtual relationships. But Catfish is now in its 6th season, and Max is ready to turn his lens on a varied set of philosophical issues. First up is the study of an entirely different kind of dick.
The trailer for Charismatic Thinker reveals that the project germinated when Max was approached by social media platform, Vero, to make a series of short films where he would have complete creative control. If Dicks is any indication, this control trickles all the way down to the final timestamp. The runtime of Dicks, 34 minutes and 50 seconds to be exact, is exceedingly long for a film hosted on this type of platform. However, Dicks is impressively short given its breadth. Delving into a multifarious discourse on the nature of leadership—a topic so immense that many scholars have spent a lifetime examining it—and condensing his exploration into a video brief enough to capture the disturbingly short attention span of social media is no easy feat. “It was hard to get this down to 35 minutes,” Max admits. “And 35 minutes for an internet film is still long. If you told me, ‘I’m going to send you a link to something that’s 35 minutes’ I’d be like, ‘I’m never going to watch that’. I was sure that it wasn’t going to be a viable running time but it has been and that’s very encouraging in terms of maintaining this format.”
Perhaps one of the reasons this unconventional format has been successful thus far is because Charismatic Thinker was conceived for an unconventional platform. Vero, marketed as “true social,” allows the sharing of photos, locations, movies, links, and books, but without many adverse elements of the pre-existing social media realm, most notably targeted advertisements and and a deluge of haters. “That’s what I like about Vero,” Max reflects. “When I post something like Dicks in which I say the word ‘pussy’ and I say the word ‘dick’, it would be easy for people to find something to be offended by and then build a case against me. On Vero you’re releasing it in a community of people who get it…and weren’t out to hunt me for that one quote that they could take out of context and shame me with.” To be fair, Vero has nowhere near the number of users that dominating social media platforms do, and as the numbers grow, it may very well yield more instances of unbridled hate. But for right now, it would appear that this is a supportive space for genuine lovers of creative content—pure and simple. Oversharing, oppressive political correctness, public shaming, and conventional run-times be damned.
The central question Max poses in Dicks: Does an individual need to be a dick (or an asshole, or a tyrant) in order to be an effective leader? Specifically located in the framework of Max’s personal experience as a feature film director (during which time he notices on set that “people responded…more when I was snappy, tired, or moody”), he interviews other seasoned directors and industry comrades, as well as experts in the field of leadership who give insight from psychological, sociological, and anthropological perspectives with the goal of, as he puts it, “reconciling the phenomenon of dickdom.” And as though distilling thousands of pages and decades worth of research into 35 minutes isn’t enough of an undertaking, Max incorporates a narrative which drives the piece and is a tangible example of the kind of dickishness with which he toils, and that is his quest to schedule an interview with actor-turned-blockbuster-director Peter Berg. Berg leads Max on a wild goose chase as only a quintessential “dick” could, but eventually does sit down with him after an odyssey of Homeric proportions.
Jacket by Stephen F, Hoodie + Pants by Community 54, T-Shirt by Adidas (Vintage), Shoes by Nike
Blazer by Stephen F
Blazer by Thom Browne, Jacket by Nike (Vintage), Pants by Community 54
Max ultimately concludes that the essential elements of being a strong leader are having a clear vision, using “every weapon in your arsenal to realize that vision,” and resigning to the fact that occasionally you will have to be (or at least be perceived as) a dick, but dickdom doesn’t necessarily have to be inherent for you to be a success. “I think like a lot of people, I prioritize pleasant personal interactions over the big picture and that is something I think after making Dicks that I can articulate and work on a little bit.”
Dicks is a clever engagement with the subject of leadership, but it is not without its issues. One glaringly problematic component is the fact that it is told through a predominantly white male perspective, and not just because Max himself is a white male, but because the directors and theorists he interviews are as well. These men offer extraordinary insight, but the lack of racial/gender diversity plays interestingly into the concept of what it takes to be a successful leader, because the way white men are able to navigate the world, regardless of whether they are ‘dicks’ or ‘pussies’, is very different than a historically oppressed people. As a result of this lack of diversity, Karyn Kusama’s interview is particularly poignant because it is the only alternative perspective we are given—that of a female director. “I think we cherish this idea of the single-minded, ambitious, driven…socially maladjusted male director…we love the trope. I think the question gets complicated when you’re a female because the idea of not caring can seem visionary if you’re male. Not caring about what other people think if you’re a female is considered…disrespectful and sociopathic…I do think women require a completely different kind of toughness.” And thus, a Catch-22. If you play into the acceptable gender role of a sensitive female who takes all perspectives into consideration, you are railroaded and subsequently stripped of your vision by the endless input of others who don’t respect your position as a leader. If you do assert your vision and don’t take every perspective into account, you’re probably going to be called much worse than a dick. And I suspect the same goes for people of color due to the microaggressions with which they cope every day. Regardless of your racial or gender identity, navigating the murky waters of leadership and dickdom suddenly becomes much more tenuous when you are not a white male. When I questioned Max about the lack of diversity, he was not surprised and had already anticipated that this would be problematic. “I’m very aware of how white male this is, and I tried to get Shonda Rhimes, Ava DuVernay. I reached out to a number of other black directors, both male and female. To be honest, the names I was going after, they were too busy. They either turned me down or they just didn’t have time to come up for air. Look, it’s not a great excuse. I should’ve tried harder. I think that women and people of color in any minority, and even men who are not alphas, have to deal with the fact that they’re not playing into this ‘maladjusted asshole genius’ trope.”
So what’s next for Max and Charismatic Thinker? In early June he released a significantly shorter film about Los Angeles landmarks. “L.A. is famous for it’s signs,” Max states, and through these signs he presents the duality of Los Angeles—both the utopian promise of wealth, fame, and dreams realized, and the dark underbelly of façade, illusion, and crushed ambition. “Hollywood is about dreams, and you look around and you can see more broken dreams than dreams made.” A literal example of the duality Max points to is that one of the largest cemeteries in L.A. is situated right behind the Hollywood sign. “Whereas most cities celebrate…history, L.A. celebrates possibility…the signs are dangerous if you put too much stock in what they promise…L.A. is not a city like other cities. It’s an idea of a city. A concept. A vibe. A brand. Held together by hundreds of two dimensional signposts.”
Max reluctantly admits that feminism is another topic he’d like to tackle. “Feminism 2.0… there’s a very new form of feminism… a new wave of it that clashes with previous waves.” But he is reticent to map out feminism the way he did leadership. “I’m almost afraid to make this because there could be a lot of backlash just because of the topic. The truth is, I’m just a half-informed, curious white man, and I want to understand… unfortunately…there’s this witch hunt that goes on every day in the realm of social media. I think it’s dangerous because it could easily prevent a very curious, smart person from exploring something for fear that one wrong move, one thing taken out of context, and all of a sudden they’re over.”
Wherever Max steers his series, it is clear that Charismatic Thinker is not for the lowest common denominator viewer, but rather, for the rigorously cerebral, perhaps overly analytical of us who ponder the inner-workings/nature of things and pursue answers even when ultimate resolution seems impossible, futile, or dangerous. Max is intellectually adventurous, but does appear to have a palpable fear of public persecution. But in order to continue traversing substantive philosophical terrain, it looks like he may have to acquire a thick skin, pull himself up by his old-school Nikes, and channel his inner dick.
Jacket by Dominic Louis
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