Everything Everywhere All At Once, Abuse, and Duty
I can write reviews as late as I want; I'm an adult.
Some of you have been following along on my unemployment journey, and I’m glad to say I’m now gainfully employed once more. I’m publishing an update on that tomorrow, so if you want more details on that (it’s not an article in the truest sense) that’s where you’d go. I’ll link it here once it’s up.
Every once in a while, a movie comes out that is immediately deemed to be the movie everyone talks about that year. It’s a work of great genius, breaking new ground in film. It’s a visual spectacle, but not in a Transformers kind of way; it has offbeat elements, some kind of faux highbrow hook that makes it OK to like the explosions.
I am not a very visual person and some absurdly high percentage of my personality is dedicated to disagreeing with people. I almost always hate these movies.
Previous entries in the field have included movies like Inception and Mad Max Fury Road, both of which I hated. But I hated those movies mostly because they were optimized for visuals; Mad Max in particular had almost no plot at all. Inception had a cast in which fully half the actors were calling it in, once again counting on special effects to make it all work. I understand why people like them, but I don’t get anything out of the visual aspect except as it frames the words being said so I don’t get much out of them myself.
Everything, Everywhere, All At Once (EE from here on out, because I’m not typing that over and over) is the newest entry in that field, and if that was all there was to talk about it would be enough that I wouldn’t be a huge fan of it for the same reasons. But it happens, in this case, that I’m not a fan of it for different reasons - reasons that revolve around abuse, depression, and how we talk about those things.
The first step in the journey of a thousand problems with a movie is a single disclaimer: I understand it’s just a movie. And I understand, at least on an academic level, that there’s a 10,000 faces of the Torah aspect to all this where a lot of people are going to approach this elephant and come away with different impressions. I get it, and I want to be really clear that it’s OK to like this movie for a variety of reasons.
From here on out there be spoilers; if you have not watched this now-old movie and care about that, please go watch it.
Here’s a semi-accurate description of the plot of the movie:
EE follows the story of Evelyn, a Chinese immigrant who gave up whatever potential she had in her home country to marry a man her family didn’t approve of. She and he moved to the US, had a child, and purchased a laundromat. In the decades since, Evelyn has become depressed; she keenly feels that her potential is squandered in the laundromat, and despairs.
This despair and hurt makes it difficult for her to maintain her family relationships. As she walks around in a fog, she is unable to see that her relationships are weakening and coming to a point of crisis. Her business is in trouble and she’s surrounded by stress. Her troubled relationship with her father is thrust front and center, further confusing things.
As her family crisis nears an unrepairable status, another crisis hits. But this crisis can only be solved by her using the very potential she’s been unable to utilize for most of her adult life. In using that potential, she begins to find peace with who she is - in finding peace with who she is, she is able to gain the resources to bring peace, happiness, and healing to her family.
I think that’s the version most people walked away with, and why most people liked the movie if it wasn’t for specific checks-diversity-boxes reasons. Here is a person who is depressed - and indeed, aren’t most of us depressed? Here’s a person who feels underutilized and unsatisfied. Isn’t that us?
Evelyn is the audience surrogate for an entire world of people who report they feel like they are floundering. The movie is fantasy fulfillment - what if you were important? What if it turned out you were good at things? What if people not only noticed but forced you to accept that you were important and powerful?
But here’s a description of the movie from the opposite side of the rose-tinted glasses spectrum:
EE is unique in centering it’s story not around a hero, but the antagonist. It tells the story of Evelyn, a woman surrounded by family clamoring for even a small piece of her attention and love, which she denies them.
She is a woman who superficially accepts her daughter’s homosexuality, framing this as a reason she’s better than other Culturally Chinese mothers, but lies about her father having a huge problem with it so she can still disapprove of it in private.
Evelyn takes up hobbies so she can further draw into herself and ignore her family, hobbies that she often can’t afford. Her family’s abandonment crisis is thus amplified by financial and legal problems stemming from her efforts to defraud the government by claiming her hobbies as expenses - Evelyn is willing to risk her family’s well-being in pursuit of more and more completely abandoning them.
Evelyns husband spends the majority of the movie asking for even a small amount of her attention as Evelyn treats him as an annoying fly to be batted away. We eventually learn the depths of his desperation when we are shown that he has drawn up mock divorce papers that he does not actually intend to file; it’s just that he knows from what appears to be years-long, repeated, bitter experience that Evelyn will never pay attention to anything but herself unless forced to by some crisis. In manufacturing one, he hopes to get the barest of chances to revive his relationship.
Evelyn successfully ignores even these papers for a time until her real, preferred crisis comes in a form centered entirely around her; she is suddenly acknowledged as important, talented and needed by people outside of her family. To these, she gives her undivided attention; to this mission, she gives everything she has.
It’s making her feel better.
Eventually she feels much better, and she’s able to resolve each of her relationships - her dad has hurt her, so she tells him that she no longer cares, and she can now be happy. Her daughter, who she feels strong ownership over, is convinced to stay; now Evelyn doesn’t have to take any loss. Her husband proves himself useful to resolving Evelyn’s preferred crisis and helping her be happy, and, so she is able to at least temporarily accept him. As she expects, all she has to do to get him to stay is not leave; he’s assumed to regenerate his hurt automatically, like an emotional troll.
The crisis resolves; Evelyn, near as we can tell, is happy that circumstances have finally conspired to make her happy enough that the happiness of the people around her matters. She finally has enough surplus resources that she has something left to spend on other people once she’s taken care of herself.
I really do get that this is a movie; I understand the first interpretation is valid, and probably what the director was going for. I understand the second is maximally negative, and not the message that I was supposed to get at all. But that didn’t keep me from spending the entire first half of the movie cringing; for me, this was a tale of abuse-as-understandable, as neglect-as-necessary.
There’s a really harsh moral concept that I try, as much as I can, to follow: to the extent it has a name, it’s something like Handle Your Own Shit. And the way that goes is that, basically, life isn’t always going to be perfect. It’s usually not even going to be all that good - you are going to sometimes have bad jobs. You are rarely going to have enough money. People you trust are going to betray you, and people who owe you social debts are going to renege. You are often going to be treated unfairly.
And, the moral concept says, you still need to handle your own shit. You need to do your duty. You do not have an excuse to not do what’s right.
There’s another much nicer moral concept that I try, as much as I can, to follow: people are often going through some really tough stuff. Sometimes their lives are really hard. Sometimes you yourself aren’t giving them everything they need to easily do the things they should do. Sometimes they literally don’t have the resources they need to function.
And, the moral concept says, you need to have pity on them; you need to have mercy and forgiveness for them. Life really is hard. It’s not entirely about you. You need to grant grace - you need to have a willingness to grant clemency. And you need to do this knowing you won’t always get the same consideration, just because it’s right.
If these two things seem like they are in conflict, it’s because they sort of are. Someone might say “Listen, if the second thing about understanding people sometimes might not have the resources that make it easy to be good is true, it’s true of you sometimes as well”, and they’d be right. And someone might say “Listen, if you should handle your stuff, that means that other people should too. You aren’t special; you aren’t especially strong” and they’d be right too.
And so I get stuck, because there really is a conflict there. And I stay stuck until I consider a bunch of religious stuff I won’t talk about and one secular thing I will: What kind of world do I want to live in?
There’s a thing where sometimes a secular social scientist will say something like “Oh, thank goodness for puritanical ethics - they built Western society.”. And the reason they generally think this is that Christianity/Puritanism have an assumption that you are working from a moral points deficit; that you are worse than you should be, and that you should be playing extra hard to try to catch up. The idea is that if everybody believes this (and for a while, a whole lot of people did) everyone works a little bit harder - they go a little bit above and beyond - and suddenly you have industry and improved agriculture and solid, old-world craftsmanship. Everything is better.
When I try to apply that to this, it means bad things for me. Because the deal is that the first moral dichotomy above has one obvious strength - it pushes me towards handling the things that are available for me to handle. It tells me I should pull the levers I can pull.
And that leaves me in situations where, say, I run my finger through an automotive accessory belt1 and I should still go to work the next day, even though I'm in pain, because I have people to feed. Or where someone breaks some big important social contract with me, and I'm hurt, but I should look for the ways I contributed to the problem and solve them, and do my best to do all the moral things I would have been obligated to do if there wasn't a betrayal in the first place.
And I should do that knowing that I’m going to keep getting injured and hurt, by circumstances and people. And that’s honestly really, really hard. And it’s not just hard for me - it’s hard for anybody. It’s harder when you are depressed, or sick. It’s harder when people are sad. It’s harder when things haven’t worked out. It’s harder when things are unfair.
So I end up in a place where I feel uncomfortable telling anyone else to do this. That’s partially because I know it’s hard, sometimes to the point of impossibility. And because I know I don’t know every aspect of what they are going through. And because “be nice and forgiving to this person” is a lever that I can move, that’s on my side of the relationship. And because taking on responsibility for blame and pain and shame is sometimes right, even if the other person is also wrong, or more wrong.
But I still don’t feel like I can cut myself that slack because, frankly, a world full of Evelyns is a world that never gets better. It’s a world that’s waiting on a bunch of unlikely stuff to happen so Evelyn can feel good enough to finally give the people around her what they need. And while that world waits, everyone is getting worse - everyone has less support, less forgiveness, and less love to work with.
From the perspective of looking at just Evelyn, you say “Oh, it’s understandable - let’s wait until other people give her what she needs to be nice”. But when you broaden that out to the entire world, it’s an entire world with its hand out, waiting to be given to. And nobody’s giving, because things are hard for everyone everywhere.
It’s hard, because depression and sadness are real. And there’s some people who don’t have the resources to do anything at all - who are so far in a hole that they legitimately aren’t in any position to help. Where it is understandable that they don’t have a lot to give or give back. Where they almost can’t be expected to take care of anything but themselves, and things might be worse if they don’t take care of themselves first.
And that’s often true of me, as well. There’s a lot of daylight between “I think this is correct, philosophically” and “I do this well”, and I live in that space. Nobody is 100% at this; people fail. And there are legitimately some people for whom “take care of others even though…” would translate not as “costly” but as “harmful and counterproductive”, and I don’t want to guilt anybody into hurting themselves like that.
And I’m not saying you don’t deserve good things and shouldn’t expect them from other people. I’m saying, sometimes that doesn’t happen. Sometimes it’s not going to happen. In those movements, people often have choices.
To the extent a person can control things - to the extent that they can make things better - it’s often by making things better for people around them. It’s playing through the pain. And it’s hoping that by doing this you give people the resources they need to give you resources back - that by treating them more-than-fairly you create the space for them that they need to treat you well.
And I don’t think it’s fair for anyone. But I think that might be the only way things get better.
For people who don’t work on cars, this is really bad. Bad stuff happens to your finger when you do this.