Everything Everywhere All at Once and the Boutique Indie Posture

After Nomadland won Best Picture, I argued that a cinematic pose which I call “boutique indie” was a natural conclusion to recent approach to Best Picture nominees and winners. The short version is that as studios become more ruthless with their money, they want to provide the thrill of high stakes without having to pay for films which create high stakes at huge scales. An excerpt from a paragraph that has aged (surprisingly!) well:

If prestige has been ratcheted down financially by the studios but we still expect high stakes, then every year we get some new takes on safe, middlebrow stuff that can coast in the wake of an issue without having to figure out what that might mean for a city or nation. It’s most important, for this kind of film, to look like you have something to say, or maybe to be really nice about something, than to cut too far against any grain.

That last sentence was written in reference to Nomadland and Green Book. That it somehow applies even more to Everything Everywhere All at Once despite the fact that it only finished shooting the month before would be cruel if EEAAO didn’t deserve it. EEAAO, like a gum-chewing gumshoe, is both bloated and busy. Surely one of these multiverses must signify something meaningful to us? Or, as the partisans of EEAAO will tell us, it is a very kind movie and it feels good to watch Michelle Yeoh and Stephanie Hsu work it out in the end. Like Green Book, EEAAO creates a space where you can relate with any character you choose to and the film never punishes you for wanting to do something that self-centered. Like Green Book, a small story becomes the basis for grand statements about some big themes, and like Green Book, the more it reaches for those hypotheses on the non-existent human condition, the more it becomes nonspecific to the point of self-erasure.

There is a world of difference between a film that brings you out emotionally because of the craft or the individual characters and a film that points to a generic relationship to evoke feeling. Boutique indie, represented by Green Book and Nomadland and now Everything Everywhere All at Once (and Belfast and The Father and Promising Young Woman and Jojo Rabbit and Three Billboards…), relies on shoddy. They work best as premises, not as visual art; it’s easier to see all of them as “limited series” on television. Is there a memorable moment of camera movement in Promising Young Woman or Green Book? God knows they are certainly written, and in all of those cases above received awards for how much they were written. They rely on specificity in small details for verisimilitude rather than emotional specificity, as Belfast uses a Thunderbirds costume at Christmas to say something about that moment in time while only ever allowing its main character to be a Pinocchio. Was the presence of slightly different kitchen cabinets in The Father emotionally significant or merely clever? “This one is for all the mommies,” Daniel Scheinert proclaimed upon winning Best Director. That’s half-true for EEAAO, as the other half is for their daughters. It is not for Evelyn or Joy, who share some platitudinous dialogue in the film’s triumphal, much-loved scene:

Evelyn: Maybe it’s like you said. Maybe there is something out there, some new discovery that will make us feel like even smaller pieces of shit. Something that explains why you still went looking for me through all of this noise. And why, no matter what, I still want to be here with you. I will always, always, want to be here with you.

Joy: So what? You’re just gonna ignore everything else? You could be anything, anywhere. Why not go somewhere where your daughter is more than just this? Here we only get a few specks of time where any of this makes any sense.

Evelyn: Then I will cherish these few specks of time.

It reminds me of Inside Out, a Ground Zero for this pharmaeceutical approach to presumptive emotional explosion:

Riley: I… I know you don’t want me to, but… I miss home. I miss Minnesota. You need me to be happy, but I want my old friends, and my hockey team. I wanna go home. Please don’t be mad.

Mom: Oh, sweetie…

Dad: We’re not mad. You know what? I miss Minnesota too. I miss the woods where we took hikes.

Mom: And the backyard where we used to play.

Dad: Spring Lake, where you used to skate.

It does not matter that Riley has moved to San Francisco from Minnesota, that she used to play hockey and ice skate. She could have just as easily moved to Key West to New York, missing her big ocean and the kids she used to go to the beach with. This is the point, though. In a search for global emotion, Inside Out dismisses the necessity of idiosyncratic feeling and experience. Riley is us just as much as Evelyn and Joy are us, or at least meant to be. “Please, Mom, reassure me that you love me.” Joy is purposefully opaque in this movie, more “Jobu Tupaki” than herself, a red herring on the stalest bagel. That scene may be trying to cut us open, but it’s a hacking surgery. This is the promise of boutique indie, the promise of emotions for you to access without the film actually earning those feelings.

In the past, this kind of thing used to be the basis for comedies. Think of your favorite Father of the Bride, either Spencer Tracy or Steve Martin, and think of how that film leans all the way into types. But those movies are funny with cute little emotional payoffs. The dry narration or the silly scenarios are what stand with us, and both of them include a pat on the head for the daughters so parents in the audience have that little kick. It’s not about Tracy or Elizabeth Taylor so much as it’s about your own family then, and I think that’s fine. Those movies are not really about the relationships between the dads and their daughters so much as they are about fickle, vain, slightly manic fathers who do funny things. They have a sense of proportion; the fate of the multiverse does not rest on this reconciliation. Instead, we laugh indulgently about Tracy’s insistence that he still fits into an old suit and laugh wide-eyed about Martin’s insistence that there is a cabal between the bigshots at the wiener companies and the bun companies. Their intention is comic, and their approach is unpretentious. Or take The Birdcage, another film about marital difficulty and parenting problems. It is a ravenously funny movie. It also has this wonderful scene of reconciliation between Armand and Albert which I invite you to compare to the one from EEAAO:

Armand: My cemetery’s in Key Biscayne. It’s one of the prettiest in the world. The sky is blue, palm trees, rolling hills. The one is Los Copa’s really shit. What a pain in the ass you are. And it’s true: you’re not young, you’re not new, and you do make people laugh. And me? I’m still with you because you make me laugh. So you know what I got to do? I got to sell my plot in Key Biscayne so I can get one next to you in that shithole Los Copa, so I never miss a laugh.

Like EEAAO, this one is profane, a little off-kilter, desperate in tone. But Evelyn and Joy are talking about “noise,” “here,” “anything,” “anywhere,” “somewhere.” All of that is to “cherish” something. Armand is talking about getting a plot in “that shithole Los Copa” so he will “never miss a laugh.” Which one lingers more? Which one is about characters feeling something that invites you, and which one is about characters providing you emotional Mad Libs? Green Book uses fried chicken and Jojo Rabbit uses shoes. Both of them could have been about something else, about eating some other food or about eyeing some other item of clothing. There is nothing else that Armand could have said that would have been as precise and moving as the cemetery. I don’t want to be with you “here,” “anywhere,” “somewhere,” Armand says. I want to be buried with you. Neither one of them is Irish, but it’s the flipside of that old, beautiful Irish proposal, “How would you like to be buried with my people?” And these are just comedies I’m comparing it to. There’s nothing about being a parent in EEAAO which compares to the emotional specificity in parenthood dramas as far distant as I Remember Mama, where Irene Dunne sells a personally priceless brooch to pay for a vanity for Barbara Bel Geddes, or The Sweet Hereafter, where Ian Holm tells the story of steeling himself to perform an emergency tracheotomy on his infant while singing to her to keep her calm, or Mildred Pierce, where we watch Joan Crawford melt under the searing insults of daughter Ann Blyth until she finally unleashes a slap. It’s just…you don’t listen, I don’t understand, what do you want from me, I just want you to love me.

Boutique indie is not a style. Visual or aural or literary style is too individual, and individuality is anathema to the values of boutique indie. Boutique indie is not a genre. A genre has specificity even when it’s subverted. It’s a posture, an approach. Boutique indie relies on intentional vagueness and cliche. Boutique indie needs to rely on outside conduits for its power. Michelle Yeoh, consummate action star, learns kung fu much to our delight. Ke Huy Quan, the forgotten child star of ’80s film, becomes the bedrock of the whole story. Nomadland relies on actual nomads, Three Billboards appears around the time #MeToo gained prominence. It’s one thing to cast a performer based on star image, to use a particular type of actor because it supports or subverts a character. It’s another thing to bring in a character to do the thing that we want them to do and then get excited when they do it. That’s fanservice, not theory. To borrow very loosely from Federico Garcia Lorca, boutique indie is inspired by Angels but never has an ounce of duende.

As a producer said at the Oscars last night, part of the reason that Everything Everywhere managed to build buzz over the course of a calendar year is because A24, fairly or not the corporate face of boutique indie, kept it in theaters. The Numbers has it eightieth on their list of the leggiest movies, in the same area as other genre blends with touchy-feely endings: Sense and Sensibility, Steel Magnolias, As Good as It Gets, Good Will Hunting, The Shawshank Redemption. And compared to some other recent pictures, $70-odd million at the U.S. box office and better than $100 million with global is pretty darn good. But it is fascinating to me that after all the hand-wringing of the past few years about choosing movies that normal people aren’t watching, EEAAO won. Two of its competitors made about $1.5 billion or better, both of them even treating similar themes of parenthood and aging and uncertainty in the face of change. Yet boutique indie won out. In 2021, I thought of this posture as annoying, one setting up a foundation for itself, but not necessarily insidious. In 2023, I’m more worried about Everything Everywhere All at Once and its ilk as a threat to serious movies than stuff like superhero pictures. The superhero pictures are not consistently being received as the best mainstream Anglophone cinema has to offer by mainstream Anglophone cinema itself.

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