I Sartre Huckabees

by Brendan Lalor, 2005

Introduction

The one-time first comment about I Heart Huckabees (2004) on the Internet Movie Database read: “Risky, inventive & not totally successful film – enjoyable even if it made very little sense to me.” My aim here may seem a little paradoxical: in explaining what sense the film makes, I explain why it is a viewer’s own fault if the film lacked sense.

Beyond the masterfully crafted characters and the trove of wonderful one-liners assembled by writers David O. Russell and Jeff Baena, the film does “make sense” in a larger way, and even defends theses about the place of humanity in the cosmos, and a proper attitudinal response, given that place.

The film’s central thesis is that the human subject creates meaning through choosing values that underlie the interpretation of life’s events. Generating a meaningful interpretation of I Heart Huckabees is itself, in microcosm, an application of this principle. Hence, failure to succeed is an interpretive failure, and does not reflect a flaw in the film.

The best way to see this at a glance is to note the symbolism of the rock which provides the setting at both the beginning and the end of the film. The rock was spared from developers by the Open Spaces Coalition, a little-engine-that-could-type grassroots organization dedicated to fighting suburban sprawl.

As the film opens, the protagonist and leader of the Coalition, Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman), is joined by a handful of community activists in a marsh “celebrating” the saving of the rock. Albert’s inner monologue, though, is hardly celebratory:

Motherfucking shit fucker! What am I doing? ... I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m doing 
the best that I can. I know that’s all I can ask of myself. But is ... my work doing 
any good? Is anybody paying attention? Is it hopeless to try and change things? .... 
Maybe I should just fucking quit. Don’t fucking quit. I don’t know what the fuck I’m 
supposed to fucking do anymore.

As the film closes, Albert is joined by his “Other,” co-star, firefighter Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), on that same rock. The film to this point has largely been an exasperating, desperate, non-stop quest (in Albert’s case) to gain a sense that what he’s doing has some ultimate meaning, or (in Tommy’s case) to respond appropriately to the fundamental lack of care most humans show for others. The protagonists have confronted cruelties past and present, and obstinate apathy in others. Shortly before this final scene, it looked as though there might be bad blood between them: Tommy had been hurt over Albert’s fling with “France’s dark lady of philosophy,” nihilist Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert). Their overcoming of the resultant alienation in choosing acceptance over resentment and betrayal signals a culmination of their quest. They finally sit peacefully on the rock.

That rock represents their achievement: it was saved by action on the basis of their values; it is meaningful for them. Maybe nobody is “paying attention”; but that’s not the basis of meaningful action. It is not useless “to try and change things,” because meaning does not come from being on the winning side: there is no grand scheme into which we’re supposed to fit like puzzle pieces, some external source of value. There may be no meaning we find in the world (one of Caterine’s “truth’s”); but that does not imply there is no meaning in it. Do the protagonists admit defeat because the cosmos itself does not satisfy their expectation of meaning? No. The film’s final lines testify:

-   Albert: What are you doing tomorrow?
-   Tommy: I was thinking about chaining myself to a bulldozer [to “save the marsh”].
-   Albert: Do you want to come?
-   Tommy: What time?
-   Albert: Mmm, 1:00, 1:30.
-   Tommy: Sounds good. Should I bring my own chains?
-   Albert: We always do.

In choosing the values underlying this project, and acting on them, they generate meaning. Their peace and rest on the rock represent their acceptance of themselves as the source of meaning, their choices as the source of values.

Themes

It is worthwhile to consider some corollary theses defended in the film, and to highlight them with illustrative anecdotes.

Absurdity

The film is peppered with absurdity, that is, instances of laughable mismatches between human intention or expectation, on the one hand, and reality, on the other. These are microcosmic absurdities that hint at macrocosmic absurdity; they suggest the suspicion that life as a whole is absurd. To point out just a few:

- The celebration of the saving of one rock (Albert: “I know it’s small, but at least it’s something”) is laughable against the backdrop of the goal (“We’re going to save a lot more of this place”).

- As Albert searches for the office of the “Existential Detectives,” Vivian and Bernard Jaffe (Lily Tomlin, Dustin Hoffman), whom he hopes will help him explain the meaning of recent coincidences, his anxiety builds as he speeds through a labyrinth of monotonous, white halls, rounding corner and corner, scanning door after identical door. He’s intent on reaching his destination, but trapped in a kind of “swirling eddie,” the architectural face of bureaucracy, chasing himself, perhaps going in circles, going nowhere.

- On arrival at the office, Albert finds himself in a waiting area cramped with clients. On the one hand, this appearance suggests the Jaffes are hopelessly busy; on the other, they quickly devote their full attention to his case, and on a pro bono basis!

- As Vivian takes notes, watching Albert eat his breakfast through his kitchen window, she instructs him to do “whatever you normally do.” But the obvious observer-effect renders her instructions impossible to comply with.

Is the reality of life itself as mismatched with human expectations as these instances suggest?

Bad Faith

Huckabees advertising executive, Brad Stand (Jude Law), supports his belief that his life is meaningful by meeting or exceeding others’ standards. In his dependence on others, though, he denies he is a free, authentic human being. In the terms of Jean-Paul Sartre: his denial that he is a being-for-itself is bad faith, a lie to himself. Bad faith is, in fact, the structure of his existence. He lies to himself about why he plants copies of Kafka in the garbage for the Jaffes to find. Bernard’s diagnosis: “That’s joking as a disguised request for approval. That’s saying, ‘Joke, but really love me.’” Later, when the Jaffes confront Brad with audio tape of five repeats of his impressive Shania Twain story, he denies that he trades the monotonous re-tellings for affirmation. Having denied his superficiality on the spot (“How am I not myself?”), his confrontation with the lie in the mirror proves to shake him. Shortly afterward, when pressed for the Shania story in the corporate meeting to secure his promotion, the undeniability of his hollowness sickens him, and he pukes in his own hand. Having lost house, job, and girlfriend — in short, all the reliable sources of affirmation he’s known — he admits in his final lines: “I don’t have a job. I don’t even know who I am.” That’s a start.

We catch Brad spreading the bad faith when his girlfriend, “Ms. Huckabees,” Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts), suffers one of her melt-downs. Brad’s approach to damage control: “I’ll get you whatever you want. What do you need?” Dawn responds, “I don’t know.” Brad offers clothes, a pedicure, in short, he prompts her to find meaning through being-a-consumer. Such “satisfactions” help perpetuate the lie of bad faith because they distract from, rather than meet, the deeper needs of authentic human personality.

Dawn Campbell. She is – and thinks of herself as – the trademark voice of Huckabees. That’s “is,” in Sartrean terms, in the mode of the in-itself, “is” as an “inkwell or table is.” During another break-down, she cries: “Everybody look at me now. I am so pretty… Everybody just wants to be me. I’m pretty.” It’s no wonder: she’s been objectified as a model, reduced to a thing, and — talk about alienation in one’s labor — blathers on, promoting the same kind of consumerism that’s left her empty. “Tops and mops. 50% off all women’s shirts and hair products. This week only. At Huckabees, the everything store.” (It gets even worse, as she wraps the pitch in patriotism: “Flags and bags! Huckabees says, ‘Happy birthday, Mr. President.’ 50% off all knapsacks and pocketbooks. Oh, say, can you see how good this looks? Let freedom ring. At Huckabees, the everything store.”) At one point, Dawn toys with asserting values for herself:

-        Dawn: You know what? You got Albert fired.
-        Brad: Stay positive. Bermuda. Jet skis. Piña coladas. All right?
-        Dawn: Yeah.

There’s lots more bad faith to go around: Tommy’s wife; Albert’s parents; the adoptive parents of the “tall African guy” (Ger Duany), “coincidental” encounters with whom drive Albert to the Jaffes in the first place. The Jaffes themselves may be in bad faith, too, clinging to the cozy vision of the universe as a meaningful totality. Albert’s surname change and his concealment of that fact that the “tall African guy” is parents’ doorman may be rooted in bad faith as well.

Caterine’s Nihilist “Truths”

Caterine discovers in Albert’s journal that at age nine, rather than comfort him after his cat’s death, his mother preferred to serve tea to a perfect stranger for whom she asked Albert to recite spelling words, making him feel embarrassed about his sadness. “You were trained to betray yourself right here,” Caterine announces in his parents’ home. Which explains why he betrayed himself in allowing — even assisting in – Brad’s take over of the Coalition for Huckabees’ own PR purposes. Caterine: “Betrayal embodies the universal truth you seek… Cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness.” “Existence is a cruel joke.”

As Albert laments his failure to save the marsh, Caterine counsels, “Sadness is what you are. Do not deny it.” It’s as if she’s Sartre’s infamous “champion of sincerity,” from Being and Nothingness, urging sadness as Albert’s essence, which he must embrace as the basis of his outlook and action. If essence precedes existence, sadness defines Albert.

Albert’s Other, Tommy, provides the best account of Caterine’s doctrine about the impersonal nature of the universe. His summary of her book is reinforced by the abandonment he feels at the departure of his wife and daughter: “If this world is temporary … identity is an illusion … then everything is meaningless and it doesn’t matter.”

Method: The proper response to the cruelty and indifference with which the universe greets us is a quasi-stoical recognition of the inevitability of “human drama” (suffering). It can be escaped through the encounter with “pure being,” temporarily achieved by reducing oneself to a state free of thinking (e.g., by having a friend hit you repeatedly in the face with a blow-up ball). Albert and Tommy:

- It’s fantastic.
- It’s like I’m here, but I’m not ...
- So, I’m not here. It- It’s just ...
- I... I... I don’t know. Do it one more time.
- It’s like I’m a rock or a dish of mold.
- I’m whatever else is around. So I’m free to just exist.

Bernard and Vivian’s “Blanket Truth”

The Jaffe’s will not tolerate such heresy. For them, the universe is properly understood as inherently meaningful. But are all events meaningful? Coincidences in particular are one of the film’s recurrent themes. Albert is driven by his belief that there is significance in his repeated “chance” encounters with “the tall African guy,” Mr. Nimieri (not just as doorman of his parents’ building, but in a parking lot in which he planted a tree in protest for the Coalition, and in a photograph shop).

The Jaffes are guided by a belief in what Bernard calls “the Blanket Truth”:

-        Albert: So everything is the same even if it’s different.
-        Bernard: Exactly. But our everyday mind forgets this. We think everything is separate. 
Limited. I’m over here. You’re over there. Which is true. But it’s not the whole truth 
because we’re all connected [as if we are different parts of a single blanket].

This doctrine of oneness is reflected in the Jaffes’ attachment to mancala, a game played around the world, which unites people from various cultural and linguistic groups at the Jaffes’ own Mancala Hour. (Interesting trivia: in the mancala scene, Brad is first pictured in conversation with a priest … suggesting confession? Pretense? Presumably not networking!?)

Method: To “see the blanket truth all the time” you need to “dismantle,” “shut down your everyday perceptions and give up your usual identity that you think separates you from everything”; this can be achieved by shutting out external stimulation to separate your consciousness from “your senses, your job, everything that you identify with” (e.g., by climbing inside a dark body bag or wearing an eye mask and relaxing under water).

Synthesis

Ironically, it’s anti-nihilist Vivian Jaffee who tells Albert that coincidences are “not always meaningful”; but it’s nihilist Caterine who helps Albert interpret his encounters with Mr. Nimieri meaningfully: “He was orphaned by civil war. You were orphaned by indifference.” This suggests truth in both views. First, although their views do seem to be opposed as thesis-antithesis, either-or, their methods have commonalities, despite Caterine’s protestation against Albert that the methods are “completely different” and that to adopt the Jaffes’ method is to “lead a fake life.” She is a little too insistent, even threatened. After all, both methods achieve a kind of detachment from self and identification with a totality. Yes, the Jaffe’s totality is an intrinsically meaningful whole, while Caterine’s is meaningless, undifferentiated pure being. But this opposition is to be overcome.

And this is the second point: there is a Hegelian theme here: Reality cannot be comprehended by a fractured either-or view, but requires a point of view that transcends such distinctions. Albert (and Tommy) transcend both nihilism and the blanket truth as understood by the Jaffes. The Jaffes’ status as detectives itself carries symbolic value: they’re looking for meaning in the world, as if it were something to discover, rather than to create. But, unwittingly, this project of theirs relies on values they affirm, which generate meaning for them. What they fail to recognize is that this meaning is not inherent in the world, but is constituted by they themselves!

Contra Caterine, sadness is not Albert’s essence. Instead, Albert’s choices — often rooted in his strategy for dealing with embarrassment, alienation from his parents, etc. — reflect his pattern of interpretations of the world. Up to a point, he chose the betrayal picture of his relation to the world. And it is a matter of his freedom to abandon that interpretation and to introduce a different meaning by acting on different value-based interpretations. For instance, if Albert self-consciously chooses to value people, the world, and overcoming alienation, and acts in the cause, the world described by Caterine as neutral “pure being” can be transformed into a world of meanings for Albert sustained by his will. Very Nietzschean/Sartrean.

Albert and Tommy ask Caterine and the Jaffes:

-        You guys work together, don’t you?
-        We don’t work together at all.
-        Really? It’s not like some secret deal ... where she picks up where you leave off, and 
then we come back to you?
-        There is no secret deal.
-        Well, there should be, ‘cause that’s the way it works. You’re too dark, and you’re not 
dark enough. You three were close, right?
-        Maybe too close. Then it went sour and propelled you into one extreme ... and you into 
another extreme. So, voila’! Two overlapping, fractured philosophies ... were born out 
of that one pain.

Caterine is the Jaffes’ anti-thesis, and was in fact, as Hegel would have it, their “graduate student.” The seeds of the anti-thesis are contained in the thesis itself. Both positions were necessary to produce Albert and Tommy’s fuller insight, by which they transcend both positions. Sitting in peace on the rock of their own power to constitute a world of meaning, here’s their dialog:

-        Looks like you saw some truth.
-        Looks like you saw some truth.
-        What’d you see?
-        Well, the interconnection thing is definitely for real....
-        I know. But it’s also nothing special.
-        Yeah, because it grows from the manure of human trouble.
-        You see, the detectives, they just wanted to gloss right over that.
-        But in fact, no manure, no magic.

Ivory tower types like the Jaffes (they do after all have “graduate students”) and Caterine (she is after all an author) can be so blinded by their theories as to miss what is grasped by common people of concrete action – the fire-fighter or grassroots activist.

On further reflection, one cannot but suspect that Caterine finds meaning in her own projects, in which she identifies herself with the cruelty and indifference she reads into the universe. Marching Albert off to wilderness sex, she separates him from Tommy, who is left alone:

-        Tommy: Where you goin’?
-        Caterine: To meditate on desire and suffering,

she answers with a kind of sadistic disregard. Later, she encourages Albert to stick it to Brad through destruction (we later learn, by an act of arson that gets out of hand): “as for Brad, you must do to him for real what he did to you.” As Brad’s house is going up in flames, she cycles through her whispered mantra, “creation, destruction, creation, destruction,” in what appears to be ecstasy.

Just as the Jaffes miss their own authorship of meaningfulness, Caterine misses the meaningfulness of her authorship. Both find what they believe they will find. As Hegel put it, “To the one who turns a rational eye to history, history presents its rational aspect.” But the point is much more general. We are the authors of whatever meaning we find: the rationality, meaningfulness, meaninglessness, or humanism we find in the world.

Consider the jacket Albert is lent to meet a restaurant dress code: it “happens to” contain the business card that leads him to the Existential Detective agency. Coincidence or not? The lack of resolution is a reminder that the ball is in the court of the viewer to provide an interpretation. After all, is not Albert’s acceptance of the bond between himself and Nimieri as orphans itself more a construct of interpretation than a discovery of reality’s inherent meaning?

Humanism

“Saving the marsh” is Albert and Tommy’s project, but also their metaphor for the truly humanistic values they affirm. It is saving humanity and the rest of nature from unsustainable, oil-lubricated, suburban sprawl, and mindless, alienating mass culture; it is countering numb disregard for the welfare of others. Those who embrace anti-thetical values are the “crazy” ones, lying to themselves about the harmfulness of their way of life. These are the values of Mr. Nimieri’s host family. Of course, to facilitate the family’s self-deception, there’s Nimieri himself, the family’s token “Other,” the Sudanese refugee the family named “Steven,” but whom the kids call “skeleton man from Africa.” While his need and foreign point of view amuse them, he is there so the family can uphold its negative, destructive values, yet simultaneously commend itself as positive.

Nimieri’s host “Dad” even claims Steven “could have used a little suburban sprawl in Sudan,” failing to note the implausibility of universalizing the American way of life. But “Dad” will not be confused by the facts:

-        Albert: You can still have a functioning economy and preserve open spaces with a little 
planning.
-        Dad: Socialism. Complete disaster.

He busily sustains his oversimplified version of reality, caricaturing anyone who disagrees with him. In defense of suburban sprawl, he musters this:

-        I work for an electrical engineering firm, son. We do a lot of commercial and residential 
contracts. If development stops, so does my paycheck. Then Steven couldn’t be here as our 
guest, could he? So your ideas hurt Steven.

He fails to recognize that Steven is a refugee in the first place in part because of the United States’ active and passive support for African dictatorships.

Tommy hasn’t been the same since “the big September thing” (9/11). But “Dad,” here, blinded by his ideological fairy tale, seems not to have learned the lesson of 9/11, but instead exclaims, “God gave us oil! … How can God’s gift be bad?” Tommy put it this way earlier: “You use petroleum, you’re a murderer. That’s a fact … One: killin’ the ozone and all the creatures that it’s hurting? … Two: killing Arabs in oil-producing dictatorships where everybody is poor. That is cruelty and it’s inhumane.” Tommy’s claim is that acts of petroleum use affirm this system of cruel values, for which those actors are responsible. It’s clear that Nimieri’s host family, and by extension America, is committed to fleeing such responsibility and avoiding such questions as those that undermine the way of life to which they cling so tenaciously. Here’s some dialog from the scene around the table, in which Albert reflects on death:

-        Albert: If the forms of this world die, which is more real: the me that dies or the me 
that’s infinite? Can I trust my habitual mind or do I need to learn to look beneath those 
things? ...
-        Daughter: We don’t have to ask those kinds of questions, do we, Mom?
-        Mom: No, honey.

On the one hand, Albert and Tommy are obviously considered crazy by the family. On the other, as our protagonists step off the front porch, they ask “What’s going on in there?” “Crazy,” they agree. Their outlook is incommensurable with the family’s — giving rise to the classification of each other as “unintelligible,” governed by completely different standards. Relative judgments aside, though, it’s Albert and Tommy who have the real commitment to truth and positive values.

A major breakthrough occurs when Caterine throws Albert the picture of Brad crying as his goes up in smoke; Albert recognizes the pain in Brad’s face as universal, a kind of “crying of humanity,” to use Donovan’s phrase, visible on the face of one man who lost “everything.” Albert actually identifies with his “enemy,” chiding Caterine:

-        That fire was a bitch-ass thing to do.
-        Oh, it liberated you from Brad.
-        Or did it bond me to Brad in the insanity of pain ... I saw that I’m Brad and he’s me?

Albert’s newly developed interpretation of the world bonds him together with the rest of suffering humanity. And he is the author of that interpretation. Whether orphaned by civil war, by indifference, or by other causes, recognizing our oneness with all “orphans” — and we all are — creates the great sense of solidarity needed to build a better world together … chaining ourselves to one bulldozer at a time.

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