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Review: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’
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Review: ‘Everything Everywhere All at Once’

In the age of acceleration, art has become tiny and ghostlike — miniaturized, smooth, lonely. Where did the bombasts and maniacs go? Who excommunicated the dreamers and radicals? More important, why do maximalism and playfulness suddenly make the critics yawn?

“There is room enough for everything to exist,” writes Luce Irigaray. “Everything is worth exchanging, nothing is privileged, nothing is refused.” The movie “Everything Everywhere All at Once” accomplishes a version of this, with its joyful parade of nonstop enormity.

It’s a movie about a lot of things worth examining: the agony of parenthood, the weight of liberation, the depravities of youth, the evolution of the family, the impact of Western notions, the ignorance of Asian-American cultural crises — comparisons to “Turning Red” are inevitable, but best left to another reviewer.

But most of all, it’s a story about everything. It contains each one of those themes. What’s missing from the present age is an absolute. The absolute. And“Everything Everywhere” is a declaration of the absolute. Politically, this is an era fueled by contradiction. This is inevitable in a society of constant performance, performing on demand, always in real time. Despite our species’ deep-seated hatred of contradictions, we adore veils and secrecy. It’s the pilgrim in us. Life involves the endless collision of beautiful contradictions, and parallels are rarely identical.

The film’s claim is enormous: to contain the absolute. Everything, everywhere, all at once. Hegel described the absolute as a circle that “returns into itself, the circle that presupposes its beginning and reaches it only at the end.”

This arrival signifies the birth of everything that has already taken place. Is there an end of history? Among the film’s many impressive accomplishments is its ability to simulate the infinite, endless, eternal, boundless totality of life. The motion of the story resembles a powerful river with no beginning or end, which is why I can get away with a review of a film that all the professional critics moved on from a year ago. Because maybe they shouldn’t have. Maybe a film about eternity warrants more attention than the latest culture war trophy.

A better way to say it is that “Everything Everywhere” contains a giant dose of the profane — for comedy’s sake, obviously, but also as a way to reveal what is sacred. As such, it brings a new energy to cinema, concerned with the possibility of restoring collective humanity.

This maneuver is far more than an indulgence of creativity: It’s a reality of our time. Like a scuba diver who loses orientation while under water and swims downward to his death, we each increasingly flail our way through the oceans of multiplying information and accelerating chaos until the mayhem seems like order and the truth falls apart.

“We have left the acceleration of history,” writes Paul Virilio, “and entered the acceleration of reality.” We’re constantly outmoded by chaotic subterfuge, what Jean Baudrillard describes as “the absolute proximity to and total instantaneousness with things, this overexposure to the transparency of the world.”

I’ll assume that you’ve seen the film already. If you haven’t, think of this review as a snapshot of its spirit rather than a book report or an attack. Either way, I’ll keep my analysis to three characters: mother, father, and child.

Mother Evelyn, played by Michelle Yeoh (“Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”), is the protagonist, a middle-aged woman faltering her way through boredom, existence without living. Ke Huy Quan, who retired in 2002, returns here as Waymond Wang, Evelyn’s husband, an emasculated buffoon incapable of bravado, but also as his own mimetic double, a spy among the infinite realms of the multiverse. Joy, played by Stephanie Hsu, is Evelyn and Waymond’s angst-ridden lesbian daughter.

Richard Brody, writing for the New Yorker, dismissed the film, saying it “provides the rare and sickening feeling of seeing wonderful actors exert themselves on a film of empty vanity; its acclaim is critical malpractice.”

Cynical, so it probably played well among his fellow golf-clapping elitists.

Because what “Everything Everywhere” offers is an eye for the endless mesmeric beauty and vastness of life — that what we find ourselves a part of is impressive. In the words of Simone Weil, “Art is an attempt to transport into a limited quantity of matter, modeled by man, an image of infinite beauty of the entire universe.”

“Everything Everywhere” takes this idea quite literally in its attempt to confront the unknowns — and then some. If the physical realm is governed by universal gravitation, what governs the human realm?

In this endeavor, as in the universe itself, the film attracts only slightly more than it repulses, although its repulsions only deepen the attraction.

In other words, “Everything Everywhere” makes the metaphysical physical. This tension arises from the clash of the ideal and the soul, the absolute and the individual. It portrays humanity’s symbolic return to itself, through the power of the absolute, as a cycle of redemption from struggle, where humans arrive at total freedom, something like Paradise. The specific linearity of the “Everything Everywhere” universe is a bit indistinct — does history repeat eternally, or is there an end, some kind of closure? Either way, it presents this redemption cycle as the outcome of the absolute, as the meaning of life, with love at the core of the flux.

Aristotle’s notion was that thought is the thought of thought. Or, as Joyce translated it: Love loves to love.

And that is a worldview worth agreeing on, differences be damned.

It leaves you seeing double. As a good film should. Art ought to function as a mirror. De-realization has become normalcy. Everything expresses the angst and beauty of our upside-down world.

Art is the expression of a common need, a fight for nonconformity.

Art, in this lackluster era, ought to provoke something like a complicated happiness. Or at least the promise of happiness. Which is why a tragic film like the Safdie brothers’ “Good Time” can inspire the joy of creation in the viewer. The same goes for Gaspar Noe’s “Enter the Void,” which somehow captures the invisibility of revelation. As Agamben observes, this paradox of art is theological, where “the revelation of God is also His concealment,” that “God reveals himself in the world as incomprehensible.”

First, “Everything Everywhere” succeeds artistically insofar as it provokes a sour discomfort in the viewer, an awareness of the void. This is by no means rare for a work of art, although it is also not easy. It becomes remarkable when it faces this divine terror and somehow emerges not just alive but redeemed. What makes “Everything Everywhere unique, however, is its ability to restore the sacred character of the ordinary person, whom I have coined the Sacred Nobody.

For the past century or so, humans have diagnosed society with narcissism and authoritarian selfhood. More recently, this has been described as the society of the spectacle.

The unspoken human priority has amounted to power and fame, which take on new complexities when mediated by constantly accelerating technologies, often resulting in the destruction of reality. Simultaneously, it’s considered failure for a person to remain unknown.

In the face of this hunger for social dominance, the true hero is the person willing, even eager, to embrace his insignificance or, rather, the state that has been framed as insignificance.

In reality, it’s the quiet tranquility of an underdog. Vulnerable, uncertain, full of potential. The musicality of the anonymous participant, who hasn’t been elevated to the polluted highs of fame and spectacle.

Evelyn thrives with this power.

This is meant to be seen as a postmodernesque conundrum, an inversion of the normal. But, really, it’s the opposite: a breeze that clears the dirty air for sunlight.

Evelyn’s power arises from her potentiality: She offers the most potential because she’s never succeeded. By dint of being a nobody, she is sacred. As a plot device, this serves to launch the viewer alongside Evelyn into the abyss. Philosophically, it reveals the film’s guiding belief: Life is better than nothingness.

She confronts the unreality of infinite worlds, the epiphany that, as Agamben put it, “All comprehension is grounded in the incomprehensible.”

An evil force — personified by Joy — threatens to nullify all of it. This tension is ancient. But the light does not succumb to the darkness, or it at least hasn’t yet.

All good, like all evil, thrives with contradiction.

The film’s depiction of evil has unexpected political implications. Most impressive is the fact that they aren’t the typical left-leaning Hollywood kind. In the “Everything” universe, evil emerges from chaos and disorder: relativism, apathy, nihilism, hate, and perhaps most of all, violence. It’s too serious, too cool. It despises vulnerability and beauty and love and veneration. In other words, it’s nearly the selfsame evil as characterized by Christianity.

In other words, Satan. The accuser. The deceiver.

"At the heart of the egalitarian left is the pathological belief that there is no structure of reality,” writes Rand Paul, “that all the world is a tabula rasa that can be changed at any moment in any desired direction by the mere exercise of human will."

An interdependence of the person and the collective. The world soul, the spirit that penetrates all things.

The social flow of our era is migration without leave, a pilgrimage for so long. “The more speed increases, the faster freedom decreases,” writes Virilio, as part of what he calls “the war of Time.”

Joy resembles Walter Benjamin’s concept of the destructive character, whose “need for fresh air and open space is stronger than any hatred.” The destructive character will obliterate everything, including tradition, language, history, and art – the four entry points of truth.

To the destructive character, the world is simple, because destruction has accelerated its downfall. Annihilation fills the destructive character with creepy self-worship, “a spectacle of deepest harmony.” It “sees nothing permanent,” nothing fixed. And nothing that cannot be destroyed. It lacks all creativity – why should the annihilator bother creating?

It doesn’t want to be understood; it doesn’t care about small talk or gossip. It is not distracted or self-conscious. It only wants to destroy, with no intention of fixing what it has already liquefied or shattered beyond obliterating “even the traces of destruction.”

The destructive character appears “young and cheerful.” But this youth and cheer are a facade, a deception of the destructive character’s nothingness: It already destroyed any “traces of [its] age.”

It is only costumed in youth. “Just as the creator seeks solitude, the destroyer must be constantly surrounded by people, witnesses to his efficacy.” Because, ultimately, the “Destructive Character lives from the feeling, not that life is worth living, but that suicide is not worth the trouble.”

This violence happens to be depression. As Joy knows, depression functions most violently as a kind of eternal regress. Infinity mirrors, at least in the early days. Agony that self-multiplies endlessly, or that’s how it feels. Survival becomes a matter of pretending to believe you’ll survive.

In “The Disappearance of Rituals,” German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han describes this “I’m the main character” disorder as a compulsion of our haste society, a world without distance, without negativity or slowness or leisure or seduction or lingering, an era of accelerating narcissism and constant acceleration, so that the “narcissistic subject feels itself intensely not in what it does, in the work completed, but in ongoing performance.”

As “Everything Everywhere” so excellently captures, however, depression isn’t always a blearing nullity. For some depressives, the world doesn’t get coal gray and obscene and bleak and scentless and muffled. You don’t sink off, unable to feel, but the opposite. For some, depression is the feverish heightening of emotion and senses. And bright. The maxing-out of feeling. Color bursts like it always does. Sunlight smiles down, beautiful as ever. The problem is that the depressive becomes engulfed by those beautiful stimuli. He starts to ache for life itself.

Both versions resemble Julia Kristeva’s concept of abjection, the subjective experience of horror, which forces us to confront death: “Not me. Not that. But not nothing, either. A 'something' that I do not recognize as a thing. A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me. On the edge of nonexistence and hallucination, of a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me. There, abject and abjection are my safeguards. The primers of my culture."

But in forcing us to confront death, it leads us to somewhere clearer: “The time of abjection is double: a time of oblivion and thunder, of veiled infinity and the moment when revelation bursts forth.”

So, for Evelyn to become total, she must divide herself; she must become massively broken.

Why should this be a contradiction? Why should contradiction faze us at all? Why do we believe so strongly that contraries inhibit progression, which is based on the assumption that “progress” is inherently good?

We can’t talk about contradictions without mentioning revolutions. Their natural circularity makes them a beautiful example of the power of contradiction.

“Everything Everywhere,” then, signifies a revolution against the depression of this era. It succeeds as a monument to absurdism, whose figurehead, Albert Camus, wrote, “When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him.” The scenes that feature Evelyn and daughter as rocks are a clear nod to “The Myth of Sisyphus” and, as such, another clue to the intended message: life over nullity.

Or rather, it can be called absurdist maximalism. Because there are no gaps or spaces in the digital world. Ray Kurzweil calls this the “information revolution.” We live in an information society. It controls society, too enormous for any of us to control. Information has begun to swallow us. This avalanche of data has led to an information war. It is the personification of Paul Virilio’s information bomb, says part of a “cinema of acceleration … capable of restoring the highest velocity to an 'authentic Americanization.’”

Unlike the atomic bomb, the information bomb drops every single second, everywhere, obliterating every single one of us.

The atomic bomb is local. It lands in a specific terrain, like Nagasaki or Hiroshima. The information bomb is global. It is everywhere. Information is endless and constant; communication is immediate and close.

This annihilation of distance has all but decimated Hollywood.

So let’s assume that the film industry survives, however atomized. At the very least its era of gluttony is over. Now it merely encourages it.

The era of Hollywood as mass spectacle, as antidote to idleness, has nearly ended. The physical moviegoing experience is the same as the one in “Brave New World,” where the entertainment means nothing and even watching is part of the performance. In “Transparency Society,” Han differentiates between experience and experiencing. “Experience means facing the Other. Experiencing, in contrast, means encountering oneself everywhere.”

The new cinematic experience happens immediately, through fractals of information that suggest and deliver themselves to you. Now that every aspect of life can be immediately filmed and broadcast, the special effects of film and TV seem like bad mimesis, all that money for the tightly cropped off-brand dud. The same customizability is available in every other medium — entire networks for music, photography, poetry, anything that can be enjoyed or captured. And, to be clear, this is fantastic. But it also moves too quickly; we need to move in half-tempo.

One of the great depravities of our era is the dissolution of narrative. A work of art is supposed to slap people in the face, often until we become red-cheeked and learn something tragic. True consciousness arises from story.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has swallowed up most of the real estate and replaced the art with predictable eyesores. Much of the rest of the industry’s attention is devoted to politically correct remakes that nobody actually wants, what Mark Fischer calls Hollywood’s “gestural anti-capitalism” as actually a reinforcement of capitalism, corporate anti-capitalism, which can’t be differentiated from true anti-capitalism; it is too “widely disseminated in capitalism.”

“Everything” isn’t completely innocent of this.

It isn’t a movie for everyone, unfortunately. It should be. The artistic power of its story is deeply humane and transformative. But, at times, it suffers from the same preachy political forcefulness that has overtaken culture as a whole, especially art. As a result of this tension, it becomes a movie for everyone — which deepens the film’s love affair with contradiction.

In other words, the conservatives will yet again find themselves being asked to chant in unison with the multiplicity. But will they have the last laugh?

Art, as an act of creation, is resistance. When the radicals become the bureaucrats, who’s in charge of the next revolution?

Here’s why that’s important, far more important than any political absurdities that the film shoehorns into the scenery: This description of the absolute, “Everything Everywhere All at Once,” is deeply spiritual, but also inherently theological.

It’s impossible to deny the presence of God throughout this film. Not just because God’s total presence animates everything, everywhere, all at once, but, more important, because it contains the rhythm of the journey toward an absolute.

What do we find in that total absoluteness? Not ourselves all alone. Eric Kandel has characterized this the century of the self. Han, in “Saving Beauty,” argues that “the contemporary narcissistic subject perceives everything as nothing but shades of itself,” that “it is incapable of seeing the otherness of the other.”

His argument is that our culture of positivity has grown so enormous that it now excludes all negativity, which is essential for the flourishing of beauty, art, and performance. He also includes pornography and eroticism in this assessment — he even points to Brazilian waxes as a sign that we’ve lost our understanding of beauty.

The destruction of the other, he adds, was not caused by the other. “Destructive pressure,” he tells us, came “from within.” According to Han, we expel our interior lives through a process of voluntary self-exposure, in an effort to bolster transparency. This dynamic between internal and external lies at the center of our understanding of the other. He argues that “things are given life precisely by their opposite, by that which is other than themselves.”

Within the artistic paradigm of the absolute, “Everything Everywhere All at Once” accedes to the great power of the universe and embraces the vulnerability of being human. It chooses life and meaning over destruction and self-importance, which is really only the illusion of power, masked by arrogance.

Devotion to, or even just belief in, the absolute is a rejection of the cultural narcissism that has fueled much of the deterioration of human civilization over the course of the past two centuries.

If society can be saved — it can — it will be the result of a collective return to this spiritual capacity, the power of belief.

We don’t have to all agree that God exists. We just have to return to humanity. We have to find God, the absolute, so that we can each know ourselves, and we find God through the other.

The other is an escape from the barrage of sameness that typifies our culture obsessed with performance. Feminist psychoanalyst Luce Irigaray, in her gorgeous essay “When Our Lips Speak Together,” plays with this reality: “If we keep on speaking sameness, if we speak to each other as men have been doing for centuries, as we have been taught to speak, we'll each other, fail ourselves.” She adds that the language itself will disintegrate. Disembodied words will pass over our heads. “They’ll vanish,” she writes, “and we’ll be lost.”

Love itself constitutes a relationship with the other. Love is “a relationship with alterity, with mystery — that is to say, with the future.” The other can be thought of in terms of light, carried in “a transcendence toward light,” as an expression of freedom. But, most of all, its radiance and autonomy provoke mystery and silence. Levinas is constantly fighting the inexpressibility of the other, with a linguistic enormity like Dante’s in Paradiso, a grasping for words in the face of perfect beauty.

Before we can understand the infinite array of a good moment, our conception of happiness, as long as we’re here on earth, must be that it is freedom from or after pain. Happiness is not, as we often assume, the pursuit of pleasure beside the negation of pain. Pleasure is an activity of selfhood; happiness is the outcome of coexistence. And love involves a balancing of humanity and spirit.

Kierkegaard calls love the bond of the eternal. Love is the origin of everything, and spiritually understood love is the deepest ground of the life of the spirit. Love is the greatest achievement of life.

Nothingness can never exist. It probably never did. Even if the entirety of life vanishes — it won’t — then it will have existed. We will have existed. This earth, these words, everything, everywhere.

Each living moment is a triumph over nothingness.

Each of us contains eternity. The constant activity of the mind is its affirmation, because thought is the infinite dialogue between the soul and itself. The body, then, is what allows our private singularities to meld with the collective, with the beauty of the other.

From now, for all eternity, there can never be nothing. Even if all life ceased — it won’t — we still will have existed.

Every story is the expression of self and the other. Auto and allo, subject and object, nowness and eternity, beauty and abjection, language and nothingness, love and extinction.

Death is temporary; life is eternal. We had it backward all along: We thought gravity devoured light. But life is so fertile that death doesn’t even truly exist. We don’t die; we exhale, we bristle, we make a noise you hear from people on diving boards. And the next moment, we dive in.

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