On the Lower East Side, coolness used to be measured by how well you knew Dechen.

Kate and I watched “I Heart Huckabees” this weekend, which I found myself really liking. Lily Tomlin and Dustin Hoffman play existential detectives, hired by flailing environmental activist Albert Markovski to explain a series of odd coincidences in his life. The movie quickly becomes a contest between the integrative, “everything is connected” school of existential philosophy espoused by the detectives, and the nihilistic existentialism peddled by a mysterious French competitor: “Caterine Vauban: Cruelty, manipulation, meaninglessness”, reads her card.

David O. Russell (who also made Three Kings) is the filmmaker. He seems to take himself pret-ty seriously. As this reviewer points out, though, that’s not necessarily a strike against the movie, even if the crew did nickname him “David O. Asshole.” The central philosophical dilemma in the movie — in order to understand ourselves, we must become mindful of our surroundings, not just our needs, and then it’s pretty much up to us whether we want to interpret all the stuff out there as connected and meaningful or disjointed and meaningless — is a pretty well-traveled path. In fact, the way that the positions were phrased seemed pretty reminiscent of the one Buddhism survey class I’ve ever taken, with Uma Thurman’s dad Robert Thurman at Columbia, who describes the differences between mahayana and hinayana buddhism in almost exactly the same way. So I was amused to hear David Russell refer to “Bob” in the director’s commentary as his philosophical mentor at Amherst.

Which brought up an interesting dimension to the movie, for me. A big part of the plot revolves around Jude Law’s charming and smarmy public-relations director attempting to deconstruct the cult of personality he’s worked hard to build up around himself. It’s not easy for him: in one really funny scene, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin play a tape for him in which he repeats the same self-aggrandizing story about Shanaia Twain and a tuna fish sandwich over and over again: “June 18th, cell phone call.” “June 25th: in the elevator.” This, of course, is any self-conscious blowhard’s worst nightmare (and a reminder that I need to start searching my blog harder to make sure I haven’t told the same story already before.) So it’s interesting to see a blowhard director put one of his blowhard characters through the wringer, and claim as mentor an academic figure with one of the longest shadows, both literal and figurative, on the east coast (like Carl Spackler, Thurman has lots of often-repeated stories about the Dalai Lama, except that his are true. Well, who knows, maybe Spackler’s stories were true too!)

One response to “On the Lower East Side, coolness used to be measured by how well you knew Dechen.”

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