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Multiple choice

Multiple choice

Everything Everywhere All At Once turns the quantum science of the “multiverse” into a wondrous metaphor for the human condition

“Don’t forget to breathe”: this is the instruction handed on a piece of paper to Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) in a lift as she embarks on a dizzying rollercoaster ride through the multiverse in Everything Everywhere All At Once (general release, 13 May). 

It’s a moment nicely reminiscent of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and its legendary mantra: “Don’t Panic”. It’s also good advice for the audience, as the movie launches us on to a quite extraordinary and often manic journey through alternate universes, timelines and psychedelic scenarios.

Daniels, Kwan and Scheinert on set

Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert (who style themselves as “Daniels”), Everything Everywhere All At Once opens in a setting that is the polar opposite of mind-bending adventure and limitless possibility. 

Struggling to manage a failing laundromat in suburban Simi Valley, California, Evelyn wearily observes the collapse of her marriage to the gentle but diffident Waymond (Ke Huy Quan, who made his name decades ago in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and The Goonies); tries desperately to please her father Gong Gong (James Hong); and, worst of all, is increasingly alienated from her lesbian daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu, superb).

She is also in the middle of a potentially disastrous tax audit, overseen by the almost unrecognisable Jamie Lee Curtis as Deirdre Beaubeirdra, a short-tempered Internal Revenue Service inspector. It is, to say the least, a bold choice to anchor a work of creativity in the deadening world of the IRS: the late David Foster Wallace did his best in the posthumously published novel The Pale King (2011).

Yet this is precisely the sort of bonkers challenge that Daniels adore: their first feature film, Swiss Army Man (2016), took as its starting-point the discovery by Paul Dano, marooned on an island, of Daniel Radcliffe’s flatulent corpse. If the duo have an identifiable worldview, it is an ever-shifting blend of sniggering schoolboy humour and philosophical profundity. It ought to be an unholy mess but, somehow, it is sublime. 

Blasted out of her life of mundane disappointment, Evelyn discovers that she must “verse-jump” across alternate realities to stop the cosmic supervillain Jobu Tupaki (Hsu’s alter ego) – “an agent of pure chaos” – from destroying the entire multiverse, and, in the process, pull her daughter back from the void of the Everything Bagel (yes, really).

Many of the scenes into which Evelyn is flung are catnip for cineastes: references abound to movies from The Shining, Kill Bill and Ratatouille (featuring a gourmet raccoon rather than a rat) to 2001: A Space Odyssey, In the Mood for Love, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (the Ang Lee masterpiece that propelled Yeoh to global stardom in 2000).

Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000

Meanwhile, metaphysical questions jostle for our attention with sheer zaniness. In one alternate reality, human beings have hot dog fingers and Evelyn and Deirdre live in domestic bliss. In another, Waymond is a suave, immaculately dressed figure who attends a glamorous film premiere with Evelyn and then discourses sagely on lost love and the fragility of the human heart.

As for this multiverse business: it is true that there’s a lot of it about right now. The recently released Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness has Benedict Cumberbatch as the caped sorcerer hopping from one reality to another in search of Elizabeth Olsen as the Scarlet Witch: the CGI effects are dazzling but the journey through alternate worlds is little more than a plot conceit to enable the Marvel Cinematic Universe to close some loopholes and set the scene for forthcoming movies.

Uma Thurman in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill, 2003

A more impressive example is Shining Girls, the new Apple TV+ series that dramatises the trauma experienced by the survivor of a sexual assault by catapulting Elisabeth Moss through multiple timelines and modified realities (see Creative Sensemaker, 28 April). 

Not to be confused with the “metaverse” – the simulated reality that underpins The Matrix movies and will be the basis of the holographic ABBA concerts that begin in London on 27 May – the idea of the multiverse has legitimate, if contested roots in advanced mathematics and quantum mechanics.

Emeritus Professor of Theoretical Physics Erwin Schrodinger delivering a lecture at the University of Vienna, 1956

The famous problem posed by Schrödinger – is the cat in the sealed box both dead and alive until an interaction by quantum particles? – was answered (though not settled) in the Fifties by the American physicist Hugh Everett who proposed in his ‘Many Worlds Interpretation’ that the cat survives in one reality and is an ex-feline in another. (For more on this hugely controversial but fascinating topic, and especially the work of Richard Feynman, check out Stephen Hawking’s final book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions, and Brian Greene’s reader-friendly The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos.)

The scientific and metaphysical questions posed by the theory of the multiverse are legion. But what Everything Everywhere All At Once does, triumphantly, is to humanise the idea; transforming its complexities into the pulp, anxiety, pain and love of day-to-day experience.

In the directors’ hands, the multiverse is a vehicle for an exploration of the human condition; a grand metaphor for the sense that life is a curious brew of chaos and individual agency, in which people simultaneously think that they have no power at all over their lives, but also punish themselves for making the wrong choices. 

Are we careering towards a predetermined collision with forces quite beyond our control, as Evelyn suspects at the start of the movie? Or do we face an infinite number of forks in the road, expected to choose the correct path a thousand times a day? Both? Neither?

In truth, every person is a multiverse. Each of us, as Whitman wrote, contains multitudes. And we all live alternate lives, all the time: that is the basis of regret, and, more importantly of hope. As Evelyn’s pulverising, fabulous journey reveals, it is often best to lean into the chaos and cling to that which we love.

Here are this week’s recommendations:

Watch

Conversations with Friends (BBC Three, 15 May; all episodes iPlayer)

As her star has risen to the cultural stratosphere, Sally Rooney has inevitably and increasingly divided readers of her books and of the television adaptations they have inspired (see Creative Sensemaker, 2 September 2021). Suffice to say that if you loved the original novel, published in 2017, you will derive much pleasure from this (pretty faithful) 12-part dramatisation, directed by Lenny Abrahamson – who also directed six episodes of Normal People, the BBC’s adaptation of Rooney’s second book that was a lockdown sensation (62.7 million views in 2020 alone). 

Bobbi (Sasha Lane) and Frances (Alison Oliver), students at Trinity College Dublin, are former lovers, now best friends, who perform the latter’s work at slam poetry events. They meet established writer Melissa (Jemima Kirke) and her actor husband Nick (Joe Alwyn) and become embroiled in a complex, quadrilateral mess of relationships, in which loyalty, love and health (mental and physical) are tested to the limit. As always in Rooneyworld, the pace is extraordinarily languorous, which occasionally tests the viewer but is ultimately the engine of the tensions which course through and bind the drama – especially in the affair that develops between Nick and Frances. All four principals are excellent – but the standout is Lane, who lit up the big screen in Andrea Arnold’s wondrous American Honey (2016) and is surely on her way to superstardom.

Bosch: Legacy (Prime Video)

After seven seasons, Harry Bosch finally handed in his LAPD detective’s badge last year (see Creative Sensemaker, 24 June 2021) – a blow to the many fans of the series, of lead actor Titus Welliver and of the original Michael Connelly novels (the 24th of which, Desert Star, is out in November). Now, scarcely missing a beat, Bosch is back, in a spin-off produced by Amazon’s new Freevee streaming service and available on Prime. Still ambling his way through the landscape of Los Angeles neo-noir, Harry has become a private investigator, while his daughter Maddie (Madison Lintz) is learning the family trade as a rookie cop (constantly reminded by her new colleagues not to expect any breaks just because she’s a “legacy”). Legal eagle Honey Chandler (Mimi Rogers) is back, too, seeking revenge for the attempt on her life ordered by crooked businessman Carl Rogers (Michael Rose). Stephen Chang is a welcome addition to the cast as tech guy Mo Bassi. The be-bop music, Bosch’s dog Coltrane, and just about everything else remain, reassuringly, the same. Welcome back, Harry.

Station Eleven (Starzplay)

Late to this, having signed up to StarzPlay to watch the superb Gaslit (see Creative Sensemaker, 28 April) – and I am glad I left it until now. Like Emily St John Mandel’s original novel (2014), the ten-part series, which takes as its premise a flu pandemic that wipes out most of the world’s population, bristles with obvious resonance to Covid and the anxieties of the past two years. Yet, in truth, this is not a saga about disease, epidemiology or government crackdowns. Like The Leftovers, which asked what would happen if two per cent of all people disappeared at once (the “Sudden Departure”), Station Eleven is much more interested in the consequences for culture, freedom and civilisation of the disaster with which it begins (the two series are connected by Patrick Somerville; a writer on the former and the latter’s showrunner). 

At the heart of the story is an itinerant theatrical company, the Travelling Symphony, which tours survivor communities and entertains them with performances of Shakespeare. The troupe’s resident Hamlet, Kirsten (Mackenzie Davis), is the focal character – linking, in her past and present, most of the other key protagonists. At a deeper level, the connective tissue of the twisty narrative is a mysterious sci-fi graphic novel – the eponymous “Station Eleven” – of which only a handful of copies ever existed. Like The Leftovers, the series adopts the anthology format, concentrating upon a different character and their story in each episode. The result is one of the most moving, sophisticated and profound examples of prestige television of recent times.


Read

Authenticity: Reclaiming Reality in a Counterfeit Culture – Alice Sherwood (HarperCollins)

There are now shelves full of books on post-truth, disinformation, conspiracy theories and digital fakery (and I should know). All credit, then, to Alice Sherwood, senior research visiting fellow at King’s College, London, for her courage, resourcefulness and sheer imagination in exploring and shedding fresh light on this familiar ground. What makes Authenticity so terrific is that she is in no way bound by the intellectual paradigms, scholarly maps or political assumptions of her predecessors. Indeed, the sheer breadth of her subject matter is extraordinary: from the lessons of evolution and the art world to the delusions of the “Counterfactual Community” during the pandemic and the growing industry of fact-checking and its automated cousin, “robo-checking.” Most striking is her optimism and refusal to join in the gloom of the “cyber-miserabilists”. The longer view – which she invariably takes – suggests that humanity’s epistemological immune system will rise to the challenge with which it is presently faced. “What is clear,” she writes, “is that to stop the spread of misleading information, we will have to use the tools in the same way that the spreaders are using them. If they are networked, we will have to be networked too. If they have online armies, so must we. If they are on social media, we had better be there too. Until we go where they are, the conspiracists will go on winning.” Amen to that.

Tell Me an Ending – Jo Harkin (Cornerstone)

When The Handmaid’s Tale was first published in 1985, Margaret Atwood drew a sharp distinction between speculative fiction (stories that were conceivable, given contemporary social and technological forces) and science fiction (stories that clearly escaped those confines in the fantastical scenarios they described). Jo Harkin’s fine debut novel straddles the two genres, describing a world in which memory erasure has become possible: a theme already familiar from Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) – which is referenced in the book – and from, God help us, the Schwarzenegger-on-Mars original version of Total Recall (1990). 

In Tell Me an Ending, the tech company Nepenthe offers its patients two forms of forgetting – “self-informed” (where they know that erasure has taken place) and “self-confidential” (where they do not). The principal protagonist, Noor, is one of the corporation’s doctors who must deal with a breakout of returning memories, or “traces”, that trigger a huge lawsuit, and reputational disaster. Is Nepenthe all it seems? And will the novel’s intertwined tales – an ex-cop uncertain of the impact the process will have upon him, a young man who cannot remember anything before his 16th birthday, a teenager who is convinced she is seeing people she ought to know – cohere into a satisfying pay off? There is plenty of philosophy along the way, and Harkin is an erudite guide to the conundrum that is her premise. But intellectual ambition does not stop this from being a genuine page-turner; and, if you’re starting to think of what to pack, a perfect holiday read.

Atoms and Ashes: From Bikini Atoll to Fukushima – Serhii Plokhy (Allen Lane, 17 May)

Having written definitive books on the Cuba crisis and the Chernobyl disaster, Serhii Plokhy – professor of Ukrainian history at Harvard – is ideally placed to assess the role of nuclear technology through the lens of six major accidents, including Three Mile Island, the Windscale fire, and Fukushima. As he shows, the scale of disaster is as often the consequence of human failure, cultural and political forces and sheer impatience as it is of technical malfunction. Surveying the contemporary scene, Plokhy is anxious about “[t]he geopolitical ambitions of the nuclear powers and economic appetites of nuclear energy firms [exploiting] the desire of developing nations to join the nuclear club in pursuit of prestige, economic benefits, and energy security.” He frets, too, that the admirable goal of reducing the world’s addiction to fossil fuels may lead to bad or hasty decisions. That said, this is a work of scholarship, rather than an anti-nuclear tract; and, as such, should be a manual for those tasked with developing a sustainable energy strategy in coming decades.


Listen

Truth – Alexis Ffrench

Lazily labelled the master of “piano chill”, Alexis Ffrench is so much more than that: a true maestro of genre fusion, who brings the rigour of his classical training to bear upon R&B, soul, big band and cinematic soundscapes. This eclecticism – familiar to anyone who has enjoyed his Sunday afternoon shows on Scala Radio – courses through this wonderful new album. Recorded in the legendary Real World studios near Bath – with a 70-piece orchestra collaborating remotely in Vienna – Truth is an affecting dive into Ffrench’s inner emotions, driven by the death of his father and the continuing impact upon the 52-year-old virtuoso of a friend’s suicide when they were in their twenties. The rawness, unashamed melodrama and compassionate sweep of tracks such as ‘One Look’ (with Leona Lewis), ‘Golden’ and ‘Broken Sunsets’ make this one of the stand-out classical releases of 2022 to date. 

WE – Arcade Fire

Trust Arcade Fire – never a band to dial down their creative ambitions – to seek inspiration for this, their sixth album, in a cerebral dystopian novel: Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, published in 1924, which describes a totalitarian 26th-century regime where the “One State” governs a world of glass buildings and the Bureau of Guardians subjects the population to absolute surveillance (check out George Orwell’s 1946 review here). Across seven tracks, Win Butler – recording for the first time without his brother Will – and his ever-expanding collective explore the dysfunctions, anxieties, algorithmic intrusions and political upheavals of the world around them. There is nothing small about Arcade Fire: with Nigel Godrich in the production booth, the sound careers fearlessly from classic indie to Eighties synth pop via soulful crooning and alt rock. And (but of course) Peter Gabriel guests on ‘Unconditional II (Race and Religion)’, enhancing Régine Chassagne’s glorious vocals. If there is a binding theme, it is digital dissonance: “I unsubscribe,” sings Butler, “somebody delete me”. And, in case you were wondering, “the pills do nothing for me in the age of anxiety” – and nor do streaming boxsets (“fuck season five”). From other artists, all this could be annoyingly pompous but, really, Arcade Fire are in a class of their own when it comes to music on this scale. An essential record – and, by the way, can it really be 18 years since Funeral announced the arrival of one of the century’s first truly indispensable acts?

…and thanks to Tortoise reporter, Xavier Greenwood, for this recommendation of ‘The Heart Part 5’ by Kendrick Lamar:

“It’s not for nothing that Kendrick Lamar is the only rapper to win a Pulitzer Prize (back in 2018, for DAMN.). He’s a prodigious and regenerative storyteller. If ‘The Heart Part 5’ is anything to go by, his present state is wise, political and reflective. Released days before his new album Mr Morale & The Big Steppers (out on Friday, 13 May), the standalone song sees Lamar in imperious form. He remoulds Marvin Gaye’s ‘I Want You’ to startling effect, addressing the complex relationship between him and his fans, between Black people and their America. From “Desensitized, I vandalized pain” to “Make the wrong turn, be it will or the wheel alignment”, Lamar is a master at bottling multitudes in a line or less. And that’s all before you get to the music video: with the help of South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker, Lamar uses deepfake technology to transform into various Black men, including O.J. Simpson, Will Smith, Jussie Smollett, Kobe Bryant, Kanye West and, finally, the late Nipsey Hussle. Words take on new meanings through these avatars. That Lamar can do all this in a five-minute track without the song feeling the least bit overwrought shows he is still operating on a different level to any other rapper – arguably any other musical artist – out there.”

Don’t forget to send in your own recommendations for Creative Sensemaker to editor@tortoisemedia.com.

That’s all for now. Enjoy the weekend and take care of yourselves.

Best wishes

Matt d’Ancona
Editor and Partner
@MatthewdAncona

Photographs courtesy A24, Miramax, Columbia Pictures, HBO, Amazon Prime, BBC, Netflix, Kendrick Lamar/Youtube