(Though this is a follow up to the first episode of Mystic at the Movies, I think it’ll be pretty easy to keep up with even if you didn’t read that. On the other hand, if you haven’t seen the film, not only is this unlikely to be very interesting, it’ll also hand over pretty major spoilers for what might be the best movie ever.)
Last time, Mystic at the Movies took began it’s exploration of the brilliant Everything, Everywhere All At once. In that post, we looked at some ways that the film’s transcendence of boundaries was a handy lens for exploring the mystic’s journey. We took a beginning peek at the concept of identity. Today, we’ll dive a little deeper into this delicious topic, laying the groundwork for future installments of Mystic at the Movies, which will explore ideas like God, Good and Evil, and more.
Part of the brilliance at work in this film is the manner in which it just gives a little twist to what could otherwise have been dry, academic discourses. The film gives us a vocabulary, almost a symbolic system. It might appear that we’re discussing some rather minute aspects of the film’s mythos, but in fact what is also happening is a profound discussion on the nature of reality. More specifically: it might feel abstract, stuffy, and irrelevant for us to discuss the nature of identity in the abstract. Some people might be scared off of such a topic, fearing that they lack the proper background and training to “do” philosophy. Others might think such a thing unworthy of their time, assuming it will never actually change anything about the day-to-day experience of living their lives.
EEAAO sidesteps this philoso-phobio by hiding a heady topic in plain sight. The main use of alternate versions of main characters in the film is really an opportunity to look at the competing aspects of our own self. Alternative dimensions, in the movie, are ultimately short hand ways to explore the concept of identity.
It’s worth noting at this point that though it’s true that alternate universes have become quite a popular trope in recent pop culture, it has rarely been leveraged in just the manner it’s being used in the film. More obvious and common symbology for alternate universes is to explore roads not travelled. Philip K Dick was interested in this question on a historical kind of level with his Man in the High Castle. The central question at work here is “What if Hitler won World War I?.” Other times, contemporary uses of alternate universes explore the personal aspects of what might have happened if things had ended differently. In the Multiverse of Madness Dr. Strange meets and hears about versions of himself who made different choices at key moments. Numerous versions of a popular Flash story explore the question of what would have happened if the titular character’s mother hadn’t died. The recent animated Marvel series (which is in fact an homage to a comic series of the same name) went so far as to be clear about this common usage. The title of both series, of course, was ‘What If?’
The thing that is worth noticing is that the various versions of Doctor Strange are completely independent of each other. In some way, they are mutually exclusive. One Doctor Strange comes about from a certain set of circumstances. An alternative Doctor Strange results from other circumstnaces. This is a stark contrast to the experiences of Evelyn in EEAAO. While she does explore the world where she made a different choice, somehow, she is able to access the memories and the abilities of that other Evelyn.
In summary, the use of the multiverse in EEAAO is fundamentally different than how this conceit is normally handled. While these other stories are explorations of what might have been, EEAAO is about the ways our different identities integrate themselves. If traditional multiverse narratives center the question “What if I had done something different?” our film centers itself on the question “Who am I really?”
“Who am I?” is a question that has some importance in the history of mysticism. It was famously asked all night by a tormented St. Francis. As the story goes, he spent the whole night in a monastery asking “Who am I, God? And who are you?”
Meanwhile, across the world, the question formed the very basis of a Self-inquiry: a Vendantic practice which invites the contemplative to consider the likely “locations” of our trueest self.
This practice puts words and gives a level of specificity to how to go about the process. Self inquiry brings a journey to a high degree of focus. But it taps into something quite universal, and rather central to a mystic’s journey in general.
The journey of the mystic is an inward one. And it is profoundly a journey of integration. The question for a mystic becomes one of proper relations. How are these tiny portions of me meant to connect. It is a recreation of the macrocosm at a microcosmic level.
Even as a mystic contemplates the possibility of an interpersonal union, as he longs, hopes, and believes that all the people, all the matter, all the energy, all the actualities and potential, as he considers that all these seemingly independent entities that began as larger than himself melding, melting, becoming one…
Just as that is going on there is a similar longing happening within. There were these dis-integrated, independently functioning, sometimes competing pyschodynamics. We speak of mind and soul and ask which is supreme. We categorize id, ego, and super ego and consider which is best. We contrast body and spirit… A mystic heals these divides by rejecting these dualities.
As above, so below.
EEAAO portrays this selfsame journey inward, this path of descent and integration. And in the film, we see it in the same external and internal venues. Just as the mystic has a longing for external union, where all the things larger than the self become one, we see numerous examples of people wanting an external union in the film. The Bagel with Everything is the most conspicuous example of something which threatens to make everything one.
And just as the mystic is on an internal journey to bring together all of her internal experiences, thoughts, etc, in the film we are confronted with at least two pictures of such internal integration. One is Jobu Topeki. In a sense, Jobu’s journey is complete. She is presented as someone who knows all the versions of herself. (And strangely, she is the incarnation of evil. Whether or not Jobu’s journey really was complete, and why she is something of an antagonist are topics due a full assessment. For now, we leave those questions aside though, in favor of sticking with the topic at hand: identity.)
Evelyn, meanwhile, represents the very beginning stages of this journey of integration. There’s a sense in which this is quite literally woven into the plot. Evelyn gains the strength of the alternate versions of herself when she comes to accept them.This concept is also thematic. Evelyn– the main one– grows by integration in other ways.
She comes to accept Joy’s bisexuality. She learns to come to grips with her father’s lack of affection; she ends up embracing her similarities with her daughter, and ultimately is willing to accept the inevitably of hurt in her relationship with Joy. On her path to the climax of the movie, Evelyn must integrate the kung-fu prowess of an alternate version of herself with the gentleness of her husband as she declares that she will fight like him and suddenly, even as she does Kung-Fu, she is adjusting one person’s neck, slamming together a pair destined for love, feeding the desires for kink of yet another person.
There is, of course, a connection between this dynamic and some of the considerations we consider in the initial installment of Mystic at the Movies. Recall that last time we explored the artificial binaries that EEAAO transcends. That was a necessary first step, but in many ways, simply naming the existence of binaries falls short of the act of integrating these extremes. The difference is around the important distinction between naming that such-and-such a thing is a reality and proclaiming that both are worthy and good.
This is no easy task. It is not easy to look at all the parts of ourselves and declare them all worthy. It is not easy to consider all the things which have happened to us and claim them as our own. It can be even more difficult to integrate within ourselves the feelings, attitudes, and thoughts that we grow so accustomed to deflecting, projecting, and other-ing; this is shadow work, and involves embracing the part of ourselves that had once been denied.
For a mystic, this eventually leads to reconsidering the very nature of Good and Evil; it is an act of reclaiming the actions we had once ascribed to God or God’s nemesis, whatever our tradition names it. This is the territory of Rumi, when he invited us to meet him in a field beyond good and evil. This is the territory of carefully excavating the creation myth, where the root of the fall of humankind lies in our unfortunate decision to eat from a tree said to bestow the knowledge of good and evil.
For the film that is our primary concern here, this bring us to consider Jobu Topeki and her mother Evelyn. It brings us face-to-face with the whiplash changes the film has for who counts as the protagonist and who counts as the antagonist. That topic is at least as big it sounds, and is deserving of a much deeper assessment than we have here. I hope you’ll join us next time, as we begin to assess these important topics.