Guest Post: SFFILM Westridge Grantee Kobi Libii on Making Art During a Pandemic

NON-ESSENTIAL WORK
by Kobi Libii

I’d just gotten back from the store — one of those formerly mundane runs to the grocery store that now has strong Mad Max vibes — and I was sitting on my kitchen floor, crying.

I was surrounded by rolls of toilet paper.

Good news: the store had toilet paper for the first time in six weeks. And none of this doled-out-by-the-single-roll bullshit—a proper 18-pack. Bad news: I was curled up on my linoleum with it, a month into quarantine, not exactly bawling, but whatever you call it when sadness floods out of your body in waves.

I was also listening to a song on my headphones: Only Children by Jason Isbell.

Driving home, I had had a little swagger in my steer. All of my work and prospective work has ground to a halt, so my job for the last couple weeks has been Chief Forager, while my wife has worked remotely, turning the living room into a command center. And toilet paper has been my white whale. Apart from two, piddling rolls from Trader Joe’s a couple weeks ago, I had found none and was starting to take it personally. After all, I’m me. I clawed my way from non-equity open calls to a consistent living as a TV actor. I transitioned to writing and directing and got a feature financed that, before all this, was poised to shoot this summer. I’ve hustled and scraped and made a living as an artist for over a decade now: I should be able to scrounge for something to wipe my family’s ass, supply lines be damned. So, TP in my trunk like a ten point buck, I turned up a playlist of new songs on the ride home.

But I got stuck on one this one Jason Isbell track. Something about it was speaking at me, so on the whole ride home, I just kept hitting repeat, even transferring it to my headphones as I carried the groceries inside.

I only paused it when I stepped into the kitchen and dropped the toilet paper at my wife’s feet as she paced the room on a work call. There was a vague “tada!” in the way I presented the paper to her, like a cat dragging a dead bird to their owner’s feet. My wife, a deeply patient woman but our sole breadwinner right now, glanced up from the call and gave me the same kind-but-patronizing look the owner would give the cat: “It’s a sweet gesture, just not as grand as you think.”

It should be said that I’ll have no work for the foreseeable future. Nothing I have ever done to make money as an adult is possible right now. None of the side hustles. None of the hard-won hustle hustles. Yes, I’m working on longer term writing projects. Yes, I’m pestering my producers for updates on when we, or anyone, can safely shoot again. But mostly, these days consist of toilet paper runs, half-hearted calisthenics and hoping my wife doesn’t get fired.

This is all to explain why, after my wife wandered into the next room to finish her call, I curled up on the kitchen floor in a puddle of bathroom tissue, put my new favorite song on repeat and cried.

It was a good cry. A healthy cry. A stress-leaving-your-body cry. An I-didn’t-know-I-needed-a-cry cry.

It should also be said that the song slaps. It’s an uptempo ballad about love, loss and the childish audacity of young artists.

It’s also exactly how I feel about making art during a pandemic.

The song is wonderfully ambivalent about what artists do. It drips with nostalgia about the speaker’s early days living “hand-to-mouth” and “bet[ting] it all on a demo tape.” It has great affection for that time — those heady, early days — and great sadness that those years, and some of the people you shared them with, are gone. After all, there are few things as sublime as crafting something you love.

But the song is also skeptical of those young artists, repeatedly describing them as “overindulgent only children.” Too young and high and inspired to understand how short life is and how little their ambition or fights about Dylan really mattered. The implication is clear: there’s something deeply selfish about the choice to make art.

It feels that way right now.

One of the many half-baked ideas that gets passed off as wisdom in artistic communities is the notion that you should only be an artist if you “can’t imagine doing anything else.” The thought goes that the rigors of artistry are so extreme, the career path so exacting that only the pathologically committed could possibly survive. This idea is insane to me. Who are these raging narcissists who, despite having world class imaginations, can’t conceive of other ways to contribute to the world? Teach. Volunteer. Build a Habitat-for-Humanity house, you fucking monsters. And in these times? Who, upon hearing horror stories from ICUs and unemployment lines, could possibly believe that our poetry is a better contribution to the world than what nurses, grocery store clerks, and other essential workers are doing right now? Yes, it’s nice to have Netflix in quarantine, but it’s nicer to have food and N-95 masks. And before you point to the great art in periods of great strife, go rewatch that tone-deaf Imagine cover and see how confident you feel that we, as a population, are the healers society needs right now.

I am not an essential worker. Not in this pandemic. Not even in my own family. For god’s sake, we could wipe with Kleenex if need be.

The hard truth is, pandemic or no, it’s always an indulgent choice to make art. There are always domestic pressures that make a career in the arts “impractical.” There are always global injustices that demand our full-time attention as activists, not dreamers. So in a moment when these realities are undeniable, how can I go back to my desk and write a screenplay? How can I even stand up off the kitchen floor?

Yet, there I sat, surrounded by toilet paper, listening to a song that was, by definition, non-essential. It was wise and full-hearted. It made me feel better.

It wasn’t until the song finished that I could stand up.

Kobi Libii is an actor, writer, and director, most recently seen writing and performing on Comedy Central’s The Opposition with Jordan Klepper and Klepper. Past acting credits include Transparent, Girls, Jessica Jones, Madam Secretary, Doubt and Alpha House, and the upcoming feature We Broke Up. Kobi studied theater at Yale University and comedy at Second City Chicago. As a writer/director, his feature debut The American Society of Magical Negroes has been supported by the Sundance Screenwriter’s Lab, Sundance Director’s Lab, and SFFILM Westridge Grant, and will be produced by Sight Unseen (Bad Education, Monsters and Men).

For more information about SFFILM’s artist development programs, visit sffilm.org/makers.

Presenter of the SFFILM Festival, SFFILM is a year-round nonprofit organization delivering screenings & events to 100,000+ film lovers annually. www.sffilm.org