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Metaphilm - I Heart Huckabees 04/12/09 00:04


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I Heart Huckabees
Premodern Help for Postmodern Times
Is Mark Wahlberg the real existential detective?

::: Matt Kirby

“It’s all about love. It’s all about Jesus.” —Mark


Daniel Duane of the New York Times Magazine

paraphrases America’s most commercially successful
philosophical counselor, Lou Marinoff, thus:

“Americans are tired of psychologists dwelling on

our every painful feeling, we’re sick of psychiatrists
prescribing a new drug every time we feel
confused, and many of our most pressing problems
aren’t even emotional or chemical to begin with—
they’re philosophical.”

Marinoff, whose slogan and book is Plato, not Prozac!,

is suing his employer, the City University of New York,
over lost revenue resulting from a since-lifted ban on
his campus practice. He complains, “These people just
can’t tell the difference between psychology and

Unfortunately, the manner in which philosophical

counseling generally proceeds—a series of one-on-one
conversations between philosopher and
“philosophand”—does nothing to dissuade such a
comparison. The format of psychoanalysis—paid
consultation with a professionally distanced expert
wherein the subject’s life is recounted in isolation from
the world—has come to dominate our understanding
of how a person “gets help.”

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A notable element of David Russell’s I ♥ Huckabees is

that it takes philosophical counseling and replaces the
psychoanalytical method with the tactics of the
investigator to yield a new trope: the “existential

Unlike the analyst, who uses the narratives of

psychoanalysis to explain the phenomenal world, the
traditional gumshoe detective interprets the
phenomenal world, employing mundane objects and
occurrences as clues in the construction of a narrative
of heightened meaning—how a crime was committed.
This requires him to reconstruct events by walking the
same route, handling the same objects, and
confronting the same enemies as the subject. In part,
he shares the fate of the person he helps. Likewise in
Huckabees, ordinary details in the life of the person
being investigated—tensions in the workplace, the loss
of a family cat, a (planted) Kafka title in the trash—
are transformed into crucial signifiers in a larger story.

By combining the trope of the risk-taking investigator

with that of the philosopher—someone willing to peer
into grand, abstract questions of meaning and
existence, I ♥ Huckabees has recreated, in modern
language, a pre-modern problem solving form.
Russell’s existential detective is a distinctly Western
figure employing the methods of a shaman.

A shamanistic process

One problem with the word “shaman,” which traces its

origins to the Siberian steppe, is that it is popularly
employed by people more interested in fantasizing
about some alternate reality than squaring their
shoulders to bear the mundane burdens of this one.
However, in cultures where such an office exists, the
job of the shaman is primarily to foster the
interrelation of two groups or positions that have
hardened into such stubborn opposition that the
survival of the society is at risk. For life to go on, the
two camps must overcome their polemic, and the
shaman acts by throwing himself into the fray—
mentally, bodily, and emotionally, sometimes at
personal risk. The result of his labors typically
constitutes a paradigm shift rather than a
compromise: the rules, though not necessarily
undone, are re-contextualized and the system

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changes, including the position of the shaman himself.

The Existential Detectives in Huckabees, including

their dissenting French faction, are essentially
concerned with one thing—conflict—and not, as
protagonist Albert Markovski initially supposes, with
understanding coincidence in itself. Ideas, for the
detectives, are clues that reveal human soul-sickness
or tools that can correct it. Their explanations of how
the universe works—a unified “blanket” on one hand
and a meaningless void on the other—tend to be
goofy or oversimplified. But this is somewhat beside
the point, for their aim is action rather than analysis.
They are working toward the creation and resolution of
conflict—achieving a moment of crisis in order to shift
an entire system.

On the surface, the schism at hand is the

irreconcilability of the worldviews of bleeding-heart
poet Markovski and junior executive Brad Stand. The
solution of Markovski’s case requires the simultaneous
solution of Stand’s. Isolated growth is not an option.
The solution of both cases further depends on the
solution of Tommy Corn’s and Dawn Campbell’s cases
—and ultimately on the reorganization of the
detectives themselves into winking compatriots rather
than rivals in a zero-sum philosophical game.

This is the most startling characteristic of what, for

lack of a better word, we can call the shamanistic
process: to resolve one problem the entire system
must be reordered. The universe is momentarily
flattened so that Saint Anthony really is concerned
with where you left your car keys and talk of deep
things versus mundane matters is irrelevant because
everything is both. The film expresses this by linking
several of America’s currently raging polemics with the
lives of individual agents: religion, oil, sprawl, the
African crisis, and that incident in September all have
something do with why Albert Markovski simply cannot
stand Brad Stand and vice versa.

Metaphor as symbol, or, the circle of meaning

Shamans traditionally employ material goods, often

items associated with particular people or groups, in
the resolution of conflicts. Likewise, in a tradition
perhaps more familiar in the West, Hebrew prophets
used yokes, belts, pots, and sometimes—through
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used yokes, belts, pots, and sometimes—through

fasting, silence, exile, or even marriage—their own
lives as tangible metaphors in the telling of their
cautionary tales. Furthermore, in European paintings,
saints are identified by arrows, keys, feathers, books,
and wounds. In the gospels, God himself enters bodily
and at personal risk into the midst of the material
world to bring about salvation. Jesus worked with spit,
wine, mud, bread, fish, perfume, cloth, and other
mundane elements. His “cases” were intensely
personal, involving such details of the subject’s life as
past marriages, birthplace, ethnicity, occupation,
friendships, and mannerisms—as well as concrete
instructions like “go home” or “go to the temple and
say such and such.” Even the story of his death
revolves around material particulars: the torn robe,
the damp sponge, and the hill outside the city wall.

In these examples, the stories, prophecies, and claims

to spiritual authority are linked via metaphor and
touch with the world of the hearers. Daily life becomes
the sign system through which these important
messages are conveyed—and through such use daily
life is given reciprocal value.

In the modern world, the physical connection of

narratives tends to be established by experts in
advance and out of sight of the subject: “We know
what is ailing you because we have seen these
symptoms before in a random sampling of other
patients not known to you.” People become the
objects of theoretical narratives that exist
independently of them. While meaning focuses on the
human subject, value is siphoned away.

This kind of remote empiricism has obvious benefits in

medicine and science, but the colossal side effect is
that our quotidian lives are no longer imbued with
value and meaning by larger historical or spiritual
narratives. Our culture fosters a disconnect between
the small and the colossal that renders all narratives
remote and self-referential, even religious narratives
that had endured for millennia. God is a good
shepherd, but what is a shepherd other than a trope
from the Bible? Little wonder the Bible is increasingly
seen as a closed circuit: it may assure me that I have
salvation in an abstract sense, but read through this
lens it cannot fill the vacuum of meaning in my
commonplace experience of working, eating, sleeping,
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commonplace experience of working, eating, sleeping,

waiting, and the like.

Through disuse, we have forgotten a crucial attribute

of metaphor: value runs through it in two directions,
not only towards what is signified, but from that
greater reality back towards its objective correlative.
When the poet says “my love is like a rose,” he is
increasing, not merely drawing upon, the cultural
currency of roses. To ignore or deny that referring to
God as a good shepherd confers honor on earthly
shepherds is to misunderstand something basic about
what it is to be human: the need for meaning.

Building a bridge to the first century

When we ask, “do our lives have meaning?” we

presuppose that our lives are signifiers. Our lives are
words or phrases, but in what language? As part of
what song, story, or poem (or, God forbid, meta-
doctoral dissertation)? If the poem is forgotten, we are
mere nonsensical utterances in a dead language. If
the poem exists only in ink or stone, in zeros and
ones, we again find ourselves worthless, not living
words but dead repositories of information. Even if a
religious or philosophical narrative is assented to in
the abstract, a metaphorical bridge must connect it to
the quotidian lives of its hearer/participants if it is to
be lived out.

This is why the Catholic Mark Wahlberg can

emphatically proclaim that I ♥ Huckabees “all comes
down to Jesus. It is all about love and how we all are
connected,” as many Evangelicals and atheists scratch
their heads. Through the liturgy and sacraments of
orthodox religion, the quotidian life becomes a
metaphor for an ancient story. When Mark Wahlberg
wakes up in the morning, he doesn’t just wake up in
the morning. He wakes up in Lent or Advent or
Ordinary Time, as a participant in a yearly cycle
bigger than himself that follows the life of Christ and
the history of the early Church. When he eats his
cereal, he symbolizes the bounty of God. When he
asks Saint Anthony to help him find his car keys, he
demonstrates the mystery of the Incarnation: that the
most high God should concern himself with the lowly
affairs of this world. Like Christians of all
denominations, when he takes communion, his own
body bears and communicates the idea that “God
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body bears and communicates the idea that “God


It is no coincidence that it is through Wahlberg’s

character, Tommy Corn, that Russell isolates the error
in the notion—scarily ascendant in America after the
presidential election—that Christianity is a monolithic
return to certainty at the expense of any appreciation
for the nuances of real life. Corn, according to Russell,
is the film’s “radical Christian.” When the little girl at
the dinner table snaps, “Jesus is never mad at us if we
live with him in our hearts!” Corn solemnly replies, “I
hate to break it to you, but he is—he most definitely

In the philosophy represented by the girl, Jesus’ main

concern is the heart. But modernity has displaced the
metaphorical heart, with its previous connotations of
agency and will, consciousness, bodily fragility, blood
lineage, and death. All that remains in its place is the
medical heart, an efficient biological pump. We are left
with metaphorical material as sentimental and
hopelessly abstract as a Hallmark card.

“Jesus is never mad at us if we live with him in our

hearts,” is another way of saying “Jesus has been
banished to the realm of abstraction: Don’t bring up
his name in the context of real life.” Corn’s invocation
of the anger of God over social injustice and material
excess is actually a return to the old notion of the
heart as the core of our lives, the awkward
intersection of immortal spirit and mortal flesh. If this
idea is radical, it is radically ancient, and in expressing
it Corn has company in Chrysostom and other thinkers
of the early church.

Forms and function

The strength of existential detective work, its

shamanistic element, illuminates the problem with
Professor Marinoff’s “Plato, not Prozac” slogan: neither
will help connect your sublunary struggles to the fixed,
majestic turning of infinity. Plato’s pure forms aren’t
going to help find those car keys, and neither will Eli
Lilly’s Prozac make you more inclined to care whether
or not the universe has a design.

I ♥ Huckabees has invented—or perhaps rediscovered

—a literary character type that will be of no small

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—a literary character type that will be of no small

usefulness in understanding the subtext of many
twenty-first century projects: reconnecting the details
of personal, daily life, not only to grand questions of
existence and spirituality, but to the public sphere in
general. The motifs of environmentalism, urban
planning, and branding that recur in Huckabees are
areas in which the possibility of such a reconnection is
currently, often bitterly, debated.

Perhaps the rambling, earthy logic of the existential

detective, for whom abstract theorizing takes a back
seat to the specifics of particular human “cases,” is
what we need to get beyond some of our current
divisions. Even those who will dislike the idea that our
personal choices affect the big picture still want and
need to know that our lives, as we live them, are
important. The existential detective is a trope that
reendows human life, in all its minute detail, with
value, rather than portraying it as determined by
processes beyond our control—thereby rendering it
even more boring.

It is interesting to note that this position is

diametrically opposed to the neo-Gnosticism of such
films as The Matrix, in which a master narrative is set
against the details of workaday life, details that it
renders “virtual.” If we take the red pill, we see that
our lives are meaningless in the face of an indifferent,
absolute Truth. If we take the white blanket, we
understand our lives as fundamentally connected to
Truth and potentially expressive of it. Human variation
and even human weakness become the seeds of a
multitude of meditations on a common theme.

The rest of the story

As the film ends, the daily struggles of the characters

continue. Huckabees still expands despite the best
efforts of the Open Spaces coalition, Tommy Corn’s
wife and child are unaccounted for, and Brad Stand’s
life is in a deconstructed state. The main resolution is
that the characters now accept the interconnectedness
of all things, and this, the film implies, allows them to
live real lives rather than the shadows of lives.

For some viewers, this is a disappointing dénouement

to a film that raised expectations of a grand spiritual
revelation or resolution. A connection has been
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revelation or resolution. A connection has been

established, but where is the store of value and
goodness that is to flow through it? Is spirituality, like
oil, a nonrenewable resource that we have depleted
through careless overuse?

Put another way, if our lives are to have value in their

capacity as signifiers, they must be arranged in a
story that generates its own truth, a kind of bedrock
reality that is supremely true in itself and has no need
to go begging for validation in the courts of humanity.
Without this, nothing can disguise or reverse the fact
that we have been scattered, fragmented into millions
of smaller narratives, and interconnectedness is little
more than a nice idea.

Wahlberg’s optimism in the face of such odds is likely

the result of his belief in a self-creating story—a story
in the sense that it is active, that we can interpret it,
retell it, and participate in it; self-creating in that it
can exist if need be without context, without hearers,
and independently of external language. In other
words, Wahlberg’s entire life is suffused with meaning
through his belief in one true thing—one thing that
can communicate itself without recourse to anything
external, without metaphor, without saying, “I am like
this,” but instead, “everything you know is only like

This one thing, then, is the only genuine instance of

reality preceding language. It is the keystone of any
reality underpinning the phenomenal world. Two such
things cannot coexist, for the one thing makes all else
a metaphor for itself. Meaning flows toward it and
value out from it. With it, the world becomes a place
of real people and meaningful events, where sadness
and joy and humor have substance and life and death
are not mere stories; without it, all existence is a tale
told by an idiot.

Since it has no correlative, there is no word for it, nor

can anyone name it. It just is what it is. :::

Matthew Kirby lives in Brooklyn. His favorite

movies are Baxter (1989), Hana-bi (1997) and
Jesus’ Son (1999).

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Posted by: editor on Nov 12, 2004 | 11:00 am

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