A Publishing Journey, #72: Essay “Everything Everywhere All at Once & Popular Nihilism”

Thank you to Titus Techera and the Post Modern Conservative for publishing my short piece about Everything Everywhere All at Once–surprisingly popular, the #1 2022 awards-magnet. You can read my article at PoMoCon! (And you can listen to my episode as a guest on The AntiSocial Network Podcast“Daniels’ Nihilism: The Moral Desert of EEAAO w/Ethan McGuire”)

My original intention was to write a long, much-encompassing essay concerning Everything Everywhere All at Once about nihilism in contemporary pop culture, metamodernism, empty cynical sentimentality from the kinds of people who would decry the type of sentimentality Spielberg and Griffith had, how EEAAO’s generic-brand Buddhism measures up against the Buddhism of Chinese directors Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar Wai, and how EEAAO measures up against the way spirituality was portrayed in two other 2022 films, Father Stu and Benediction. But I ultimately decided to go for a quick punch instead, about 1,100 words describing why I am not willing to praise the attention Everything Everywhere All at Once is receiving, despite the good things about that praise and a few things I enjoyed in the movie–especially the acting, the editing, creative uses of visual and special effects, some of the action, and some of the humor.

EEAAO is indeed popular, especially for A24, and if it wins Best Picture, it will be one of the few recent Best Picture winners to have made its studio a lot of money. It’s received a lot of positive recognition from audiences, critics, and industry awards organizations. But EEAAO also sells us the audience a sentimental, hollow, contradictingly nihilistic, generic-brand Buddhism. Some people have tried to tie its worldview to Buddhism proper, but if you want to see real portrayals of actual Buddhism on film that are more committed and true, then watch the great works of the Chinese masters Wong Kar-Wai and Zhang Yimou. Their films often take a much more spiritually rich look at similar human issues with a higher sense of humanism. I’m especially thinking of The Grandmaster and Hero.

Plus, there were other films in 2022 even that actually did take a rich spiritual look at similar human drama to EEAAO (albeit not within multiverses! thankfully!), including from Christian perspectives as in Father Stu (written and directed by Rosalind Ross) and the excellent Benediction (written and directed by Terence Davies). In Father Stu, Mel Gibson’s Bill tells his ex-wife, “Load of good you an’ me did climbin’ into bed together. Made two kids own bodies don’t want ’em.” This gets at the real drama in EEAAO, Benediction, Father Stu, and other recent films. How the filmmakers answer the issues and questions makes all the difference.

In EEAAO, “the Daniels” (as some have come to affectionately call the writer-directors Daniel Kwan & Daniel Scheinert, who also wrote and directed 2016’s less successful Swiss Army Man) give their answer, and it’s hollow sentimentality, as I discuss in my piece. “Be kind and love each other like family” is their message. But what is kindness? Love? Family? A movie with no grounding in an already established system of religion must build a foundation, must formulate a whole answer to these sorts of questions, but EEAAO does not do so in any meaningful way. Their message comes down to “be nice to each other.” Well, the infamous “be nice until it’s time to not be nice” from Patrick Swayze in Road House has more meaning to it than that!

This reminds me of the vapid John Lennon and Yoko Ono Christmas song “Happy Xmas (War is Over),” as well as many such silly sentiments from the hippy and adjacent types of the ’60s, but also this all reminds me that this past Christmas season I listened to the 2018 reissue of Diana Ross’s Christmas album, Wonderful Christmas Time. The reissue has her cover of “Happy Xmas (War is Over)” as the final song on the album, and hearing her sing it directly after nine explicitly Christian Christmas & Gospel songs, I realized that this reissue had recontextualized the song, given it a grounding in a Christian sense of love and peace and joy, provided the empty sentiments with some meaning, meaning that was absent from the Lennon & Ono version. All that be kind, have love stuff, it simply can’t have any meaning in the absence of religion, in the absence of justice, etc.

The vague philosophy and meaningless sci-fi sentimentality of EEAAO, as well as many of EEAAO’s plot and character elements, bear many similarities to The Matrix, and this is something the Daniels have been upfront about. My friend Eric McDonough said EEAAO is The Matrix after an extra couple decades of cultural decay. That’s spot on. A culture that created and loved The Matrix and its sequels (both direct sequels and sequels of inspiration) would naturally continue its deconstruction and come to EEAAO.

You’re be better off watching The Grandmaster, Hero, Father Stu, or Benediction as I mentioned before, or Wong Kar-Wai’s In the Mood for Love which EEAAO references a bit, or Zhang Yimou’s Shadow, or Alex Proyas’s Dark City (which has always been better than The Matrix as a philosophy-illustrated-through-sci-fi movie from the late ’90s, and much better than The Matrix as a Plato’s Cave Allegory example). Or, if you’re looking for absurdist martial arts type stuff, which EEAAO certainly does offer, you’d be much better off watching Stephen Chow’s absurdist action comedies, like Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle.

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