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Mystic at the Movies #3- Everything Everywhere all at Once: Jobu, Joy, and Evelyn

Mystic at the Movies is an exploration of contemplative themes in popular culture.  We have begun with a deep dive into the amazing Everything Everywhere All at Once.  So far, issues of identity, boundaries, and duality have been our central considerations. For the first installment of Mystic at the Movies click here. To read article #2 click here.

This time,, we take a look at the two central figures in a film driven by an intricately formed ensemble.  Though the many supporting characters are certainly amazingly done, Evelyn and Joy are in so many ways the center of the whole drama.  The journeys of each has numerous mystical implications when considered individually, but some of the richest wisdom that might be gleamed comes up from the dynamics between them.

They are opposites in so many ways.  Not only are they mother and daughter,  but Evelyn is repressed where Joy is explosive.  Consider, for example, the fact that Evelyn is so unwilling to engage in conflict that Waylon feels forced to file papers for divorce in order to instigate a fight compared to Joy’s bold confrontation in the laundry parking lot.

Secondarily, Evelyn is traditional where Joy is contemporary.  For example, it is clear that Becky has been coached to called Evelyn “Mrs. Wang.”  This is sharply contrasted just a few minutes later with Waymond, who delights in Becky addressing her by first name.  On the otherhand, Joy wears tattoos, is quite open about having a girlfriend, and is even needed to help translate from the IRS.  

 Finally, Evelyn is fatalistic, submitting to societal expectations for her life path, while Joy is iconoclastic, rebellious, and determined to take action to change the course of events no matter what the cost.  This distinction is perhaps the most important to each of the characters’ trajectories.  We see this fatalism in everything from Evelyn’s unwillingness to confront her father to her almost inexplicable unwillingness to do anything about the IRS audit, even though it threatens her very livelihood.   Meanwhile Joy is desperate to buck the status quo that she literally risks the entire multiverse simply to attain a sense of peace and understanding about the nature of her life.  

One way to view the film is to see it as  the story of the pair learning from each other.  They are opposites, holding the tension between themselves dynamically.  They are extremes, not coming merely to cancel each other out but here to become something new.   Evelyn, for example, emulates her daughter in absorbing and welcoming all the identities that she has.  Joy is the first person to absorb all the alternate universe versions of herself.  Evelyn, it would seem is the second.

It’s worth considering these dualities with care.  As we discussed previously, this approach to holding polarities in tension is a highly important aspect of mysticism.  But Joy and Evelyn’s relationship also offers some new insights into the nature of mysticism.  The idea that a parent learns from their child is counter cultural.  The story we are generally told is that the young should be learning from the old.  Mysticism is at home in paradox and transgressions in general.  But this particular reversal is especially central to the mystic’s journey.  Zen traditions speak of beginners mind.  Jesus told his followers to take on the aspect of a child.  EEAAO represents this idea by having Evelyn emulate Joy.

One of the notable aspects of this lesson learned is the fact that it goes against the common perception of right and wrong.   The film, in fact, as a whole, tells a story whose protagonists and antagonists flip so frequently and convincingly that a viewer can end up with a sort of psychic whiplash.  

One of the major examples of this happening is the positioning of Jobu and Evelyn.  Jobu is initially presented to the audience as the most evil villain imaginable.  She is the ultimate Satan Figure.  The characters we assume to be our protagonists, Waylon-prime and his support are engaged in a life or death battle with her.  And suddenly…  Jobu becomes a sort of spiritual guide to Evelyn.  And they are united in a battle against Evelyn’s formal allies, the occupants of the prime universe.  

Of course, this evokes the idea explored previously, that a hallmark of mysticism is a transcendence of traditional concepts of right and wrong.  But we can go even a little bit further than this.  Evelyn might be seen as a person in the early stages of a spiritual journey.  

Waylon prime and all of the people from his universe resemble in a sense the traditional religious establishment.  Evelyn steps into a deeper world, understands the true nature of things, begins her journey stewarded in by the champions of non-mystical religion.  They present her with not only a wider story to live in, but also a series of absolute laws of good and evil.  They approach her not only with reverence and love, but also a willingness to combat her if she ever steps out of line, beyond the narrow confines of their rules and expectations.

Just as so many mystics took their first baby steps in literalistic, fundamentalist environments, so Evelyn begins with a group who are quite sure that they know right from wrong.  They experience the world in a black and white way.  They are uncomfortable embracing Everything.  

In those environments so many of us are told things are evil when someday we will find ourselves madly in love with them.   A person who meditates for hours a day might once have been told and even have believed that meditation is evil.  A person who would later come to experience union with God might have, once upon a time believed that God and man are wholly and forever separate.  An immature religious person might violently cling to the narrowest confines of their own single tradition even if many years later he might find the glorious ecunemical dance of interspirituality to be the most life giving thing imaginable.

So it is that Evelyn was taught that something she will later embrace is the root of all evil.  There are, in fact, two aspects to this.  There are two dynamics that Evelyn will eventually come to embrace, even if she was forbidden them earlier.

The first thing that Evelyn will embrace is Joy.    She will come to heal the rift with her daughter.   Perhaps, there is even a bit of word-play going on here.  In the act of embracing Joy, her daughter, we see for the first time that Evelyn has the possibility of embracing joy, the emotional reality: the first time we see Evelyn truly happy is when she realizes she must support and embrace her daughter rather than attacking her. 

 The second thing that Evelyn will embrace is all the various aspects of herself as represented by the alternate versions of her life.  She owns and accepts them in order to accumulate their gifts and abilities.  

Yet again, we find ourselves confronted with this macroscosm/microcosm fractal.  The drama is played at on the outside via the interactions with Joy.  The drama is played out on ths inside via the integration of all her different selves.

So much screen time is given to the teaching-relationship which is characterized by Evelyn learning from Joy.  But the most critical one, the climactic realization is one which is defined by learning flowing in the opposite direction.  The climax of the film is a teaching opportunity where Evelyn becomes the teacher.  

Groundwork needed to be lain for this to even become a possibility.  Though she seemed outrageous bordering on demented, Jobu initially appears powerful, confident, and self-satisfied.  It is only the gradual smudging of the boundaries between Jobu and Joy that make room for the climax.  

In a mystic-worthy annihilation of the differences between two things we had once been sure were distinct, as the movie reaches the end, it becomes more and more difficult to know when we are dealing with Jobu and when we are dealing with Joy.  Suddenly powerful, confident and self-satisfied Jobu becomes indistinguishable from disempowered, insecure Joy.    

If we never believed a pure and omnipotent Jobu Topeki could have anything to learn from Evelyn, we might see that a Joy-Jobu hybrid would be imperfect enough to need some wisdom from her mother.  As I watched the film, I found myself wondering whether perhaps we were misinformed about Joy all along.  Just as the traditional, literalistic, non-mystic religionists might say things to a future mystic that initially prejudice them against this or that initially, Waylon prime and his cohorts say things to Joy and the audience that prejudice us against Joy/Jobu Topeki.  

Complications arise when we see that Jobu was a murderer.  But nuance and complications are part of the lesson for us.  It pushes us into that mystic’s realm of both/and.  Joy was and was not Jobu.  Jobu was and was not misunderstood.  Evelyn should learn from Joy-Jobu; and Joy-Jobu should learn from Evelyn.

Ultimately, then, we are left with another both/and.  On the one hand, a case can be made that Jobu was good all along, and we just saw her unfairly.  On the other, she does seem to go through a transformation, ultimately even a journey of integration.

In so much as the Jobu we see earlier in the film is evil, she need to integrate the life experiences of the main Joy to become something better than she was.  Even while that Joy longed for liberation through Jobu’s power and strength, as Jobu becomes indistinguishable from Joy, she picks up the basic goodness of the protagonist.  On this level, it seems like this is a story that introduces us to Joy in the first act, focuses on Jobu in the second act, and brings them together in a single character Joy-Jobu in the third act.  

A common conclusion offered within mystical communities is the idea that the end-game we think we want is not the same as the the destination we are actually headed for.  Awakening, enlightenment, and similar concepts are quite frequently described as things that work quite differently than our minds are anticipated.   Often times one of the biggest obstacles to these “destinations” is our mistaken understanding of wat we are actually doing.   Along the way are dark nights of the soul, times of desolations, confrontations with the absolute other-ness of God.

Evelyn’s ongoing evolving understanding of just what she is doing is not unknown to a mystic.  There was a time that I personally felt surprised, and almost embarrassed by how quickly things can change.  There are many times that I have experienced so much change that the “me” of five years ago would hardly recognize the “me” of today.  As times go by, I have learned that these times, when I go through such absolute transformations in such a small duration, these eras are so very often the richest times of spiritual growth.  I have learned to, on the whole, trust the process of spiritual maturation.  I am finding myself surprised at how rarely there are huge missteps, such that months and years end up feeling like a journey in the wrong direction, a series of missteps.  

At the same time, we find ourselves coming back into some of the same scenery, just from a new and different perspective.  Often times there is a departure, and then a return.  We might leave behind a religious community only to find that at a certain point we are ready for it again.  We might think that we have finished mourning a loss or celebrating a joy, only to find that now we are newly positioned to re-experience either positive or negative emotions.  We might spend some years apart from the tradition we grew up in, only to find ourselves newly equipped to much more deeply appreciate elements of the faith we grew up in.  

It shouldn’t be surprising then, that many elements of Joy are not present in the middle portions of the film, but that she is reintegrated into the whole at the end.  It’s worth returning, at this point, to the earlier point about the surprising, counter cultural elements  of Evelyn learning from Joy-Jobu.  This is merely an external manifestation of a dynamic operating within: even as we reach a certain point that we see it worth to emulate someone else who is more of a beginner, it is also necessary to find the beginner within– the Joy who had been left behind– and follow her, in all her niavete.

There is, in the end, a circularity to this.  And circles play no small part EEAAO.  The importance of motifs like googly eyes and The Bagel With Everything are worth leaning into.  But that will have to wait for future installments of ‘Mystic at the Movies.’

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Mystic at the Movies: Everything Everywhere All At Once: Part I: Identity

Mystic at the Movies is my every-now-and-again deep dive into nondualism, contemplation, mysticism, and second-half-of-life spirituality as they appear in some of my favorite films.  

One of the movies that helped inspire me to begin writing Mystic at the Movies was the amazing, transcendent, profane, surprising, absurd, heart-breaking and hilarious Everything Everywhere All at Once.  EEAAO (as it will be called for the rest of this piece of writing) is the story of a family of Chinese Immigrants attempting to do the hard soul work of being the best people they can be.  It is also a multiversal martial arts epic.  And an existentialist comedy that is very, very nsfw.  The rest of this piece will contain numerous spoilers.  And to be honest, probably won’t be that interesting if you haven’t actually seen the film.  The movie is available at the normal venues for paid rent/sale (Amazon, You Tube, et. al.)  It is also streaming on showtime’s service.  (Hot tip: there’s not that many interesting offerings in Showtime other than EEAAO but they seem to be offering your first month for free.)

One of the first questions for me about EEAAO is just where the writers were coming from, spiritually and philosophically.  Interviews with the Writers-Directors who go by the name ‘Daniels’ are not hard to find.  They have appeared on numerous podcasts, print interviews, etc.  They even published a coffee table book available through their production company’s website with a variety of supplementary information.  

The weird thing is that though spirituality seems to be a HUGE subtext of the movie, it doesn’t seem like they are very interested in talking about that.  The book, podcasts, and interviews have tackled many interesting topics, but it doesn’t seem that the spiritual side of it all is high on their list of priorities to discuss.  I’m not sure if this lack of discussion implies a disinterest on the part of the interviewers, a reluctance to “go there” on the part of The Daniels, or something else entirely.  Regardless of the cause, we will have to approach this subject without much explicit commentary from the creators themselves.

There are many themes that are worth investigating here and I look forward to exploring questions around topics like the nature of God, good, and evil in future installments of Mystic at the Movies.  An issue foundational to all of these are the questions of identity and boundaries.    

It shouldn’t be terribly surprising that these concerns are fundamental to mysticism.  A reasonable definition of mysticism would want to center itself on questions of identity.  For me, the best way of defining  mysticism is as a fundamental skepticism that things are as independent, separate, and isolated from each other as they appear to be.  In other words, the boundaries between us are slippery resulting in a universe where we are fundamentally one.    

There are so many examples of confused, overlapping, and nontraditional boundaries in EEAAO  that it can be difficult to know where to begin.  We might start at the very widest level possible and observe that on the level of plot and theme, this film is a dizzying hodgepodge of genre, tropes, and mood.  Wikapedia seems to agree.  The  article discussing EEAAO describes it as “absurdist science fiction comedy drama.”  It’s hard to imagine many genre that this movie couldn’t be filed under.

We could continue in this vein and note that even the title promises us something with a universal, boundary-crossing significance.  We might make the more nuanced observation that the film can’t even completely stay within the boundaries of being a fictional story and in a few strange and powerful ways, it transcends the boundaries between fiction and nonfiction.

The most obvious examples of the fiction/non-fiction boundary crossing comes in the form of the universe where Evelyn is a movie star.  Some of the footage shown of the character’s famous existence is actually repurposed footage from the life of the actress playing Evelyn.   The nonfiction aspect of the movie is further toyed with in not one but two separate scenes which remind us that everything that we are watching is a film.  Not only do we find ourselves sitting with the famous Evelyn in a theatre, where the cinematography is arranged to give the illusion that we are in the same theatre with her, we also get a scene, right after intense action, where we find that this was nothing more than an action scene; suddenly we see the cameras and crew.  These scenes have a strange effect on the viewer.  There comes a sense of “we were in the made-up world of fiction, but now, the narrative has come to exist in our real world.”

(It is not insignificant to note that EEAAO was originally written for Jackie Chan to be the protagonist.  When Michelle Yeoh was cast, the protagonist’s name was initially also Michelle.  Thus, from the very beginning, a link between the character and the actress existed firmly in the writers’ minds.)

As we consider the plot, we can find dozens of further examples of boundary crossings.  Within the first few scenes of the film, we find that the Wangs struggles include: navigating the boundaries between personal time and business needs; navigating the boundaries of respecting elder generations and honoring the lived reality of younger generations, navigating the boundary between friends and family, navigating the line between being healthy assertive with a spouse with out over doing it.  Even one aspects of the Wang’s tax problem seems to be related to failing to navigate the boundaries between profession and hobbies.

It might be convincingly argued that transgression of boundaries on it’s own is not sufficient to demonstrate a thing has mystical roots.  Transgression of boundaries is also, for example, considered to be a component of both post modernity and queerness.  While I suspect fruitful explorations of both these elements within EEAAO might be conducted, there are several aspects of the film that mark the boundary crossings as uniquely mystical.

There are important distinctions between how mysticism, queerness, and post modernity view the crossing of boundaries.  This seems like a topic an entire book might explore.  But for our purposes here, let’s begin with the fact that queerness tends to view distinctions like male and female as social constructs that a person should feel free to ignore.  Post modernity is more descriptive than prescriptive, observing that a sign of the age we find ourselves in is that the traditional distinctions between things is breaking down.  Mysticism is unique among these three ways of being.  It is more radical, generally, than the other two.  Mysticism won’t be satisfied until everything is one.   Like queerness, the boundary-transcendence is prescriptive.  Unlike queerness, the boundary-transcendence goes beyond humanity.

Jobu Tupeki’s “bagel with everything.”  is of course, a pun.  A person could go to a deli and order such a thing, and they would expect that there are many different flavors and seasonings to it.  The “everything” in Jobu’s bagel is much more inclusive.   It is a mystic’s “everything.”

Moreover, when Evelyn finally comes to an understanding of the way the universe is, she takes one of Waymond’s googly eyes and places it on her forehead.  This motion is equal parts profoundity and silliness.  The profundity arises from the fact that a third eye, imagined to be right where Evelyn placed the decoration, is a common mystical symbol of awakening.  The silliness of the situation, arises, of course, from the fact that it’s a cheap bauble, a craft supply.  

To reiterate: this is a clear example of the boundary transgressions that are explicitly mystical.  But it runs deeper than the mere presence of a third eye.  It seems that the sorts of things Evelyn seems to suddenly awaken to is that all the aspects of her various selves, scattered across the universe, can reside within her. 

This is, of course, familiar mystical territory.

Sometimes the language is prescribed by the spiritual tradition.  But some of these traditions’ terms and phrases have migrated into the broader vocabulary of mysticism as a whole.  So we hear that the concern is between self and Self; or “I” and “Thou” or “small self” and “Large self” or “true self” and “false self.”

Looking at these various designations, we find ourselves in a space that is rather appropriate for a consideration on mysticism.  Because we began with a rather distinct and specific idea.  We considered the question of identity.  But now, we find ourselves in some intersection with so many other topics, themes, and ideas.  Rather appropriately, the individual differences have faded back and we find ourselves facing collapsing boundaries.

For example, especially as potrayed in the film, a single “person” who has managed to embrace all of their various identities has suddenly become something more like God than a human.  Rather fittingly, we began with a journey inward and find ourselves staring right at God.  Meister Eckhart would be pleased, I think to imagine this– that even as we stare at God, we find ourselves, being God, staring at us.  

Weirdly interrelated to the question of individual identity and attaining Godhood is the question of Good and Evil.  Doctrinal religion frequently offers up a clear and dualistic list of what is right and what is wrong.   Intertwined with this is a view of the world in terms of us vs them.  Finally, an individual who inhabits such a world finds himself having to choose between and among identities.  Within a Christian environment, for example, a person endorses the picture of themselves as chaste or temperate.  They focus and own and select the aspects of themselves which reinforce this picture.  

EEAAO flexes it’s mystic muscles by proclaiming the adoption of all the versions of ourselves.  Contemporary mystic Richard Rohr has made famous the phrase “everything belongs.”  This is a representation of a fundamental belief of mystics stretching all the way back.  When Joy and Evelyn are willing to take all the pieces of themselves in, they embody this principle.

There are so very many rich questions worth exploring here.  I hope you will share some of your thoughts here, and I will plan to come back and share some more of mine.  This is fitting, too, though; mystics do love their questions, their journeys and their processes.  Let’s continue on that journey together.

Installment #2 of Mystic at the Movies goes deeper into the nature of Identity in EEAAO; we explore the journey of integration. Click here to read it.

Instalmment #3 of Mystic at the Movies focuses on the relationship between Evelyn, Joy, and Jobu. You can find it it here.