With the unprecedented success that Everything Everywhere All At Once experienced at the Oscars last week, it’s a better time than ever to continue our deep dive into the mystic, spiritual and philosophical underpinnings of the film. I suspect that this exploration will be quite understandable even if a person didn’t read our installments. However, if you haven’t seen the movie, that’s a different matter. Spoilers abound and the writing below will probably seem rather nonsensical if you haven’t yet seen the movie.
Our focus today is probably a good example of just how strange this all seems without the context of the film:
Today, in Mystic at the Movies we’ll look at googly eyes and bagels.
These two items are part of a wider pattern of emphasizing circularity within the film. For example, circular mirrors are used as portal for people to see events across the different universes. This occurs in the film’s opening shot, where we see a shot of Waylond, Evelyn, and Joy laughing together in familial bliss. Given that the film ends with the three title characters coming to a deep understanding with eachother, and that a person would be hard pressed to find a time when all three of these characters truly enjoyed each other before that climax, there could even be another aspect of circling back around on display here. I don’t think it’s too speculative to suggest that the opening shot is a bridge linking the end back to the beginning, and suggesting that time itself is circular. (The possibility of eternal recurrence, that only the forms change while a deeper reality remains untouched beneath, is a major article of mystic faith and a theme that recurs so consistently in the film, it merits quite specific treatment. We’ll circle back to this topic at the next installment of Mystic at the Movies.)
We also see a circular-mirror portal happen when Waylond-Prime is speaking to Evelyn in the IRS office, hoping to get her attention. The laundromat that the family runs also possesses row after row of washing machines, where the circular portal-like windows, representative of of their livelihood are put on display in some of the earliest shots of the film. Circular cookies pop up in a couple scenes in the movie. The first is circular cookies are given by Waymond to Dierdre; the second is held up to Martial-Arts Evelyn by her teacher.
After being gifted the cookies, Deirdre is quite intentional in circling the cost of the karaoke machine on the receipt. It’s easy to miss the fact that later, the placement of this receipt on one pile or another, comes to be the fundamental decision which splits Evelyn’s reality into a number of alternate paths.
When one of the Evelyn’s resulting from this divergence ends up dead, Jobu declares that this version of Evelyn wasn’t the one she was looking for after all. She returns to the other Evelyns existing from thai divergence, who’d placed the receipt on different piles, to continue the search for her mother.
From the circular shape of symbols like Yin and Yang (which was initially a Buddhist representation of a Taoist concept) to the reccurent, cyclical nature of concepts like reincarnation, to the importance of silence and nothingness which might be symbolized by an oval ‘0’, to the fact that the shape is named in the mystic-friendly schema known as spiral dynamics, the importance of the overall shape in mysticism and spirituality can hardly be denied.
Within the film, there are two different types of circles that have a special importance. These are googly-eyes and bagels. Visually speaking, the bagel and the googly eyes have some things in common. The outer perimeter of each is a circle, of course. But there is an inner circle for each as well. The inner circle of the bagel is, of course, where the bagel stops.
This is not to say that googly eyes and bagels are treated exactly the same. Initially, they even appear to be opposites. Googly eyes begin as Waymond’s gift. But these do not belong to just any Waymond. The googly eyes, for example, are never used by the serious and heroic Waymond Prime.
It’s worth sticking with this observation. Waymond prime embodies all the characteristics we’d normally ascribe to a hero. But this version of Waymond doesn’t actually do much. For all his bravery, knowledge, and gear, he does little more than set the plot in motion and provide opportunities for exposition, catching the audience up with the nature of reality and the way everything works in the world of the film.
Meanwhile, the version of Waymond who occupies the main universe of the film is not particularly knowledgeable, brave, or competent. His tendency to affix googly eyes to objects seem to do little more than annoy Evelyn at first. We come to find that this duality between the two versions of Waymond, like so many other dualities presented by the film, is not what it appears to be.
This version of Waymond is passionate about the power of love. He seeks to keep the peace, to comfort the hurting and wounded. The googly eyes seem intimately connected to representing this loving world view. Everlyn places one on her forehead and then seems able to embody the lessons she has learned from her husband. This single act is in many important ways a climax for the whole drama, despite the fact it comes surprisingly early in the narrative. After this basic act, we find that Evelyn is able to integrate her own feistiness with Waymond’s loving approach. The duality between even love and war falls away when she brings together her approach with his. Before moving onto the bagel, it’s worth looking at this moment, when Evelyn puts the googly eye on her forehead.
Eyes are, of course, organs of sight. The idea that a person might have an extra eye suggests that they can see things in a new way. But in fact, there is a spiritual significance to this act. The idea that a person might have be able to see spiritual truths by opening an eye above and between the two physical eyes belongs to Hinduism. The idea of that third eye is clearly evoked at that moment.
Simultaneously, the eyes also represent a way of viewing all the universe as alive. The placement of googly eyes on an inanimate object cause it to become an anthropomorphic, cartoon version of itself. There is a juvenile strangeness to this, undoubtedly. But there is something more.
There are a number of routes that mystical traditions take to arrive in a place where they are able to affirm that everything is alive. Whether someone like Richard Rohr is affirming the power of a panentheistic worldview though talk of a universal Christ, or a Celtic Christian is showing us to a thin place where the line between the natural and the supernatural is nearly impossible to discern, or Hildegard of Bingen is writing about the greening, mystics follow Waymonds example in longing to see that everything is alive.
If we really sit with the image that everything is alive, we come to see that this means a list of everything that could be listed is alive. Even when one thing is contained within another, both of them are alive. So if everything is alive then the wheels of my car are alive. But simultaneously, my entire car is also a single entity, and it is also alive.
If the chair I am sitting on is a single living entity, then so too is the room the chair is sitting in. If this single room is a single entity, then the entire building is a alive, and is a single entity as well. The entire Earth is alive. The solar system is alive. The entire galaxy is a single living entity. So too is the entire created cosmos.
In an odd way, the conviction that everything is alive is intimately connected to the mystical idea that everything is one. The googly eyes, at some profound level, bring us back to the awareness that we are God, and that we, as God, knowing Everything.
Contrast this with the bagel. For all the similarities in shape and prevalence, there are several significant differences. If the googly eyes are associated with Waymond, then the bagel with everything is associated with Jobu. If the googley eyes are associated with the idea that everything is alive then the bagel is associated with the idea that Nothing really matters.
One of the few times that the writer-directors have gone on the record about some of these spiritual themes in this film is their association between the bagel and nihilism. It is unusual in the course of things to consider the idea that something which contains everything, might be a stand-in for the possibility of the ultimate value of nothingness.
EEAAO is a film which frequently gives the most token attempt at logical explanation. Nowhere is this more on display around the meaning of the bagel and why it symbolizes nihilism. Early in the film, Waymond-prime references the idea that nothing is the way it is supposed to be and they need someone to stand up to Jobu’s ‘perverse shroud of chaos.’ A few minutes later, a version of Dierdre who already has a circle drawn on her forehead staples a piece of paper (which closely resembled the previously mentioned receipt) with another clear circle on it. For reasons that are not immediately clear, the captioning– and presumably the script– identifies this figure as ‘Bagel Dierdre.’
Within a few minutes of Bagel Deirdre, we are introduced to Jobu Topeki. Though she does great violence to the police attempting to arrest them, she ends up wanting merely to show the nature of the bagel her mother. The nature of the bagel is that when you look at everything that has come together there, you find that nothing matters.
One aspect of this might be that Joy, and eventually Everlyn, come to see all of the identities they have ever had in the multiverse, and eventually both of them seem to coming to grips with the realities that none of them are worth anything; none of them are above any of the others. All of them are as absurd as the denizens of the universe where people have hot dog fingers, or the universe where a chef hides a raccoon under his hat. But no one ever makes this connection explicit. Regardless of what it means within the movies world and logic, it certainly evokes some elements of mysticism.
The book of ecclesiastes features a narrator who seems to be living in this kind of universe, when he says “Everything is meaningless. What has been will be again. What has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun. With much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.” This leaves the implication that with infinite wisdom comes infinite sorrow; with infinite knowledge comes infinite grief.
Half a world away, traditions like Buddhism and Hinduism would venerate nothingness for a variety of reasons. Sometimes, it would seem that the importance of this quality they are calling nothingness is that it transcends anything we have a category for. The Christian Mystic tradition would eventually come to identify what has been called the via negativia and the apophatic with that which can not be defined. St. John of the Cross would describe a dark night of the soul. Centuries later, mystic Don Juan would tell Carlos Casteneda that everything a wise man does is folly because nothing matters.
A common thread of all these traditions is a belief in some sort of divine union. The strange paradox that arises when a person becomes one with that which is transcendent, is that they suddenly they find that the whole reality that they have ever known is suddenly rendered moot and irrelevant. There is an entire other level to this dynamic. There is a way in which the here and now finds itself strangely elevated. But this is an exploration best saved for another time.
We might envision a googly eye sitting within the hole at the center of a bagel. We might see that the two arise together– nihilism at the heart of panentheism, a nothing-emptiness sits in the middle of contemplation, Despair hides away at the heart of liberation.
If the bagel and googly eyes aren’t strictly identical, each of them certainly implies, entails, and depends on the other.