“In life, a man commits himself, draws his own portrait and there is nothing but that portrait,” wrote Jean-Paul Sartre in “Existentialism and Humanism,” Basic Writings
“In fact we are not in possession of our faculties; we are possessed by them. We do not really think; we are thought.”
—Robert Linssen, Living Zen
I hope, and imagine, that David Owen Russell’s I (Heart) Huckabees, or I Love Huckabees, is the kind of film that will be more appreciated with time’s passage. It is a philosophical farce focusing on existence, politics, the effects of capitalism, and personal relationships, and it is fun. The story revolves around an environmental activist negotiating with a chain store over the development of a natural area, and it stars Jason Schwartzman, Jude Law, Dustin Hoffman, Lily Tomlin, Mark Wahlberg, Isabelle Huppert, and Naomi Watts. The film is an original creation of a discriminating intelligence; and, although an entertainment, it assumes what art and criticism assume—intelligence and humanity—and it is a test of our ability to think through ideas and respond to more than two persons at a time, especially when those persons are different in character, thought, and values.
David Russell, like the lead character in I Heart Huckabees, did work on behalf of the environment and labor unions after graduating from Amherst College, where he studied english and political science. Russell studied with novelist Mary Gordon at Amherst, and he has said that he admires writers Robert Stone and Thomas Pynchon and the film director Luis Buñuel. The (Larchmont) New York native worked as a union organizer in Maine, and his video documentation of a union campaign led to his desire to make films; and Russell made three short films Boston to Panama (1985), Bingo Inferno (1987) and Hairway to the Stars (1990), before making the feature films Spanking the Monkey (1994), about a young man’s incestuous relationship with his troubled mother; Flirting with Disaster (1996), a comedy about a search for biological parents; and the great Three Kings (1999), a film about war, politics, and a quest for gold. Russell locates the root of I Heart Huckabees in his high school reading of J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zoey, and study of eastern philosophy with Robert Thurman in college; and he has said that the film contains the things he cares about most.
I Heart Huckabees, written by Russell with Jeff Baena, is very American in its directness and light spirit, while offering a critique of American values and institutions. American culture seems to prefer we be preoccupied with gossip, love, sex jokes, money, acquiring things, sports, music, ethnic tribalism, and an unimaginative two-party political system, all overseen by a very American god that never judges us harshly though it is likely to condemn what our neighbor is doing. The film is actually often astute emotionally—it gives us a central character that seeks help for a concern that turns out to be only a symptom rather than his main trouble, something that suggests both sensitivity and self-deception. Russell gives us a loving couple, one other than expected, Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman as existential detectives and teachers; they are married, middle-age, and share work and significant spiritual ideas. A masculine fireman, played by Mark Wahlberg, tries to come to terms with large matters, such as the effects of petroleum use and child labor, a commitment that alienates him from his wife and brings him a new friend in the environmentalist. The pretty pair, Jude Law and Naomi Watts, a marketing agent and a model, have their own existential crises—we all can suffer, we all can grow.
“I wanted it to be shot in a matter-of-fact, unfancy way. Not a lot of camera movement, pretty simple setups. I wanted it to be bright and open, not dark and muddy. We wanted a flat light, not a hard light. I associated it with New Jersey or the Valley, when things are overcast. In terms of décor, on the one hand I wanted interiors that were clean and open, like the interior of Huckabees or the detectives’ office, and on the other this strip-mall, could-be-anywhere, crappy-looking exterior world,” Russell told Film Comment’s Gavin Smith (September/October 2004). That is an unusual atmosphere, captured by cinematographer Peter Deming, for such a speculative film in which the lead character encounters forms of eastern philosophy and existentialism.
Eastern philosophy, of which Buddhism is a principal part, is an ancient thought that focuses on existence and on practice; and Buddhist philosophy posits four fundamental facts or truths—suffering, ignorance, deliverance, and spiritual discipline—and spiritual discipline includes pursuit of correct vision, intentions, speech, conduct, life style, effort, attention, and concentration, the eight-fold path. “Zen asks us to bring to bear the intensity of an extraordinary attention in the midst of all so-called ‘ordinary’ circumstances,” wrote Robert Linssen, Living Zen (174). Zen is a Japanese name for a mix of Buddhism, inspired by the enlightenment of an Indian prince, and Taoism, a Chinese philosophy in which nature is important (its central text is Tao Te Ching, attributed to Lao Zi or Lao Tse, and Zhuang Zi or Chuang Tse)—and many of Taoism’s traditional practitioners, skeptical of human institutions and in search of freedom, were loners and poets. Tao is a way of life; and Tao’s circular yin-yang symbol stands for a balance of opposites (Yin is dark, moon, woman, and Yang is light, sun, man), in which dark includes light and light includes dark. Zen followers seek to exist in the moment; and, encouraged to seek action that is in accord with nature (this can mean avoiding conflict), often sit—meditating. Existentialism, a twentieth-century French philosophy influenced by the Enlightenment and the French Revolution in its regard for individuality, also contemplates existence, and sees existence as solitary and as meaningless until human choice and effort invests it with meaning; and it is a philosophy often summarized by the aphorism that existence precedes essence. While both eastern philosophy and existentialism emphasize individual consciousness (with Eastern philosophy encouraging transcendence of self, and existentialism seeming a way of constituting a self), how we choose to act alone and with others is to both philosophies of defining importance.
I Heart Huckabees has received a rather mixed response. It was welcomed in The Village Voice (September 29-October 5, 2004) with an enthusiastic article by Dennis Lim, who wrote, “If Russell’s blithely profound mishmash of screwball Sartre and zany Zen seems incongruous, it’s because movies have historically consigned existential musings to the more passive and agonized sectors of art cinema. Huckabees, like Russell’s other films, is furiously active, bordering on unhinged, and its farcical tone proves ideally suited to philosophical striving: The movie acknowledges that to undertake such a quest is often to risk ridicule, even as it reconnects existentialism to a rich tradition of absurdity. ‘A Zen monk once told me, If you’re not laughing, you’re not getting it,’ Russell says. ‘These questions are absurd in some respects. Sometimes you cry because of the absurdity. Some people say that you talk about the serious stuff and then you put in comedy to make it go down easier. But no, they’re one and the same.’ ” Armond White, who noted the film’s philosophical rigor as its most appealing quality, wrote in the September 29-October 5, 2004 New York Press, “David O. Russell is among that group of contemporary filmmakers (along with Wes and P.T. Anderson, Spike Jonze, Alexander Payne, Sofia Coppola and others) currently tweaking the system. A friend calls this new breed the American Eccentrics, a good categorization since it distinguishes these upstarts from that last significant grouping of 70s filmmakers who were drawn to exploring American experience and pop tradition in order to understand their place in the world. The Eccentrics, formed by the fragmentation and solipsism of the 80s indie movement, are more interested in their personal idiosyncrasy. They don’t connect to life outside their own world but view it as absurd and different. Films like The Royal Tenenbaums, Punch-Drunk Love, Adaptation, Lost in Translation and Russell’s I Heart Huckabees reinforce a sense of boomers’ egotism; as with Payne’s About Schmidt, there is an insistence on braininess rather than connection with popular sentiment.” Ella Taylor in October 1-7, 2004 issue of LA Weekly described the film as “fresh, buoyant, mischievous and rather jolly meditation – if that’s the word for a movie as divinely nuts as this one is – on the meaning of life in an unhappy world.” Lim describes the movie as balancing an almost unfeasible amount of ideas, White says the film only works about half the time, and Taylor says it’s undisciplined and over-plotted: and these are the good reviews.
Andrew Sarris, who was repelled by some of the advance publicity for the film but encouraged to see it by his students, wrote in the October 18, 2004 New York Observer, “It is difficult for me to describe how sweet and buoyant I found the film, despite its seemingly excessive stylization. The whimsical, 46-year-old David Owen Russell, of Hairway to the Stars (1990), Spanking the Monkey (1994), Flirting with Disaster (1996) and Three Kings (1999), is fully in evidence here, but with even more audacious whimsy than before, and with a less conventional narrative structure. Huckabees is, in contemporary parlance, way more ‘out there’ than any other American movie you are likely to see this year. Yet it is also compelling enough for me to make my 10-best list.”
When I Heart Huckabees begins, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), a poet and environmental activist, in long uncombed hair and dressed in a suit for a press conference, walks through the woods. He is cursing, using words describing intimate relationships with both a mother and the male sex organ. His curses are interrupted by his speculation about whether his work is any good, and reference to an African guy (Ger Duany) he has been seeing around town, coincidental meetings he’s inclined to interpret as a sign. Anger and self-doubt, and also ambition, are aspects of his personality we will see throughout the film. Albert stands in front of a large rock and reads a very simple poem about the existence of the rock (it just sits); and it seemed a very bad poem to me. Albert, before a small audience of activists and press, is memorializing the rock he has protected and which he identifies with a simple existence.
The poet Wendell Berry who has written on the relationship of men and women to language, nature, and business has said in an essay, “With Nature” (Home Economics),
If the human economy is to be fitted into the natural economy in such a way that both may thrive, the human economy must be built to proper scale. It is possible to talk at great length about the difference between proper and improper scale. It may be enough to say here that that difference is suggested by the difference between amplified and unamplified music in the countryside, or the difference between the sound of a motorboat and the sound of oarlocks. A proper human sound, we may say, is one that allows other sounds to be heard. A properly scaled human economy or technology allows a diversity of other creatures to thrive. (16)
The local press is there to cover Albert’s environmental activism, and the press conference is very brief—Albert is soon off riding his bike to the office of two environmental detectives, Jaffe & Jaffe. He walks, and runs, through a maze-like hallway to get to their office, where he meets with Lily Tomlin’s Jaffe, who talks to him in a deep throaty voice and observes him. Albert had found the firm’s business card in a jacket borrowed in a restaurant, where he was meeting Brad Stand (Jude Law), a representative of a chain store, Huckabees, and someone Albert’s working with in a coalition to save a marsh and nearby woods. Tomlin’s Jaffe tells Albert that she and her partner would have Albert under surveillance; and through watching Albert, they would come to understand his existence.
Jason Schwartzman’s Albert says that he wants the detectives to investigate the coincidence of repeatedly seeing a tall African man. He says he saw the African when he was in a photo shop getting photos of Bob Dylan (we’ll later learn he was actually planting photos of himself there with his poems); as a doorman to a friend’s apartment building (actually, Albert’s mother’s apartment); and inside a van while Albert was planting a tree in a parking lot (trying to reverse the “they paved paradise and put up a parking lot” thing). The African was collecting signed photographs of various personalities, such as Shaquille O’Neal, when Albert first saw him; and one imagines the rarity of such a figure as the African in Albert’s world is why the man has stayed in Albert’s mind.
“Have you ever transcended space and time?” asks Tomlin’s Jaffe, a provocative question. Albert (Schwartzman) hedges before admitting he’s not sure what she’s talking about. He asks her to stay away from his job, as he’s having conflicts there that he would not like further complicated. This indicates an inclination to separate his life into sections, something the detectives are not likely to accept. The agency offers a sliding scale of payments, depending on ability to pay (they’ll help Albert pro bono); and Albert is introduced to Tomlin’s colleague, Hoffman’s Jaffe, and Tomlin and Hoffman kiss, which seems disconcerting at first, not what one expects in a professional office, though Hoffman will casually mention that the two are married. First Hoffman’s Jaffe shows Albert a blanket that Jaffe says represents the universe, and Jaffe raises different points in the blanket to suggest various people and things, saying each is different but connected—all part of the same blanket or matter. (“The sight of Mr. Hoffman, who’s in excellent form here, brandishing a blanket to explain how every particle in the universe connects together is an image of incomparable goofiness in a movie filled with irresistible nonsense moments,” wrote Manohla Dargis in her October 1, 2004 New York Times review.) Hoffman’s Jaffe says that we need to learn to see our connection as part of our everyday perception. While Vivian Jaffe will closely observe Albert’s daily habits, Bernard Jaffe will try to help him change his way of thinking. Bernard asks Albert to get into a dark black bag, a kind of isolation chamber, in which images of reality fall to reveal basic concerns or preoccupations. We see the face of Jude Law’s Brad Stand, and the tall Sudanese African in uniform, and then memory of a lunch between Albert and Brad Stand talking about the Open Spaces coalition and Huckabees and how the two men might work together. Brad admits that he knows that working with the coalition will be good for Huckabees’ image but he’s doing it because he really cares—a smooth way of being honest and forthright about one’s commercial concerns. In Albert’s black bag imaginings he hacks at Brad’s face with a long blade; and we see other faces of people with whom Albert’s argued—and Albert slices them.
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