Davy Rothbart is a master of the discarded. As the founder and editor of FOUND Magazine, Rothbart crosses the country collecting notes, lists, pictures, journals and almost anything else that constitutes a piece of a life. He looks, constantly, for these small treasures that tell us something, or nothing, about the person they once belonged to, and can tell us everything about ourselves.
My Heart is an Idiot
Friday at 7:30 p.m.
Rothbart’s new film, “My Heart is an Idiot,” which is premiering at the Michigan Theater this Friday, is an extension of that seeking. David Meiklejohn, the film’s director, captures Rothbart searching not just for love, but for answers about love, through his own experiences and those of others.
While the documentary ended up being about Rothbart’s love life, it certainly didn’t start off that way. According to Rothbart, Meiklejohn intended to make a documentary about Rothbart’s cross-country tours promoting FOUND Magazine.
“And of course after the first tour, he told me what he realized after going through the footage was what they really captured was the ups and downs of my love life,” Rothbart said in a phone interview on Wednesday.
It was meant to be. An Ann Arbor native — he attended Community High School and won eight Hopwood awards for writing while a student at the University — Rothbart showed Meiklejohn footage he had taken of himself after breakups dating back to high school and college — in a way, his own FOUND notes documenting the lows of his love life. Rothbart said he hadn’t filmed his heartbroken reactions to early breakups with any sort of plan in mind, but that the camera provided a needed presence, a completely objective and non-threatening listener. The archival footage proved useful for the documentary.
This isn’t to say the film is all about the lows of love — there are highs as well. And “My Heart is an Idiot” isn’t just about Rothbart’s experiences, either. During the second tour Meiklejohn took with the FOUND crew, they interviewed a variety of notable celebrities — including author Charles Baxter, politician Newt Gingrich, National Public Radio host Ira Glass and actress Zooey Deschanel — about love.
But the documentary centers on Rothbart, a man who experiences events, people and emotions with incredible and refreshing intensity. “Idiot” or not, Rothbart’s heart loves hard and hurts hard.
And some of his experiences are painfully embarrassing. In a last-ditch effort get his high school girlfriend back, Rothbart went to Arborland to buy her a ring and asked her to marry him.
“I actually videotaped it while I asked her,” Rothbart said. “And she was like, ‘No? What are you thinking?’ ”
Rothbart laughed while recounting the story, but part of his worry about the film is that, with all the footage of him going through these moments of profound sadness, the audience will be unsure when it’s OK to laugh.
Rothbart is banking that most in his audience have loved and lost love, and maybe have even gone to embarrassing lengths to keep or find it. The humor in his own hurt comes from the fact that we’ve all been hurt. And with the ferocity of Rothbart’s reactions in the film, he can sometimes provide an illustration for those of us who haven’t allowed ourselves to feel the hurt as deeply or fully as he does. When Rothbart weeps after a breakup, he’s weeping for all of us who haven’t let ourselves do so.
“I think it’s really relatable,” Rothbart said. “All the mistakes, snares, troubles and triumphs. But I think it’s something other people relate to because they’ve made the same mistakes.”
To a certain extent, Rothbart has turned his own love life into a film version of a FOUND item. Rothbart said the items he compiles in FOUND are often illustrations of dilemmas and victories many people go through, and that’s an important reason why the magazine is so popular. Rothbart’s film takes something everyone has experienced — love — and allows the audience to see themselves in his romantic highs and lows.
“Part of what I love about the FOUND notes is that sometimes you can be going through something in your own life that’s really painful or difficult, and then you read a note that a stranger has written and see that someone else is going through almost the exact same thing,” Rothbart said. “There’s something really magical about realizing you’re not alone and that it’s something other people are going through. In a weird way, I almost think the movie is kind of like that … My hope is that other people will watch it and, you know, recognize themselves in it.
“So many people, just seeing the title of the movie, have said, ‘Hey, my heart’s an idiot, too.’ ”