This article continues our Power of Film series, in which thoughtful viewers share their experiences of meeting God at the movies. (SPOILERS are possible in this series.)
It was late winter of 2005 when I first watched David O. Russell and Jeff Baena’s existential comedic-drama I Heart Huckabees. I was huddled in my college buddy’s tiny apartment bedroom. The lights switched low and the DVD went in. Next to me sat a (boy)friend with whom (even in those young years) I had already had a long, conflict-prone relationship. I entered that room a floating, confused twenty-year old, oddly, and probably unhealthily, connected to a less-than-emotionally-stable twenty-four year old. One hundred and seven minutes later, I left separated, illuminated, and changed.
As the credits rolled, I first had to find my bearings. Who were we rooting for, and why was so-and-so angry? Was everything breaking, or was it becoming more and more beautiful? The story seemed at once well-intertwined and intentionally fragmented, a mix of coincidence and chaos that felt far-fetched and, yet, a lot like my life at the same time. The characters sang an eerily familiar song.
It seemed as if all of what I had been longing to express, but couldn’t grasp with my voice, was shouted out in that film. All of what I felt I believed, but wouldn’t dare to wonder aloud, seemed painted in color in that movie – everything I wanted to fight for, the community I wanted to find, the causes I wanted to champion, the consciousness I wanted to explore. It all seemed wrapped up in the plights and ponderings of Albert, Tommy, Dawn, and Brad and the questions and queries of Vivian and Bernard.
Like Albert, I had felt the exact same angst at being second to someone. I too had questioned if I fought for cause or for the glory. I wondered why my poetry felt important but landed flat. Someone with more charisma had usurped my ideas out from under me. I had made mistakes and been misled by tempting, pseudo-wisdoms.
Like Tommy, I had hated that fact that the all-American way “obviously” severely limited other people’s potentials, but still we all continued to coast willingly along its path. I had struggled with how to tell this to the younger generation and the people who admired me. I had opted for brutal truth and had been abandoned by people I loved for it. I felt frustrated and hopeless and helpless and alone. I felt pain when the rest of humanity seemed to say, “Don’t give a #@!&.”
Like Dawn, I had never been “the pretty girl,” but I somehow found myself in the limelight. I wanted to please others, so I did ridiculous things. I wanted to stay ‘with it’ and make my man proud, but soon, it felt so fake, I couldn’t keep up anymore. I desperately wanted to reject the Huckabees’ ideal. I wanted to eat chocolate and wear a bonnet and refuse all things conventional and cool. I hated the “glass between us,” but hated repressing my real self even more.
Thus, at the end of the one hundred and seven minute film, I left that tiny apartment bedroom and my “Brad.” Instead of being unsure and ungrounded, I felt resolved and strong. Finally, like Bernard, I knew everything I did affected other people (that our separation was only an illusion), but that it was still important and pleasant to plan dinner with my spouse. I was determined to give up the rat-race, fight through the confusion, and find inner peace and a man who “likes the bonnet” on the other side.
Fast forward to a few years later. In 2008, I found a copy of I Heart Huckabees on sale somewhere. Feeling strongly that this was the most impactful film of my existence thus far, I promptly bought and re-watched it, this time with my younger siblings. Unfortunately, I hadn’t remembered some of the more crass moments as acutely as they were portrayed. Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin were just (if not more) hilarious than I remembered, but, the other characters seemed quite caricatured in comparison to my memory of potent liberation and solidification of self.
So, in a sense, I do feel that in 2005, I encountered the divine through film. It felt, and indeed was, transformative. It also gave me courage (at a delicate moment) to alter my circumstances and make a clean break for better health. So, I do undeniably believe the Lord worked through the collaborative, creative medium of film to speak to and reshape me.
However, the magic was in the moment. It was in the extraordinary and particular intersection of the trajectory of my heart and the elements of the film. The transformative experience was in the intersection of the film with my current self, rather than in the film itself. A couple years later, the movie was just a movie. It afforded a few laughs and some philosophical food for thought, but not any more life-defining actions or clues to ultimate meaning.