Colliding Circles in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

BY Elizabeth Abul-Hawa | May 12, 2023 | Student Essay Awards

Abul-Hawa’s “Colliding Circles in Everything Everywhere All at Once” connects the acclaimed Oscar Best Picture winner of 2022 to Jay Bolter’s theory of a dynamic media landscape from The Digital Plenitude (2019). Mapping Bolter’s ideas onto the film’s characters, the essay ambitiously theorizes the film’s take on what it means to stay connected in an increasingly disconnected world. The essay was written for Dr. Emily West’s and Dr. Alex Creighton’s Spring 2023 Art of Writing class, “Intermediate Film Writing.”

In “Introduction” from The Digital Plenitude, Jay Bolter describes media culture as a lumpy landscape, where each “lump” represents a form of media and its followers’ consensus. This contrasts Bolter’s description of the old, “hierarchical” media landscape, in which media consumers value some media more than others. In his own words, “digital media now provide an ideal environment for our flattened, or perhaps we should say lumpy, media culture in which there are many focal points but no single center” (Bolter, 1-2).

The switch from a hierarchical landscape to a lumpy one came with the advent of the internet, which enabled the different media centralities and their followings to grow to the point that no singular hierarchical centrality could subsume it all. In this way, hierarchical structures lost their power to dictate what counts as art. While Bolter concludes that this is positive, because all forms of media deserve respect, he does not take a hard stance on his argument.

I will take Bolter’s implicit stance on the negativity of hierarchies and apply it explicitly to the film Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniel Scheinert and Daniel Kwan, 2022). In this essay, I will map Bolter’s ideas of a “lumpy” and a “hierarchical” media landscape onto the relationship between Jobu Tupaki and Evelyn in EEAaO. Evelyn’s and Jobu’s conceptions of relationships reflect Bolter’s argument because Evelyn subscribes to hierarchical familial relationships, in which parents don’t communicate intimately with their children, whereas Jobu seeks communion with her mother. I will also use EEAaO to explore the negative aspects of a lumpy media landscape which Bolter doesn’t touch on: the loneliness that multiple isolated spheres cause and the sense of rejection that results from loneliness. Finally, I will show that EEAaO resolves this loneliness by proposing that the solution to a single media hierarchy isn’t for it to break into a “lumpy” media landscape, but instead for the members of the disparate circles to engage in the other cultural spheres.

EEAaO depicts Bolter’s idea of what it’s like to live in a world with many centers and no universal hierarchies, and the loneliness that results from centers that never interact. Nowhere is this loneliness more evident than in the scene where Jobu explains why she’s been hunting down Evelyn. The sequence begins with two of Jobu’s devotees opening the curtains of her chamber, where she keeps the everything bagel. In a movie that otherwise emphasizes randomness, this scene begins in a space that suggests hierarchy and order to show how Jobu’s claims to abolishing hierarchies have simply created a new hierarchy that centers herself and the bagel. This serves as an apt playing field for the antithetical elements of this scene – including the loneliness that accompanies divided spheres of equality across a “lumpy” media landscape and the hierarchies that can result from a claim to nihilism.

In this scene, the idea of a plurality of consensus rather than a single hierarchical center becomes the focus of a discussion between Jobu and Evelyn, with Evelyn’s representing a hierarchical media landscape and Jobu representing a “lumpy” one. As the devotees usher Evelyn into the chamber, Evelyn begins to beg Jobu to leave her family alone. Jobu responds that that isn’t possible because “I am your daughter. Your daughter is me. Every version of Joy is Jobu Tupaki.”

In a way, Jobu is flattening a landscape of meaning that is hierarchical in Evelyn’s eyes. To Evelyn, the Alphaverse created Jobu, and Evelyn and her family are peripheral to the conflict between Jobu and the Alphaverse. In other words, Evelyn’s Joy isn’t Jobu, so Evelyn isn’t to blame for Jobu’s creation. However, by refusing to acknowledge that Jobu connects all versions of Joy, Evelyn perpetuates an ideology in which certain centralities are more important than others. This ideology is unacceptable to Jobu, because it allows Evelyn to shift the blame for Jobu’s torment onto Alpha-Evelyn, rather than taking responsibility for any other version of Evelyn’s actions. From Jobu’s perspective, every variation of Evelyn is ostensibly the same, and thus capable of hurting Joy. The different versions simply have different means, ranging from negligible to severe, of doing so. To Jobu, the multiversal landscape is lumpy. While the Alphaverse may be a larger lump – since it’s more knowledgeable than other universes – the universe Evelyn is from isn’t uninfluential, it’s simply a smaller lump. By extension, all Evelyns share responsibility for Jobu’s pain. Alpha-Evelyn had the means to fracture Jobu’s mind, and while Evelyn doesn’t have such drastic means of hurting Joy, she still mentally hurts Joy by judging her and isolating her from Evelyn’s love.

As Jobu continues her speech, her dialogue and the mise-en-scène of her book, Everything Everywhere All at Once, demonstrate Jobu’s feelings of loneliness and isolation. The book’s cover art parodies that of the book Oh the Places You’ll Go! However, instead of a man standing atop a mountain made up of concentric circles, the cover art of Jobu’s book shows a series of arches caving in on themselves to form a pit with a girl standing at the bottom. While both images show an individual at the center of everything, the cover art of Oh the Places You’ll Go! communicates hope, whereas Jobu’s cover art communicates isolation. “I have felt everything your daughter has felt,” Jobu says. “I know the joy and the pain of having you as my mother.” As Jobu says this, her dialogue becomes a voiceover as a scene of Joy and Evelyn in their van together plays. As Joy looks out the window in despair, the camera focuses on Joy and blurs Evelyn. This emphasizes the division between mother and daughter, which is the root of Joy’s feelings of hopelessness and isolation.

This sense of isolation is a key motivator for why Jobu wants to break down a singular centrality: hierarchy inherently isolates hierarchiphiles from non-hierarchiphiles, creating unnecessary division. Bolter conceptualizes this idea when he describes how the library functions as a sanctuary for hierarchy: “[T]he various media were separated and classified according to a hierarchy of forms….[W]e did not recognize as easily the interrelatedness of various media and media forms” (10).

The library, one of many institutions that subscribes to a hierarchical structure, separates its media according to media forms (novels, comics, research texts, books on tape, and films) and genres, often putting forth the most “elite” forms and genres and hiding the popular forms in the back. This structure allows visitors to find books from the same genre easily, but fails to show how a visitor’s interest in a specific book might lead them to take interest in a separate film or comic with similar themes. This example illustrates the disadvantages of a hierarchical media landscape and the ways in which those who subscribe to hierarchy create isolation between media forms which have no concrete reason not to overlap.

As mentioned before, Evelyn’s mindset is hierarchical, holding the Alphaverse responsible for Jobu. As such, she refuses to hear Jobu, who holds Evelyn partially responsible for Jobu’s creation, which widens the gap between them. Evelyn’s unwillingness to admit how she hurt her daughter, thus refusing to let their spheres overlap, is what causes their isolation. This notion that a hierarchy inevitably creates division between people supports Bolter’s idea that a lumpy media landscape is better than a hierarchical one. However, the juxtaposition of this scene of isolation between Evelyn and Joy and the previous scene of Jobu explaining her perspective to Evelyn, and thus extending connection to her, is crucial, as it complicates Bolter’s idea of a decentralized media landscape being more beneficial than a hierarchical one by showing that Jobu doesn’t want hers and her mother’s centralities to remain separate.

Jobu’s actions illustrate this: by Bolter’s conception, if a “lumpy” media landscape imbues all centralities with equal respect, then Jobu should feel satisfied with having a perspective equally legitimate to her mother’s. Jobu should enact her plans without involving Evelyn at all, and only focus on advancing her own perspective instead of changing her mother’s. Yet Jobu involves Evelyn anyway, because ultimately she wants her mother to share her perspective just as much as she wants every universe to be equally powerless. As long as her mother doesn’t validate Jobu’s perspective, then no matter what Jobu achieves, she’ll still have lost.

This brings to light a key flaw in Bolter’s conception of the media landscape, for which he offers no solution: everyone keeping to their separate spheres does more to create an environment of isolation than one of understanding. A media landscape of separate spheres serves to create an environment where those who endorse a hierarchical perspective are afraid to engage with those who support a lumpy media landscape and vice versa.

Bolter gives an example of this division when he describes the New Criterion as “a conservative cultural voice [that] is proud to be elite” and which “address[es] only a particular community, one that is most likely pessimistic about the direction of our culture” (15). This example shows one way people who subscribe to hierarchical spheres isolate themselves from those who don’t. However, Bolter does not suggest how to influence these pessimistic communities. What’s missing from Bolter’s argument is the catalyst for encouraging rapprochement between hierarchiphiles and non-hierarchiphiles. On the cover of Jobu’s Everything Everywhere All at Once book, concentric arching circles that never overlap comprise the pit that the girl on the cover stands within. Visually, separate circles do nothing but create a pit of meaninglessness and isolation.

With this in mind, it’s no coincidence that images of colliding circles represent the reconciliation between Evelyn and Joy at the end of the movie. As two apples, two boulders, and two planetary bodies collide, two circles become one and mother and daughter embrace. Visually, two circles must come together to connect previously isolated circles. In this way, the film resolves what Bolter’s argument lacks, an “engine” that drives different circles to engage: optimism from both sides for unity. Bolter asserts that hierarchiphiles isolate themselves from non-hierarchiphiles because they’re “pessimistic about the direction of our culture.” This negative mentality creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where unity is impossible because no one will embrace a united media landscape.

However, EEAaO doesn’t just offer a solution to Bolter’s argument; it illustrates that this solution won’t come easily. When the two apples and two planetary bodies collide, they explode. The film frames this collision positively, but doesn’t deny that it’s messy. In this way, the film represents unity realistically by not presenting it as clean. Evelyn and Joy’s perspectives would need to shift radically for them to achieve unity, which wouldn’t occur easily.

Yet, despite the difficulties of reconciliation, this scene offers hope because, right before they embrace, Evelyn says “I will cherish these few specks of time.” By saying this, Evelyn shows that she finally values the time when she and her daughter make sense to each other. Still, even through this dialogue, the film manages to keep a realistic perspective on reconciliation. The use of the word “specks” illustrates how short these moments of understanding are. Just as reconciliation isn’t a clean process, neither is it a quick one. Yet Evelyn commits to appreciating these moments when she asserts that she will “cherish” them. In this way, the film shows that the engine for unity that will enable different centralities to come together is optimism that unity is possible, even though that unity won’t come easily.

Works Cited

Bolter, Jay. “Introduction.” The Digital Plenitude, The MIT Press, 2019, pp. 1-26.

Everything Everywhere All at Once. Directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, performances by Michelle Yeoh, Stephanie Hsu, Ke Huy Quan, and Jamie Lee Curtis, A24, 2022.

Spring 2023 Award Winner