“VOLUNTATE [will], STUDIO [effort], DISCIPLINA [training]—it is through these things that we find and inhabit the third space, and more important, how we stay there.”
-Jenny Odell, How to Do Nothing
“Ancestors protect me/May they protect you”
Today I did nothing.
I did not try to do nothing. I tried to do something. I watched the cursor blink in the blank document. I opened a book up and stared straight through its center. I boiled water, which I guess is something, but only used it to cook a single serving of white quinoa, to which I added nothing. I turned on the CD player. I turned it off. And I thought, if you do literally anything you’ll be doing something.
But nothing came and so I did nothing. And all my nothing started to coalesce and clog up, like the stuff inside one of those tubes of Carmex or whatever it’s called? That you leave in a jacket over the summer and then forget about? So I went outside and found my bike (fine I couldn’t find mine but my sister’s old little pink bike was there and was even practically rideable) and I started to pedal down the driveway but I had forgotten how cold it was? And I kept pedaling but like, as an exercise—a mental one—I tried to focus on where my jackets were and how many tubes of lip balm might be in what pockets but my brain kept wandering away from those specific thoughts and I could not corral them and I started to slip into feeling guilty not only for doing nothing but for wasting the nothing, for having this amazing opportunity for anything and ruining it because there are so many people right now who would really love to do nothing and who are locked in actual battles for real lives and all I can do is not know where my Carmex is.
And just as my breaths started to get a little shallow I got lucky. Because the seas of squiggles and spirals in my brain shook themselves up and I got a new thought in a clear moment, set apart from all the nothing worry. So I said the thought out loud:
“Soul of an eagle.”
And I pulled up the handlebars on my sister’s old little pink bike to hop the curb and I hit the curb full-on with the front tire and was airborne for two full seconds before landing and falling and sprawling on the sidewalk under the weight of the bike. I groaned. And I felt a little better.
Hot Rod was released in 2007, which I suppose is 40 years ago now give or take. I didn’t see it then because I was a child idiot and thought movies were supposed to be like The Shawshank Redemption or Dick Tracy—movies about important subjects, like justice, or Warren Beatty—and nothing else. They had to be represented on posters hanging in the halls of the Freehold Loews 14. They had to be chock full of somethings. I didn’t find Hot Rod until recently. I knew The Lonely Island from their SNL salad days, the one-off digital shorts that were funny, but mostly innocuous nothings. And then 2019’s The Unauthorized Bash Brothers Experience (a visual poem surrounding a hip-hop record from the viewpoint of very, very, extremely lightly fictionalized versions of Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire) married my primary interests, which are poetic/un-interrogatable cinema and also how baseball is probably the most stupid good thing in the world. I watched it three times in one day and snorted orange Gatorade out of my nose every time I heard “Kirk Gibson’s a pariah, baby boy” which is a perfect joke.
Hot Rod is the story of Rod Kimble, an amateur stuntman/daredevil, and his crew. They do two things in the movie. First and foremost, his crew of Rico (Danny McBride, likes to party), Dave (Bill Hader, likes to party), and Kevin (Jorma Taccone, likes to party) help facilitate Rod’s one true interest: performing stunts in the community. He is very bad at it. They are very bad at helping him. They are all so, so bad at everything. But Rod’s father died in a horrible motorcycle accident (“instantly…the next day”) when Rod was a child. He knows this story from countless tellings, knows it so much that he’s turned it into a core element of his being, no matter how unbelievable it (and he) seems. And so Rod is a stuntman, regardless of his skill. There’s a secret grace there, like applying a fake moustache to cover a naked upper lip.
The crew’s inherent and incessant failing stands in contrast to the other thing they love to do, which is nothing. Rod may be an unemployed amateur stuntman who lives with his mom (Sissy Spacek, grace amid the lunacy) and stepfather (Ian McShane, the image of macho cheese in headband/gym shorts) but he knows precisely how to differentiate the disparate flavors of Jelly Belly jelly beans when prompted. The crew engages in a high-fiving(?) contest(?) where Rico proves he is perhaps the best(?) at high-fiving. They say “cool beans” a lot, sometimes so much it violates the laws of physics. Kevin and Rico and Dave dance in the convenience store parking lot for no audience and no reason. They like to party.
The jelly bean flavor-naming is a stupid joke but it’s also emblematic of the kind of leisure activities children excel at, which is to say activities that are to impossible to excel at (mostly innocuous nothings). Such activities are in no way profitable to a work or attention economy. They are tributes to leisure itself. When Rod reconnects with his crush Denise (Isla Fisher, like Spider-Man’s MJ but with defined opinions about how a taco could beat up a grilled cheese) from across the fence, she tells him, “You look…you look pretty much exactly the same…And I see you’re still doing your stunts.” Later we’ll meet Denise’s boyfriend Jonathan (Will Arnett, playing bourgeois bro-douchery like a first chair violist) and it’s clear he and Rod occupy starkly different professional, economic, and spiritual strata. Jonathan’s luxe Corvette and popped-collar pomp are immediately vulgar in Hot Rod’s universe, but why? Is there a lesson in Rod’s devotion to activities that supply him neither money nor fame? Can the un-valuable be invaluable, the useless actually activist?
In Notebook VII of Grundrisse, Karl Marx (likes to party) writes: “Free time—which is both idle time and time for higher activity—has naturally transformed its possessor into a different subject, and he then enters into the direct production process as this different subject.” How might I become a different subject? How might we free time? Before the pandemic, commitments to leisure felt wasteful, uncouth. I didn’t want it to feel that way; I understood how reflection and restoration were essential, but doing nothing felt like not producing anything, like I was wasting time. I could feel my days manipulated by the pressure to fixate on personal brand (should post opinion about movie on Twitter) and professional status (should apply for better job instead of posting on Twitter)—but the guilt pit in my belly hung around. Now, in this unending string of open days, I still fight the need to catalyze nothing into production, even when I shift attention, even when all I hear in the distance are sirens. This seems bad. Worry about what you can fix, some have offered. But when all you can do is nothing, how does that help? In this spring of 2020, nothing seems more implausible, impossible, and unhelpful than nothing. It feels useless. But what is it?
“One big jump gentlemen. The biggest jump this town has ever seen.”
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing,” Jenny Odell states at the outset of her 2019 book, How to Do Nothing. The book is revolution as recalibration, a deep breath. It atomizes all the disorders we grow as participants in late capitalism’s 24/7 attention economy. It gestures against perpetual busyness and provides an urgent perspective on the myth of productivity. It quantifies how technology and capital and the intersection thereof seek to commodify our lives and attentions, which is to say the days themselves. It is an activist text and a self-careful text and a work of monumental humanism and humor and poetry. I have seen more birds since reading it but I suspect the birds have been there all along.
Crucially, Odell articulates the seemingly unutterable sensation that not all nothings are created equal. The nothing she sketches is not void. It is not about withdrawing from broken structures—Odell’s nothing reminds us that forfeiting the world is untenable. Instead, she outlines reorienting our attentions and refining our time. How might doing nothing be an active and full force in changing a world wrecked by capital? The answer isn’t simply those souls who overly-vocally delete their Facebook profiles1 or vacation to one of the myriad “digital detoxes” advertised to us; such activities promise to “disconnect to reconnect,” which really means paying money for a reset designed to produce a more productive worker. Between participation in systems that are actively killing us and altogether disengaging with the world, Odell frames another option, a third space where uselessness and nothing are activated, where Hot Rod may find shelter.
She points to Thoreau (“If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then I say break the law. Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine”) and Diogenes, a fourth-century Greek Cynic, as denizens of this space. “Diogenes thought every ‘sane’ person in the world was actually insane for heeding any of the customs upholding a world full of greed, corruption, and ignorance”: he ate and slept when he wanted, usually in the large ceramic jar (a pithos) he called home. He walked backwards. He glued books together. There are accounts of Diogenes roaming about Athens midday with a lit lamp: “I am looking for a good man.”
“Faced with the unrelenting hypocrisy of society,” Odell writes, “Diogenes did not flee to the mountains (like some philosophers) or kill himself (like still other philosophers). In other words, he neither assimilated to nor fully exited society; instead he lived in the midst of it, in a permanent state of refusal.” He rode his bike and ate it too. He performed his philosophical stunts. Like Melville’s Bartleby and his famous response (“I would prefer not to”), he provided an answer that denied the asker’s terms. We might buck the productive compulsion by flavor-naming Jelly Bellys. We might align in nothing.
This third space, separate from abstaining or unquestioning, is the occupation of the weird and the useless, that which is not immediately consumable. It is refusal, not retreat. It’s the reveal of a secret you’ve always suspected, noticing where the bird sounds are coming from, feeling the pull to a crush’s hands, calling to a neighbor from across the street and asking if they need anything. It is an irrational, unvaluable action according to capital’s logic, but don’t you want to redefine what’s rational, what’s valuable?
Under scrutiny from Jonathan’s fratty values (“so…what are you supposed to be?”) and his stepdad’s stymieing masculinity (“you sucked at being a man all your life”), Rod’s path is one big jump of “I would prefer not to.” Such noncompliance frees him and his friends from lockjaw productivity; it allows them the freedom to free time, to become how they wish to be. And so it allows the world of Hot Rod to be the world they want to live in. Noncompliance in light of systemic toxicity, Odell reminds us, is the stuff of loving and unionization. It activates empathy as self-apparent by removing the imposed and unnatural stakes of competition and marketeering. It fosters in individuals a willingness to fight just as hard for another as they are for themselves. It valorizes a fight for free time. Doing nothing for capitalism (walking backwards, performing stunts badly, writing in the woods, watching movies) is active resistance against the infinite grind. Being useless is the best way to oppose what Mark Fisher diagnosed as “capitalist realism,” the “widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is impossible even to imagine a coherent alternative to it.”
Against such despair, the imagination of bad taste is a valuable striking out point for activism. Early in Hot Rod, Dave approaches a snack window to pick up his food. The cashier scrunches her face after calling the order’s name. “Why’d you call yourself ‘Voltron?’” Dave bobs and chuckles. “I don’t know, maybe because it’s super badass?” The cashier pops her gum. “You’re weird.” His response is all we need, bashful but confident: “Hells yeah I am.”
Hot Rod is a weird movie. Its centerpiece joke—an “Odessa steps” of liberating idiocy—is an extended, nearly 90-second rhythmic montage of Rod falling down a hill. This takes place after he punch-dances his feelings out alone in the woods in a direct quotation of Kevin Bacon’s punch-dancing in Footloose. The work of jokes is to create a kind of third space, an admission of a reality and a turning of it. They’re weird. Jokes assert that reality is more plastic than we think, which means there might be realities beyond what seems realistic. Jokes stunt reality2. And to make a movie about a failed stuntman you need a lot of really good stunt performers. That’s a pretty good joke.
Hot Rod uses jokes to corner masculinity and patriarchy and capitalism and point out how they aren’t as permanent as we assume they are. Hot Rod also makes sure we know about the tai chi move that makes a grown man poop his pants.
And so Hot Rod is an activist text. It is not escapist; its weirdness calls attention to the flaws of our world instead of distracting from them. Its slapstick rhythms are determined by reacting to society: Rod’s stepfather Frank is dying of a heart condition. Rod cannot let him die before he is able to best him in physical combat. He must do this to win his respect (it’s a busy, dizzy film, but Pam Brady’s screenplay saves its sharpest critiques for capitalism’s tender keeper, patriarchy.) But Frank is dying. And Rod’s mom Marie lays out the stakes: “Our insurance won’t cover it. They say he’s too high risk.” This conflict is neither dwelled on as convenience (some silly Lonely Island machination) or provocation (some kind of tip into gritty realism). It’s just the plot. Some people won’t get the healthcare they need to survive. This is a truth in our reality.
The crisis of our current reality remains: That the major conflict of Hot Rod is something this specific, relatable, and American cannot go unnoticed as we interrogate where it levels its jokes and its nothing. What is its weirdness in service of? What can it not abide by? What is the secret at the heart of Hot Rod?
“I’ve already drafted a rough schedule of exercises that will help us take things to the next level.”
Hot Rod hinges on Rod Kimble as an active participant in uselessness. The words of this essay, the rhythm of the film, its tone and its morality and its humor, hinge on this activated nothing, this motion away from being products. “Our very idea of productivity is premised on the idea of producing something new, whereas we do not tend to see maintenance and care as productive in the same way,” Odell writes. Hot Rod can only gesture towards something new (that which we have forgotten, that which we do not notice) because Rod does.
Maintenance and care are integral instincts of Hot Rod. The crew has decided to deploy their (un)talents to raise the money to pay for Frank’s heart surgery. The only instance of Rod seeing his identity of “stuntman” in economic terms instead of personal ones is when it can be a means towards saving another life. On the way towards saving that life, Rod suffers humiliation at the hands of the community he’s trying to help—they laugh at his stunts during the charity screening of Kevin’s highlight-reel movie. “This guy’s a moron!” one audience member calls out. We pause. We know Rod’s bad at what he loves—we’ve been laughing at his antics this whole time. But this feels mean. When we see the audience laughing at Rod just as we have, we realize we’re sometimes a little too close to Jonathan. Why do we laugh at ineptitude?3 The secret of living is that you can’t be good or bad at it, just that you can create hurt or give care.
The secret at the heart of Hot Rod upends Rod’s sense of self. Already dealing with the audience’s rejection of his stunts, Rod is dealt a further blow upon returning home. His mother confesses that his father (who “died instantly…the next day”) in reality did not die in a motorcycle stunt gone wrong, never knew Evel Knievel, and actually choked to death in a pie-eating contest. Rather than tell young Rod the truth, his mother encouraged the reality that Rod was imagining, one where his father (and so he) could be something else. “I did it out of love,” Marie tells her son of her lie. To which he responds, “I guess if he wasn’t a stuntman, then neither am I!”
There is a grieving felt in abandoning nothing. Growing up, sometimes, feels like losing limbs, or letting them slowly atrophy until imagination or joy or carelessness become hard to recall, supplemental only with things. When we realize that the status quo’s only place for us is our current reality (Rod’s father was not a stuntman, Rod cannot be a stuntman), we forfeit the plasticity of weirdness and become what capitalism wants us to become: consumers and producers. The bulk of us become, as Rod does, the former. Rod grieves. He abandons his bike and his quest, his garb and his identity, and coats himself in a collared shirt and tie. He shellacs his curls with hair gel. His crew finds him in a grocery store with a shopping cart piled high with booze and they try to hold him accountable for abandoning his weirdness. “Whatever happened to ‘live as a team, die as a team?’” Dave asks. “It’s a sham, okay?” Rod responds, leaning into being realistic about his place in the world. It’s a stark rebuttal to what weirdness promises, which is nothing less than new things.
Denise, the smartest and most capable character in the film, indicts his behavior for what it is. We should all be so lucky as to listen to Denise: “Ever since we were kids, you’ve always done exactly what you wanted to do. And everybody else just grew up and got boring and sold out. But you stayed exactly the same. Who cares what anyone thinks?”
I’m reminded of Kermit’s flight into the desert in The Muppet Movie. The group is lost, stranded. Kermit walks off, only to meet his reflection. He claims he never promised Fozzie and Gonzo and Rowlf and Piggy anything. His reflection reminds him that promises or not, they came because they wanted to. “But that’s because they believed in me,” says Kermit. His reflection shakes his head, reminding him: they believed in the dream. “Well, so do I,” Kermit says. “Well then?” his reflection prompts.
Kermit, as he does to us all, provides the best advice. “Well then? I guess I was wrong when I said I never promised anyone anything. I promised me.”
A promise to yourself is a promise to your comrades. Nobody wins unless everybody wins. These are platitudes, but behind them is the ability to conceive of empathy activated by weirdness, a nothing opposing oppression. Behind them is the ability to conceive a different kind of ending. Life is short. Stunt it.
The realities we can invent are no less reasonable than the ones we find ourselves in. Rod returns to uselessness, with vigor. Like the endings of It’s a Wonderful Life or UHF, the money is raised through a coalition of weirdos synthesizing all their jokes and nothings into a useful gesture of community charity. The people come together. Rod jumps the big jump. He fails, obviously, and lands in a crumpled heap. The crowd cheers. His friends surround him. “The crowd is cheering Kimble back to life!” says Chris Parnell’s AM DJ, another form of weird uselessness helping. And you know what? The crowd actually does. Rod saves his stepdad. He kicks his ass, too, just like he wanted to. He makes him poop his pants. “You gotta believe.”
Remember, as Jenny Odell writes: “To stand apart is to take the view of the outsider without leaving, always oriented toward what it is you would have left. It means not fleeing your enemy, but knowing your enemy, which turns out not to be the world—contemptus mundi—but the channels through which you encounter it day to day…to stand apart is to look at the world (now) from the point of view of the world as it could be (the future), with all the hope and sorrowful contemplation that this entails.”
Remember: things weren’t good before the pandemic and the lockdown and the isolation and the dying. Of course this isn’t good either—this is bad in near-unprecedented ways. But like an infection, our current crisis only exacerbates the ones we’ve been living among. It simply activates our underlying societal conditions. Abstracts like healthcare and employment and the ever-widening chasm between those that have and those that don’t are simply now being played out with deadly consequence on a larger, more immediate scale.
To be sure, we need to avoid illness as metaphor. To be surer, we need to be careful not to backslide into thinking that things were fine before this illness. We have to find the way to let nothing change the way we see so we can change the world we all return to, after the pandemic, after the distance. The secret is paying attention. The secret is you and your weird friends and the way you stunt us all into a better way of being. The secret is how to locate activism and action in the new world of your uselessness, which is just use on your terms. Remember, as Mark Fisher writes: “From a situation in which nothing can happen, suddenly anything is possible again.”
Remember, as Kermit sings:
“Life’s like a movie, write your own ending. Keep believing. Keep pretending. We’ve done just what we set out to do—thanks to the lovers, the dreamers, and you.”
- Odell points to Grafton Tanner’s words to clarify these noble souls: “They fail to attack the attention economy at its roots or challenge the basic building blocks of late capitalism: market fundamentalism, deregulation, and privatization. They reinforce neoliberal ideals, privileging the on-the-move individual whose time needs to be well spent—a neatly consumerist metaphor.”
- That beautiful man who montaged those “Odessa steps,” Sergei Eisenstein, wrote: “Reality is like the serious white clown. It seems earnest and logical. Circumspect and prudent. But in the final analysis it is reality that looks the fool, the object of derision. Its partner, Chaplin, guileless and childlike, comes out on top. He laughs carelessly without ever noticing that his laugh slays reality.”
- In her review of Fiona Apple’s quarantine-saving album, Jenn Pelly suggests how our status quo goads us into prizing perfection: “The very sound of Fetch the Bolt Cutters dismantles patriarchal ideas: professionalism, smoothness, competition, perfection—aesthetic standards that are tools of capitalism, used to warp our senses of self.”