All hail Josh Freed, patron saint of the organizationally challenged. The filmmaker and Montreal Gazette columnist exposes his messy life in My Messy Life, a hilarious documentary airing on CTV this Saturday, May 17 at 7 p.m. (see CTV.ca for local listings). It makes the case that some people are successful because of – not in spite of – their disorganization.
Freed apparently had difficulty enlisting interview subjects willing to show their disordered spaces to his cameras; non-neat freaks, the vast majority of the population, frequently face discrimination from those organizational zealots with their "weapons of mess destruction." But those he did manage to recruit offer an entertaining justification for messiness, a refreshing change in a world aligned more to the philosophies of Clean Sweep and The Container Store.
They also do a good job of making me far less ashamed of my own messy life, which is positively immaculate compared to those on display in the hour-long program.
We follow our genial guide from Montreal to Ottawa to New York to Boston to the Netherlands (apparently the clean capital of the world) as he disproves – or does he? – the notion that a messy desk is a sign of a messy mind. His thesis is that messiness may be underrated. Many of the interviewees make the connection between chaos and creativity, and posit the idea that piles mimic the brain's own organization better than files, and that the ongoing effort to file and sort has a hidden time cost that may even surpass the extra time the messier person might take to find something.
Like most people we meet in the documentary, McGill professor Arvind Sharma feels he understands his mess. Even more interestingly, in explaining his views he almost implies that chaos is a way of asserting control: "It's not messy for the person who is the master of the mess." Sure enough, he takes 20 seconds to find the letter from the Dalai Lama that Freed asks him to hunt down.
Crammed into haphazard stacks in his five New York apartments, legendary talk show host Joe Franklin has memorabilia from Charlie Chaplin, Bob Hope, Rudolph Valentino … if only he could locate them. Yet he too makes a compelling point: "I can have the thrill that a neat man could never have, and that thrill is finding something you thought was irretrievably lost."
On the other hand, as a test to show how well the mess-creator really knows the hidden order of his system, or lack thereof, Freed had tasked Franklin with finding a letter he'd received from Ronald Reagan. He never did.
While My Messy Life embraces the upside of clutter, Freed does show the downside if you choose to see it beyond his messy stacks of papers and files and CDs and … well, god knows what else is in those stacks. Hopefully not moldy bread. Though, as the film points out, that's how penicillin was discovered.
Unarguably productive Internet guru Esther Dyson, who feels tidying would be an inefficient use of her time, at one point sharply warns Freed not to step on anything in her cluttered office. That would be an easier task if there were more than a few square inches of bare floor space.
Man-on-the-street interviews with couples of varying levels of neatness show the tensions those differences can cause in relationships. It’s a point not quite made in the mostly peaceful coexistence of two of Freed’s interview subjects, the neat Sandra Phillips and her messy husband Stan Posner. They share a home office with a sharp division between their distinctive desks and despite their occasional "border negotiations," offer hope to mismatched couples everywhere.
Freed’s overall argument is convincing, particularly that random connections are made in the mind when it faces the random piles of god-knows-what, fostering creativity. Yet we see shots of him trying and failing to convince people to expose their own messy lives to the cameras, as well as scenes of him accidentally knocking things over in his own and others' messes.
If you're a neatnik, prepare to feel smugly amused at the delusional folks in My Messy Life. But if you're something of a mess yourself, you've found your people among these creative souls who offer no apologies for their messy lives.