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Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox (2006)
A documentary about obsession, compassion and all-purpose soap.
Filmmaker(s): Sara Lamm

A human story about a socially responsible company, “Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox” documents the complicated family legacy behind the counterculture’s favorite cleaning product — Bronner’s son, 68-year-old Ralph, endured over 15 orphanages and foster homes as a child, but despite difficult memories, is his father’s most ardent fan.

Dr. Bronner’s Magic Soapbox (2006)

Legacy, Chemistry

Documentaries are hard to do. Nearly always what the filmmaker encounters is the complexity of life, from which they try to pull a narrative. Most often, that narrative is refined, abstracted from the world to match expectations. The best of these instead challenge our expectations, help us see through the abstraction into another world.

Unfortunately here, we have a somewhat interesting character or two plus a filmmaker who clearly invested a lot of time. The result is that we neither have a crisp story or (what would be better) a portal into another world. Our subject is a clearly disturbed man who himself has a crisp albeit simple story and an obsession to tell it, shout it. This story has no depth whatever, is fabricated from misunderstood bits and fabrications and literally has no charm.

Yet his endurance is celebrated.

Here’s what is interesting. Chemistry is the most rational of all sciences, so much so that hardly any chemists are scientists. You learn a few fundamentals, and if you have access to characteristics you can be confident in the results. Most physicians are chemists of this type. The bad news is that they easily believe the entire world works that way. Keep everything clean, put the right stuff in and you cannot avoid success. It leads to bad insights, so what we have here is bad science in its purest form become bad religion.

Why does anyone care about Bronner? It isn’t because the soap is good (it is), nor that company is now exemplary, nor that he is appealing or even that his message is useful. It is because of the labels. The labels were something. I think it is the first time in modern commerce that an ordinary staple was used as a simple conveyance for an unrelated message. The agenda had nothing to do with the soap.

We know this with TeeVee and Google where what we use is different than what they sell, but it seemed in the late 60s that nothing was beyond reach and here was a way to subvert commerce. The label happened to be in our hands just when we had reflective time, so even if the words were banal, the system it established gave hope.

All we care about is what is left when we die. Here is a man who abused his kids, yet the most abused one celebrates him. He made no measurable progress in his mission, yet we admire his doggedness. The message is vacuous, yet we elaborate it in our own way. This documentary is muddled, yet we make our own sense of it.

Any of us would be so lucky to have such a legacy.

Posted in 2015

Ted’s Evaluation — 3 of 3: Worth watching.


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