I don’t often use lip balm, but when I do, I prefer Chapstick. I’m a simple kind of guy, relatively speaking, and not really in the market for high-end toiletries, moisturizers, and creams. Burt Shavitz is a simple kind of guy, literally speaking, and as Jody Shapiro gently observes in Burt’s Buzz, it’s one of the business world’s greatest ironies that his bearded smirk graces the label of 0.5-oz. containers of Burt’s Bees Naturally Ageless Smoothing Eye Cream (retail price: $25). As we come to learn through this partially revealing documentary, it’s as if Shavitz is winking at us from the store shelf, letting us know that he knows that we know that he would never pay such exorbitant prices for such a vain pursuit as wrinkle-free eyelids.
Director: Jody Shapiro
Producer: Jody Shapiro
Cinematographer: Brian Jackson
Editor: Stacy Foster
Music: Howie Beck
Cast: Burt Shavitz
Premiere: September 8, 2013 – Toronto International Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: June 6, 2014
US Distributor: FilmBuff
This is a man who lives—now, today—in a 400 square-foot cabin in the Maine woods, where he heats bathwater on a wood stove and looks forward to “a good day...when no one shows up and you don’t have to go anywhere.” As one of his personal assistants describes it, Shavitz is a cheerful recluse who “lives in a horde of his own personal peculiarities”, and “does not have the range of conception that allows him to see what he truly has become.” The first claim proves to be amusingly true, but the second claim—on which the documentary lives or dies—is arguable. Documentaries frequently profile odd characters, but the most interesting films achieve a level of in-depth examination that’s unfortunately never realized in Burt’s Buzz, which ultimately exists as little more than a cautionary tale about business and branding.
A self-described outcast who grew up in a loving Manhattan home, Shavitz came of age during the 1960’s as a war veteran and accomplished street photographer-turned-photojournalist. Weary of the pace of life in the urban jungle and disinterested in becoming “an upwardly mobile yuppie,” Shavitz fled upstate and never looked back, beginning a determined journey backward through time. As the rest of the world embraced 50 years of progress and technology, Shavitz went in the opposite direction, living off the land and shunning running water. After a series of odd jobs (“no one has ever accused me of being ambitious”), he found what he thought would be permanent solace working as an independent, artisanal beekeeper.
Describing Shavitz as happy-go-lucky is an understatement. When asked about the big issues in his life, he silently ponders for a half minute before confidently asserting that he simply doesn’t have any. It’s not made clear if he’s ever suffered tragedy in his life, and he admits that throughout his nearly eight decades on earth, “all the pins always sort of fell in place.” What makes Shavitz’s attitude hard to swallow, however, is that one pin fell far out of place, and it’s been responsible for all of the inconveniences he has to deal with for the last 30 years, namely the need to interact with other humans.
In the early 1980’s, his peaceful existence was interrupted by a relationship he developed with a nomadic young woman, mother, and artist named Roxanne Quimby, who quickly became his friend, lover, business partner, and arch nemesis. Quimby recognized that Shavitz and his Oscar the Grouch persona would make for a cleverly counter-culture marketing campaign. As Shavitz observes in hindsight, Quimby “wanted money and power, and I was just a pillar on the way to that success.” Not that he ever tried to put a stop to it.
What started as a roadside stand selling honey and beeswax candles developed into Burt’s Bees, the natural products corporation that was sold to Clorox in 2007 for nearly a billion dollars (it remains a subsidiary). Shavitz, however, reaped virtually none of the benefits, since Quimby aggressively bought out his stake in the company in the early 1990’s and moved the company to North Carolina. She would go on to become a multi-millionaire, while he’s remained in Maine ever since, apparently ambivalent about his likeness being exploited for eternity.
It’s hard to tell exactly what Shavitz thinks about the situation, and Shapiro seems content to simply turn the camera on and just let the quirky old man wax philosophical (describing himself in the third person: “Burt is a lifeguard, Burt is a bearded wonder, Burt is a half-assed sniper.”). He shrugs and describes the hundreds of millions of dollars he would have earned as “nothing really worth squabbling about”, but yet he agrees to earn his livelihood by making promotional trips for Burt’s Bees products. There’s a twinkle in his eye, and those around him know there are unseen layers to a man who has seen so much in his life, but yet Shapiro never digs deeper into his emotions.
I’m not suggesting that Shavitz is putting on some kind of act. Rather, I’m suggesting Shapiro has fallen into the same trap as Errol Morris, who was stonewalled by Donald Rumsfeld in the recent The Unknown Known. Watching Shavitz interact awkwardly with handlers, product distributors, corporate executives, and journalists, it’s obvious that he’s genuine in his desire to live a Walden-like existence. But it’s a self-assured awkwardness, a confidence that comes from knowing that you don’t really have to open yourself up to anyone, including a nosy documentary filmmaker.
Burt’s Buzz is bookended by a promotional trip Shavitz takes to Taiwan, where his namesake products are wildly popular. The local Burt’s Bees distributor explains that Burt’s trip will show the Taiwanese customer base that he’s not just a logo, increasing trust in the brand and consequently sales as well. As viewers, we’re eager for the same chance to know more about this enigmatic man, hiding behind his sunglasses and 6-month beard as he’s mobbed at the airport upon arrival. Over the next few days, his face-to-face meetings with fans are brief, superficial exchanges, but they prove to Taiwan that Burt Shavitz is an actual person. If they were seeking to know more than that, they’re unlikely to find deeper meaning anywhere else, including in Burt’s Buzz.