But I’m getting ahead of myself really, because this would only be the fitting ending for what had turned out to be quite the remarkable day. It started out inconspicuously enough as a somewhat typical Monday morning; I had slept quite well, but Mondays always feel different, as the transition between weekend and work-week is usually not without some pain. Since I’m out of work right now, I didn’t particularly have to do anything, so after seeing my boyfriend off to his work, I looked outside and it was shaping up to be a beautiful early spring day; it was still cold, but the sun was shining and I felt the sudden need to go off on a long walk, which ended up taking over two hours. The walk itself was already pleasant enough, but somewhere along the way something magical happened. As I was listening to my ipod, the shuffle treated me to the second Litany from John Zorn’s ‘Six Litanies for Heliogabalus’, a piece of music that’s rather abrasive for such a quiet Monday morning. But I was deeply immersed in it: from Mike Patton’s screams and howls, to the angelic choir and the extensive organ solo – all of it was as hypnotic to me as the first time I heard it. But then IT happened, because the next song turned out to be a Dwight Yoakam tune. Those first gentle guitar sounds had me completely transfixed, as if they were the most beautiful sounds I had ever heard. They’re not even that remarkable when taken by themselves, but with Yoakam’s sweet country pop coming right after Zorn’s extreme stuff, it was the collision that made it so memorable. Or maybe not even the collision, but the all-inclusiveness that was a personal watershed for me. Here’s the thing: I had listened to both Zorn’s music and Yoakam’s with the same intensity and pleasure over the years, but never on the very same moment, as they represented different periods in my life. So now it was as if these distinct periods suddenly merged.
Some explanation could be helpful here, I suppose. There are those who divide human personalities according to the four cardinal directions, with each of them defining some core aspects of one’s character. Seen this way, I could be defined as a West personality, since they are entirely comfortable with the dark aspects of their character. West people are those who are able to look deep inside their own souls, to descend into their own personal underworld and return from it with valuable knowledge about themselves. But as every direction has its own opposite, those opposite characteristics (animus or anima in Jungian terms) are usually the least developed within that person, and one of the chief ways of developing these opposite sides of oneself is spending a lot of time with someone from the opposite camp. And since the universe has been kind enough to hook me up with a boyfriend who is clearly East, our relationship automatically involves a deep two-way influence. East people are the daydreamers, connected not to the underworld of soul but to the upperworld of spirit. The knowledge West people can dredge up in the dark recesses of their psyche is invaluable, but without the light touch of East people like my boyfriend, we West persons tend to be much too heavy and serious. East people do possess the grace, sweetness and lightness that literally brighten up the world, but without the deep substance of the West, they often are often in danger of becoming too light-weighted. This basic difference in character trait between my boyfriend and me was perfectly illustrated by the kind of music we were listening to when we met each other: I had a very strong preference for heavy and demanding music, mostly experimental and usually without much melody, whereas my boyfriend definitely leaned towards sweet and ethereal sounds. Even if I wasn’t aware of these things when we first met, in hindsight it’s quite easy to see how his East personality started to change my West one and vice versa, which more or less meant that I started moving from the rather abstract and conceptual toward the concrete and personal. Up until that point, I had always consciously moved away from traditional song structures and had embraced every kind of music that was open and free (ranging from Free Improvisation to Modern classical and from noise to abstract techno), but now started to enjoy the simple songs of Country & Western, Rock ‘n Roll and German Schlager music – which was the definite East influence of my boyfriend. But as I was deeply immersing myself in this new and exciting musical area, I also noticed that my taste for the experimental and weird decreased accordingly, so you could say that John Zorn became Johnnie Ray. It’s not that I didn’t listen to the more demanding music anymore, because since it was still on my computer I would indeed hear it on a daily basis. I still liked it even, but the fiery passion that had always accompanied it seemed gone and moved over to Country music – until recently, that is. Because the very moment I started living in harmony with my own body by radically changing my eating habits, I started noticing a distinct change in my music appreciation. At first, I started hearing the more melodious jazz music in the old way again, something that caught me off guard since I hadn’t been able to recapture that feeling in years. My fears that this would somehow be a mere fluke soon proved groundless, as the feeling persisted over a period of a couple of months. And then something even more profound happened: after easing into the more demanding music again with a new-found passion for jazz, I was suddenly seized by the urge to embrace even the most a-tonal music again, the very music I had left behind me some seven years ago. And this is why my Monday morning encounter with John Zorn and Dwight Yoakam was such an epiphany: it marked the first clear sign of the synthesis between my West and East personalities, as it was the first time in my life I would be able to appreciate both demanding abstract music and sweet gentle sounds with the same kind of intensity at the very same time. Not in some abstract, conceptual idea that I can only understand intellectually, but through deeply felt experience. It may sound silly to some, but these two songs at that particular morning felt like a spiritual rebirth.
How fitting then, that a day that started out with such an amazing moment would also end on a similar note. Not only because ‘How Do You Know’ gave me that invaluable feeling of appreciation for being alive, but also because the whole movie was permeated with the same kind of East-West synthesis that I had felt so strongly that morning. Because Brooks displays an impressive combination of west and east, it’s deeply profound and swiftly sweet at the very same time. It’s combination of deep character study and breezy comedy makes it a hugely complex movie, all the while masquerading as a mainstream romcom. But for all the feelings of awe and inspiration the movie stirred in me, I found out afterwards this reaction wasn’t exactly common. I had zero knowledge about the film when I started watching it, except it was a James L. Brooks film, so I really had no idea its reception has been lukewarm at best. I was almost even more astonished by all the negative reactions to it, then I had been by the film itself, which made me realize once again how different I perceive the world to most people around me, and it was precisely this feeling that made me start this blog in the first place. What I had constantly experienced as a truly inspiring combination of Western profundity and Eastern lightness, most people apparently saw as a crucial flaw of mediocrity, with one reviewer even complaining it wasn’t dramatic enough to be a drama film and not funny enough to be a comedy. How different this kind of reaction was from my morning moment of pure experience, with all barriers between supposedly different kinds of music entirely vanishing! There I was, in a state of mind where I just treat everything around me for what it inherently is instead of into what category it can or should fit into, not realizing most people still cling to these unnecessary notions! Small wonder that my reaction would be so different from most.
Even though I’m obviously part of the society I’m living in, I’m at the same time quite a bit removed from it, which has the big advantage that it makes me naturally more perceptive to things most people take entirely for granted. For instance, I am often not entirely aware of how far technology has already advanced and what for most people has perhaps become natural, to me still often feels strange and alien even. Only yesterday for instance, I was innocently travelling on a train, when in the corner of my eye I noticed some strange flickering. I looked up and to my horror saw that somebody was actually watching a movie on some small screen in clear daylight in a crowded train. Deep down I knew this was already possible of course, as I even have had discussions with people about this phenomenon, but until now I had never really seen it and registering it with my own eyes send me into quite a shock – even though I was probably the only one on that train that this seemed strange to. The precise details as to why this filled me with terror are not so relevant now, but let it suffice to say that technology has pervaded the world even more than I am generally aware of, which is also clearly one of the themes running through ‘How Do You Know’. This is already announced in the very first scene when the baseball coach simply says the selected players of the new season will be posted ‘online’. No emphasis whatsoever is given to this, which makes it quite easy to miss probably, but it sent shivers of unease through my spine and alerted me to the fact this film would very probably be quite critical to the ways we are kept prisoners of technology and work. When this feeling was confirmed the moment the secretary has to bring her laptop in, I instantly knew we were dealing with a flat-out masterpiece here and this sequence also perfectly illustrates the brilliant synthesis of East and West I have been endowing the film with.
Jack Nicholson, Paul Rudd and the company lawyer are having some important conversation that will involve a crucial plot development, when the secretary is asked to come in ‘and to bring her laptop’. Yet again no real emphasis is given, but the highly pregnant woman is clearly seen struggling with her laptop in the background in a slightly slapstick sort of way that’s really funny to me. Because what could have been merely the stock moment of the secretary joining the meeting to take notes, has silently been transformed into something else entirely. The laptop is clearly the modern equivalent of the pencil and paper that secretaries have been using in films for decades and this is also the point, because even a highly pregnant woman like in this film, could easily have managed to hold a pencil and paper. But a laptop is quite a different matter: it may be a portable computer, but as the scene bears out, it is still not so portable for a pregnant woman as a simple pencil and paper would be. So by having her struggle with it, clasping it clumsily at her breast and at one point almost dropping it to the ground even, Brooks subtly but cleverly manages to turn such a simple moment into a comment on the impact technology has on our everyday lives, just as the ‘online’ comment in the first scene had already suggested. In other words, the moment definitely has deep social commentary, but does so in a way that’s not only funny but so subtle as to perhaps be invisible to modern audiences, who are used to having everything spelled out for them. There are several of these little pinpricks scattered throughout the movie, like when Owen Wilson claps his hands after sex and the lights go on, the bedside proposal scene that should be filmed but really isn’t and the expensive watch that Reese Witherspoon is given, that feels more like a chain, than a way to tell time.
All these little moments point to the way our lives are so drastically shaped by technology around us and that often only serves to confine us instead of the liberation it proposes. It’s not only technology that keeps us prisoners, but also work. Both Witherspoon and Rudd are thrown into an identity crisis because they have problems at work. Without work, no society could exist of course, but we have to ask ourselves why and how the work and the rules we have imposed on ourselves have started to close in on us so much, making us a slave instead of freeing us. The commercialization and dehumanization of too much work and businesses is clearly a target here for Brooks, as Witherspoon get’s axed from her team because she ‘is 3 seconds slower’, like she is some machine that can be judged solely on numbers. But the greatest comment on the absurdity of our self-imposed rules, is when the secretary goes to Rudd’s apartment with information that can be of help to him, but which she cannot convey to him because she had to sign an agreement swearing her to secrecy. It’s one of those poignant moments this film is littered with, speaking so forcefully with both sadness and humor as it demonstrates how stupid it is that the rules we ourselves have created only serve to separate instead of uniting us. We do progress on so many levels by finding cures for diseases and inventing all kinds of things, but are mostly blind to the fact most of these new technologies really cut us off, not only from the world but also from each other. How did we get to this point, where work and technology are so confining and stifling? Thankfully, there is sometimes light at the end of the tunnel, like when in my own personal life I met the mediator who would be facilitating the negotiations I would be having with the company that tried to fire me. When I first met the woman, I took an immediate liking to her (and I believe she to me) and when afterwards I got to talk to her, she said something that touched me deeply. Before she took up this job of mediation, she had been a lawyer she told me, but she had never been happy in that profession, because lawyers only look out for the interest of their clients and only exacerbate and solidify the conflicts instead of trying to resolve them. And as she had always been interested more in building bridges than winning cases, she had switched to mediation, where she would be able to focus on the common good. When I heard this, I felt a ray of light flashing through my soul.
This seems to be the solution Brooks proposes too in ‘How Do You Know’. Because if my previous description may have given the impression it’s one of those cynical pictures about the horrors of city life, please let me correct this now. It is certainly critical of everything I’ve just described, but doesn’t do so with ‘doom’ written all over it. On the contrary, it presents the city as quite an alluring place, full of wonder and amazement, with the cosmopolitan feel of neon lights and swank establishments lovingly captured by Spielberg’s regular cinematographer Janusz Kaminski. It has that indefinable feeling of space, with the locations not merely there as backdrops, but coming to life as an almost breathing presence. There’s an achingly beautiful moment when Witherspoon is waiting by the bakery underneath Rudd’s apartment, because it has such a marvelous feeling of space. You can almost feel the warm wind blowing through her hair, and in me it instantly evoked past feelings of warm summer nights, like you’ve stepped through the screen into another world. By conjuring up such a believable, almost textured, space, Brooks and Kaminski pay homage to the beauty of being alive itself. We may have managed ourselves into the most impossible situations with our idiotic rules and our blindness to the dehumanization of commerce and business and we even may be kept prisoners by our own technology, we are still surrounded by a certain magic that has so much allure in itself. We may make fools of ourselves on a daily basis, but these emotions are what keeps us human and vibrant. Brooks has always been a fine poet of human emotions, but here he seems to have outdone himself.
His writing is impeccable, capturing the variety of human beings and emotions within the space of two hours that really feels like only half its length. There’s a John Cassavetes-like unpredictability to the characters that makes them come truly alive, that surely moves beyond the traditional way film characters are presented. How he does it I don’t know, but Brooks always manages to coach the most heartfelt performances out of his actors and ‘How Do You Know’ is yet another milestone. I’ve always loved Reese Witherspoon, but here she’s nothing short than amazing, but so are all the other actors. Every moment feels like a redefinition of cinema, with powerful emotions coming through even the most seemingly innocuous scenes. Take the first moment when Witherspoon and Rudd have dinner together, for instance. Rudd is a total mess and Witherspoon also isn’t feeling too happy, and conversation is rather strained until she suggests they don’t speak during the entire meal. Even if nothing happens on a narrative level, that doesn’t make the scene empty. In fact, that nothing really ‘happens’ in this particular scene is just the point: it is a celebration of the very moment itself, of gratitude for being alive even when the two characters have reach a zenith in their lives. It’s a whole movie build on glances, looks, gestures and movements that don’t really ‘mean’ anything except conveying gratitude for our very existence. It is through these idiosyncratic little things that we find the courage to keep going, even in the face of so much adversity and our quirks are the essential corrective to so many of the dehumanizing aspects of society around us.
This feeling is perfectly captured in the before mentioned moment when the secretary just had her baby and the father proposes marriage at her bedside. He instructs Rudd to film the whole thing, thrusting a camera into his hand and proceeds to deliver one of the most moving speeches I’ve ever heard in any film. Make no mistake, this is no perfectly rehearsed soliloquy, but one fraught with errors, uncertainty and humanity. At length he talks about what a failure he is, how little financial prospects he has and always will have, and that this is the reason he never proposed to her before as he doesn’t want to weigh her down. Yet at the same time, he feels he is the only one who can truly appreciate her for who she is and he goes on to say he will treat her with the love and respect she deserves. It’s a gut-wrenching honest moment of two people who are both obviously far from beautiful or commercially successful, yet who in their imperfection are so beautifully human. But after the speech, Rudd discovers he didn’t catch any of it on tape. They proceed to do it all over again, but of course the magic and spontaneity of that first moment can never be captured again. Retracing steps is never possible, so the man now has to be coached from the sidelines instead of speaking from the heart, which takes all the real humanity out of it and it now feels ‘acted’ instead of ‘lived’. The scene as a whole then, feels like Brooks’ comment on the impossibility of recapturing the spontaneous magic of the first take when making a film, because actors tend to lose a little bit more with each subsequent take and his film is full of this kind of raw performances. It is also yet another comment on the way technology influences our lives and not always in the way we would want it to, as technology literally failed us here. But perhaps we should be much better off not trying to capture our entire lives with the aid of technology, as looking at a filmed recording of a moment can never truly replace the original feeling anyway, so just remembering such a defining moment is probably even better than trying to relive it by technology.
And as always, these extra layers of meaning are so seamlessly woven into the fabric of the film, they never call attention to themselves. It has emotions flying all over the place, it has humor and heartache, biting social commentary and a sweet gentle touch all at the same time. It also neatly camouflages the little fact Brooks uses the old screwball trick of having two secondary characters present as a reflection on his protagonists, so they (and we) can now see their own conflict in a different light. Because the film centers on the familiar love triangle, with Reese Witherspoon having to choose between either Paul Rudd or Owen Wilson. One reviewer of the movie went so far as to claim that the choice was not really a choice at all, as both alternatives were equally attractive, but I’m not sure what kind of universe he lives in. Because while it should be clear the Owen Wilson is sympathetic and even sweet in his own way, a good catch he really isn’t. Even though the film is too complex for broad generalizations, if you come down to it, what Wilson represents here is the exact kind of dehumanizing our society engages in too much. At the beginning he even explicitly talks about humans in purely economic terms, when he compares the dating process with an assembly line, something his entire apartment also testifies to. He may be able to give Witherspoon the world when it comes to luxury and possessions, he is also hopelessly immature and self-centered. The difference between the Wilson and Rudd characters is beautifully illustrated at the ending by the wrapping paper of their respective gifts. Because like Hitchcock working at the height of his powers when he made the hairstyle of Tippi Hedren the point of ‘Marnie’, so Brooks also makes the wrapping paper the point of his movie: that of Wilson is, like everything else, the best money can buy and it even has a ludicrously expensive watch inside of it. Rudd on the other hand gives her wrapping paper that may not be as classy and expensive, but which without a doubt is much more personal and idiosyncratic.
But the difference here is not the usual one between one suitor who is rich and the other poor, as Brooks slyly made both of them rich. So, if money conveniently enough is of no real importance, what remains is the question of adventure: Rudd comes from a rich family, but he is also embroiled in a nasty lawsuit which made him lose everything and which forces him to choose between going to jail himself for a few years or send away his own father for life. Since this issue remains unresolved even at the end of the film, when Brooks has Witherspoon pick Rudd instead of Wilson, he has her explicitly choosing uncertainty instead of comfort. This is of course completely congruous with the rest of the film which so beautifully celebrates the little moments and the way too much certainty or comfort can also stifle us. Although making us aware of the problems of our society, Brooks doesn’t judge, but gently nudges us into being grateful for being alive. The resulting film is not at all the nondescript middle of the road comedy that quite a lot of people make it out to be, but an ultimate synthesis of Western darkness and Eastern light. Brooks shows the folly of the Human Condition without becoming heavy-handed or preachy. He is assured from start to finish without becoming rigid. The film doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere, nor is it supposed to, as it’s all about the process and not about the goal. It forces our goal-oriented society to focus on living inside the moment, savoring every instant – even, or especially, when you’ve hit rock-bottom. Like my moment with John Zorn and Dwight Yoakam when I could embrace both with the same intensity without caring for borders or differences, Brooks manages the same: to leave behind all those stupid categories of drama or comedy, to make a movie that’s pure human experience.Buy How Do You Know on Amazon