Albert begins to incorporate some new practices into his life—we see him in the bath with an eye mask, trying to become more intimate with his feelings and conflicts so that he can accept them and attain peace. He eats breakfast and brushes his teeth, and Vivian Jaffe is outside Albert’s apartment window taking notes. He goes to a parking lot to hand out flyers of environmental concern and workers throw food and garbage in his face. Vivian, against his wishes, visits Albert’s office, planting listening devices as she goes; and she learns that he is fighting suburban sprawl and wants to know more, while he insists that the coincidence he wants to investigate involves the tall African man. Bernard Jaffe talks to Albert again about the interconnections of reality and how Albert can learn to break down his usual way of seeing things: and we see cubes of Bernard’s face separate, float, and fall, likely manifestations of director David Russell’s appreciation of the surrealists Magritte and Duchamp. (The graphics, or special effects, have a very human quality—they seem made by men rather than machine, and that lends them charm, just as the music by Jon Brion sounds as if it is performed by a band rather than an orchestra: the graphics and the music do not overwhelm.)
The existential detectives get a call about their client Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg)’s crisis with his wife, who is leaving him. Vivian dives into the car of Angela, a coalition member who has been arguing with Albert, and is in the backseat when Angela drives off to a coalition meeting, while Bernard goes to Tommy’s house. Firemen are helping Tommy’s wife move out of the house (and it did seem odd to me that Tommy’s fellow firemen would be helping his wife move out of the house, though it’s possible that his wife has friends and relatives who are firemen). “If nothing matters, how can I matter?” asks Tommy’s wife, a rather understandable response—she is actually taking his philosophical inclination seriously by seeing its practical application; but this also indicates an inability to tolerate philosophical speculation. “She won’t stay and share this with me,” says Tommy, who attempts to explain his wife’s selfishness to their daughter and shows Bernard a book, Caterine Vauban’s If Not Now, a pessimistic view of life. Vauban, played by Isabelle Huppert, is a former associate of Bernard and Vivian Jaffe; and Vauban will follow Vivian and begin to interfere in the detectives’ cases. Tommy hits a fireman who calls Bernard his therapist.
Meanwhile, at a corporate meeting Jude Law’s Brad is telling a story that’s “only four months old” involving country singer Shania Twain and her disaffection for chicken salad and mayonnaise sandwiches, a story that indicates how persuasive Brad can be even with a self-directed celebrity. Tomlin’s Vivian Jaffe infiltrates the meeting to plant a listening device, then wanders the halls and is escorted back by a sharp receptionist, something that easily conveys the controlled atmosphere of such an environment. There’s a poster of Shania that Vivian sees, stopping; and “Shania has no song for you,” the receptionist says, and Vivian sees Naomi Watts’ Dawn modeling before leaving. Dawn is the voice (and face) of Huckabees. That Dawn is called the voice of Huckabees seems a bit of overt foreshadowing of a time when her face may no longer be seen.
Albert sits on a large rock, the one we saw at the beginning of the film, the rock he “saved.” “We go to wilderness places to be restored, to be instructed in the natural economies of fertility and healing, to admire what we cannot make. Sometimes, as we find to our surprise, we go to be chastened or corrected. And we go in order to return with renewed knowledge by which to judge the health of our human economy and our dwelling places,” wrote Wendell Berry in Home Economics (17). Albert wonders, Is it possible for anyone to make this world better? “I cannot tell, I only know that whatever may be in my power to make it so, I shall do; beyond that, I can count upon nothing,” wrote Sartre in “Existentialism and Humanism,” Basic Writings (36).
“Any thinking person finds it hard not to be brought down into depression by a world convulsed by senseless wars, famine, melting icecaps, the desecration of wilderness areas for oil, and the continued malling of America by corporate interests whose capacity for Orwellian doublespeak boggles the mind. Try to name one recent Hollywood film that has even bothered to allude indirectly to these subjects and you will come up blank. That’s one reason to support this one,” commented Frederic and Mary Brussat of the online publication, Spirituality and Health, in their review of I Heart Huckabees, accessed November 6, 2004.
We learn, during a coalition meeting, that a coalition member’s father deeded the marsh and woods to the town. Brad tells the members that their campaign has to reach people quickly with images, including that of singer and nature advocate Shania Twain, not the poetry that Albert prefers. (Vivian introduces herself to Brad.)
In a meeting with Albert, Vivian and Bernard tell him what they have learned. Vivian says that rather than looking for a Dylan photograph when he saw the African in the photography shop, Albert was planting photos of himself and his poems, an obvious desire for attention. The desire for public attention is not all that hard to understand in a world in which anonymity renders one inconsequential and fame seems to confirm one’s existence. Albert also looked in the shop at photographs of Jessica Lange, whom Dawn resembles. “Do you only have fantasy relationships?” the detectives ask him, before getting him back into the black bag, in which memories of Naomi and Brad come. Albert sees, or imagines, a tree; and Bernard tells him to add someone he respects to the scene—and Brad appears, sitting in the tree. Obviously Albert has an attraction-repulsion response to Brad, respecting Brad’s success while resenting his values. Then, Brad is joined in the tree by Albert’s favorite high school teacher, and Brad pushes her out of the tree. She comes back and Brad chops her head off, then Albert slices Brad up. This is a rather terrific way of conveying violent impulses that resonate as true—human, common—but that are hard to accept.
The use of a tree as part of Albert’s meditative imagery is in line with his environmental activism; and it also calls up a human response that is both poetic and spiritual. Wendell Berry wrote an essay, “The University,” that talked about letters and numbers (including history, literature, and philosophy in the former, and biology and physics in the latter) as the basis of educational study and noted the contemporary tendency toward specialization, the lack of shared wisdom; and Berry tried to suggest the importance of maintaining basic connections among words, things, and meanings, using a tree for an example.
It is necessary, for example, that the word tree evoke memories that are both personal and cultural. In order to understand fully what a tree is, we must remember much of our experience with trees and much that we have heard and read about them. We destroy those memories by reducing trees to facts, by thinking of tree as a mere word, or by treating our memory of trees as ‘cultural history.’ When we call a tree a tree, we are not isolated among words and facts but are at once in the company of the tree itself and surrounded by ancestral voices calling out to us all that trees have been and meant. This is simply the condition of being human in this world, and there is nothing that art and science can do about it, except get used to it. But, of course, only specialized ‘professional’ arts and sciences would propose or wish to do something about it. (Home Economics, 80)
We see Naomi Watts’ Dawn in a commercial in which she’s smiling and posing, draped in patriotic colors, red, white, and blue. Dawn seems perfectly happy—it’s arguable that she’s found her life mission: to look good and get paid for it. It may well be an act of violence to bring new, complex thoughts to her awareness.
Brad is in Bernard’s office and Bernard films him reading a poem. Albert walks in and sees this, noting that Brad doesn’t write poems and has borrowed some of Albert’s ideas for his poem. Bernard suggested Brad write the poem, indicating Bernard wanted Brad to experience something of value to Albert; and Brad used the nearest reference he had to accomplish his writing assignment—Albert. Albert says that Brad wants to conquer the detectives (his detectives?) the way he conquered the coalition, suggesting the power and seduction and seductive power involved in all kinds of relationships, professional and political.
Vivian decides to introduce Albert to Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg); each is to be an “other,” part of an existential pair, a self both different and connected. When Vivian brings Albert to Tommy, Tommy is listening, somewhat mystified, to a black-garbed Spanish woman talking rather mournfully and the woman is described by Vivian as a spiritual petit four (a small square-cut piece of cake). “Why do people only ask themselves deep questions when something bad happens,” asks Tommy, who is permitted one question but asks three: it is hard to regiment genuine spiritual questions or torment. [There are real world web sites established for the Huckabees corporation, Jaffe & Jaffe, and Tommy Corn, accessible as of October 2004, and on Tommy’s he asks these three questions: “Why is it that people only ask themselves deep questions when something really bad happens, and then they forget all about it later? How come people are self destructive? I refuse to use petroleum but there’s no way I can stop its use in my lifetime, is there?”]
“I’ll be your other,” says Tommy to Albert; and his words and tone have a factuality and a friendliness that are manly while also seeming somewhat sweet. (Tommy’s last name, Corn, suggests something that is of nature and sweetness.) Andrew Sarris called Tommy the film’s most likable and sympathetic character. Tommy is affected by the World Trade Center destruction of September 11, 2001; and Russell told Film Comment, “For about two months after 9/11, people were asking really profound questions about reality and existence—and then it was back to business as usual, whether politically or existentially. Tommy is the kind of person who uncompromisingly grabs onto something and he’s not going to go back to business as usual.”
Vivian announces what I heard as a mancala hour (mancala is a board game and I think we see, very briefly, at least one shot of a board game in progress); and there is music, drinking, and dancing. Tommy and Albert talk, and Tommy says his own life seems to him now more like the philosophy of Caterine Vauban, rather than the optimism of Jaffe & Jaffe. Albert challenges Brad’s interest in philosophy and asks him to name a recent book he’s read and Brad names a book by sportsman Phil Jackson, Sacred Hoops. Albert wants to see his own file; and to distract the others, Tommy insults Brad and dances with Naomi, an unromantic romantic moment (form without feeling)—and Albert retrieves his file with the African’s address, and Albert and Tommy go to see him. The African, Steven Nimieri (Ger Dusany), is a young Sudanese refugee who is living with a white Christian family in the suburbs; and Albert and Tommy ride their bikes to where he lives. (“What other movie of this century features two heroes who ride bikes? Now there’s something that is genuinely countercultural!” wrote Spirituality and Health’s Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat, of this “daring metaphysical comedy.”) Albert and Tommy join Steven and the family for a spaghetti meal, at which a prayer is said; and Albert and Tommy learn that Steven collects autographs and autographed photographs as it is part of this family’s activities, but, after attempts at conversation, there is an argument over values and politics. “If the forms of this world die, what happens to the infinite aspects of the self?” Albert asks. What happens in a meadow at dusk? “Everything,” says Albert. “Nothing,” says Steven’s adopted mother. “We took a Sudanese refugee into our home,” the father says self-righteously. Why did they do that, and why were they needed to do that? “Could that have to do with support of dictatorships?” asks Tommy, implicating the American government in Africa’s instability. Albert and Tommy are ordered to leave; and Albert concludes that the previous coincidence of meeting Steven was meaningless. (Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban, the dark lady of French philosophy, is in a white limo nearby, observing.)
The environmental organization director above Albert gives him a chance to speak at the coalition’s meeting. Albert says that the coalition is overlooking the core issues; and he reads a poem. “Poems help you to think differently,” says Tommy. Brad claims Albert is unfocused (they each see a problem but ascribe it to different causes, just as in American party politics); and Brad is elected coalition leader, to Albert’s hurt and anger. (David Russell has said that Jude Law seeing the three characters—Albert, Tommy, and Brad—together, described them as archetypes of the artist, working man, and capitalist.) Albert, rather than accept Brad’s leadership, leaves. Does that mean he doesn’t respect the democratic process of the group and the resulting selection; or that the selection indicates that he and the group no longer share goals or values, and have no basis in working together? Tenzin Gyatso, the Dalai Lama, a practitioner and advocate of inner transformation through spiritual discipline of the mind and body, talks about the importance of self-understanding, which affects responses, as self-understanding leads to an ability to tolerate criticism, fair and unfair, and an ability to learn from various situations, comfortable and uncomfortable. The Dalai Lama says that utilizing personal strengths can transform work into a calling; and the commitment to that calling is not limited to a particular activity or role (The Art of Happiness at Work, written with Dr. Howard C. Cutler); so, for instance, if Albert wants to be of use to people, he might do that in various roles, not only as leader.
Tommy recommends that Albert give Caterine Vauban’s cynical—or realistic?—philosophy a chance; and it is so that in our weak moments someone will offer us a questionable option. Albert angrily takes off on his bike, with Tommy not far behind and the existential detectives attempting to follow. Vauban tells Albert she can answer his questions. “Betrayal embodies the universal truth,” she says. What is the truth? Cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness; and her business card carries that motto. Caterine Vauban drives Albert and Tommy to Albert’s mother’s apartment, where the African doorman Steven works. Caterine hands Steven a note. Albert’s mother (Schwartzman’s own mother Talia Shire) criticizes Albert for losing his job and hands him information about marketing work—she thinks his language skills should be used to sell things, a familiar belief (she’s telling him also, unknowingly, to become Brad). Albert’s stepfather puts on Shania Twain music. Caterine finds Albert’s childhood notebook in which he describes his mother’s unsympathetic response to his cat’s dying, drawing attention to his mother’s inclination to give a stranger more attention than her son. His mother says to Caterine, “What are you, a bitch? You’re a bitch—this is a bitch. How many children do you have, bitch?” (Whereas the vulgarity that began the film is somewhat startling, the vulgarity and outrage are here weirdly funny.) Steven comes up to the apartment, as Caterine asked, apparently, in her note, and Caterine says, “Steven was orphaned by civil war and Albert was orphaned by indifference.” They leave the apartment; and in the elevator both Albert and Caterine have tears in their eyes. “You were trained to betray yourself,” says Tommy, who talks about the cracks in between the connections that Jaffe & Jaffe advised them to see. Vivian says that the detectives would have been able to help Albert if he had been more honest, if he hadn’t misled them about the link between Steven and Albert’s mother. (The unspoken idea is that in being unable to trust his mother Albert has learned to distrust other figures of power, something that has helped him to be an individual and an activist, but that leads to self-betrayal when he distrusts benevolent figures of power.) Bernard says that just because you cannot see the connections he names does not mean they aren’t there; and he says that he and his wife will work on Brad and it will all come back to Albert, an indication that Brad is also Albert’s other.
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