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.