Thinking About Religion
Volume 3 (2004)

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Happiness, Hope, and Faith in
Thirteen Conversations About One Thing

Jon M. Young
Fayetteville State University
 jyoung@uncfsu.edu

The 2001 film, Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, directed by Jill Sprecher and co-written by her sister, Karen, consists of four different stories narrated in thirteen segments, or “conversations,” each of which depicts a character’s quest for happiness.[1] While stylistic elements of the work make it comparable to a variety of contemporary films, Thirteen Conversations is distinctive in raising questions that are central to the world’s philosophical and religious traditions, questions about the nature of the universe, the ultimate aims of human existence, and the components of human happiness.[2]

Yet, while the film addresses enduring questions of human existence, it presents these issues in a specifically modern context. Each of the four major characters--a scientist, a choirgirl, a lawyer, and a bureaucrat--serves as a representative of peculiarly modern response to questions of meaning and purpose. As the film tests each individual’s distinctive understanding, it also reveals the limitations of the modern viewpoints represented by each. The modern tenor of the film is especially evident in the disparity between the major characters’ desire for happiness and their failure to achieve it. The central characters strive–and generally fail--to make sense of the world, their lives, and their relationships with others. Their intellectual concepts are often undermined by events, and their relationships frequently end in failure. No one makes a discovery or achieves a condition that reveals the key to happiness, nor does any character provide a model of what a happy life would look like. If the film provides no explicit answers to the questions it raises, it points toward a recognition that achieving happiness is dependent upon hope and faith, hope in the possibility of meaningful human relationships, and faith that life has purpose and meaning even if they are not always evident.[3] This insight can best be seen by examining the transformations that occur in the film’s major characters, especially Gene English.

Much to the credit of the Jill and Karen Sprecher, Thirteen Conversations refuses to follow much of contemporary culture in trivializing happiness as the product of finding the right lover or gaining wealth, fame, or power. The quest for happiness in this film is a metaphysical quest that involves making sense of the nature of the universe and one’s place in it. The desire for happiness is presented as a religious yearning to be at home in the world and accepted by others. Much in the manner of Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, happiness in the film is presented as the ultimate aim of human existence, the condition toward which all humans are striving.

This notion of happiness is expressed in the opening scene, which serves as a prologue to all that follows. The film opens with Patricia staring out the window of her apartment waiting for Walker, her husband, to arrive home. Her act of searching for something that eludes her presents an image that applies to all the characters of the film.[4] When, later in the same scene, Patricia asks her husband, Walker, who is evidently unhappy “What do you want?” he replies, “What everyone wants. To experience life. To wake up enthused. To be happy.” Another character, at the film’s approximate midpoint, reinforces this concept of happiness as the common goal for all humans when she states, “Underneath it all, we want the same thing. We are more connected than we know.”

The belief that happiness is a common aim of all humans is reflected in the variety of major characters and diversity of circumstances in which they are depicted. Walker is a physics professor who has been cast into a crisis of meaning after being the victim of a mugging. Troy, a successful prosecutor, pronounces himself happy in one of the opening scenes of the film, during “Happy Hour” at a bar, because he has just won a victory in court with the result of “putting another low life in jail.” Beatrice is a housekeeper and choirgirl whose simple faith is shattered, when she is nearly killed by Troy who accidentally strikes her with his car. Gene English, supervisor of the claims adjustment department of a large insurance agency, is thoroughly cynical about the prospects of human happiness and completely pessimistic about human relationships. With this array of characters and situations, the film suggests that happiness is not just the concern of the idle, rich, or intellectuals, but is a concern of all people in all circumstances.

The specifically modern context of the film is evident in the fact that these characters share no ready-made religious explanations for why things happen as they do. With its seemingly chance intersections of the major characters’ lives that often have unintended consequences, the film raises questions about whether there is a higher force that governs the world or if all is the result of random chance.[5] The characters themselves typically speak of the higher than human forces in impersonal terms, as “fortune,” or “fate,” or “luck,” as opposed to “providence,” or “God’s will.” “Fortune smiles on some,” Gene announces on several occasions, “and laughs at others.” When Gene, evidently by chance, meets Wade “Smiley” Bowman, a former employee Gene has fired, Smiley says their meeting must have been fate. When a taxi driver employed by Troy forgets to turn on the meter, he says it must be Troy’s “lucky day.” Even Beatrice, who is the most overtly devout of the characters, makes few references to explicitly religious language, and in the brief excerpt of the sermon to which she listens attentively, the preacher reminds his congregation of the prophet’s admonition that happiness comes from enduring suffering with patience.

Natural forces, moreover, become oppressive powers in the film. When Troy visits a man who he had successfully prosecuted, the man recounts, from prison, the events that preceded his killing a person. He laments that if it had not been raining so hard, things may have turned out differently. The man’s story, which depicts his fate as determined by the whims of nature, echoes Troy’s own experience when he accidentally struck Beatrice with his car after he was momentarily blinded by a shirt blown from her arms. Rain and wind become indifferent powers that radically change their lives.

In addition to sharing this modern, generally secular, context, the four major characters struggle in different ways to find meaning in their lives and in their relationships with others. A closer review of their individual stories will help to illuminate the connection between these themes and the insights the film offers about happiness.

One story in the film focuses on Walker, a physics professor who is experiencing a crisis of meaning in his life after being the victim of a mugging. Reflecting on the event, Walker sees little difference between himself and the mugger, who, as he points out, was Walker’s own age, perhaps had a life similar to his own, and could have even been him. As a consequence, Walker seeks to make a new beginning in his life. He leaves his wife, has an affair with another professor, and buys a BMW. While Walker believes the changes in his life have been for the better, he is nonetheless overwhelmed by the sense of meaninglessness in his life, and visits a physician who speculates that Walker has had an anxiety attack. Walker explains to the physician that he had been content in his former life, but that mere contentment had seemed like surrender. Regarding his work as a professor, Walker points to the irony of spending a lifetime developing one’s mind with the final result of wanting to shut it down. Walker relates that he sees the excitement and joy in his students when they learn what he is teaching, but the information has become boring for him because he already knows it all. He asks a student seeking to enter medical school if he wants to keep people alive today to prolong their misery until tomorrow. For Walker, like the ancient writer of Ecclesiastes, the regularity and order of the universe are cause not for wonder, but boredom. Walker asks himself, “Is that all there is?”

If Walker has come to question the purpose of his life, he does not doubt the certitude of scientific knowledge. The repeated scenes of Walker in front of his college classroom drawing diagrams and writing equations on the chalkboard help to highlight his conviction that all the world’s workings can be summed up by science. There are no “ifs” in science, Walker asserts in response to a student’s hypothetical question, because the laws of the universe are absolute.

Walker fails to recognize fully the tension between his scientific conception of the universe and his personal quest for meaning. The universe of Newtonian physics is essentially a system of dead matter that is set in motion by blind and impersonal forces and devoid of human significance. Walker’s own life has come to reflect the order, predictability, and ultimate meaninglessness of the universe as he teaches it to his physics class. He walks with a strict and nearly robotic rhythm, and cuts and chews his food in an almost mechanical fashion. While living alone in a hotel room, Walker folds his three ties orderly and carefully across the inner flap of his suitcase to keep them from wrinkling. Even though he has initiated an affair to break the routines of his life, he meets his lover at the same time each Thursday and makes sure he carefully straightens the bedspread of the hotel room before they leave. When a ray of sunlight, by chance, strikes a pair of eyeglasses sitting on a table to cast a rainbow on the opposite wall, Walker might see the event as a remarkable coincidence – a small miracle in view of its improbability, but instead he dismisses the rainbow as mere “refracted light.” When a troubled student explains to him some of the problems that have kept him from realizing his full potential, Walker replies insensitively “cause and effect, the third law of motion” as he sets the Newton’s Cradle toy on his desk into motion.

If for Walker, a rainbow or a student’s personal problems are nothing more than phenomena in the physical world, then it is not surprising that his relationships with others are generally failures. Walker holds his office hour at 3:00 p.m. on Mondays, a time evidently designed to minimize contact with students. His lover seems to have little significance for him other than as an experiment in his quest to find the happiness that has so far eluded him, and when she reports that her husband, after discovering the affair, said that he could not live without her, she asks if Walker could say the same thing. With an opportunity to affirm his feelings for her and perhaps begin the new life he had been seeking, Walker is silenced by his own indecisiveness and lack of passion.

With his vision of the universe void of meaning and his inability to achieve meaningful relations with others, Walker fails in his search for happiness. All of his efforts come to an unhappy conclusion as events seem to mock his earlier proclamations. Several days after his lover terminates the affair, Walker is informed that the troubled student he had refused to help had fallen from the top of the mathematics building the previous evening. Another student, applying the formula of falling bodies Walker has taught, points out that the trajectory of the fall indicates that the student must have jumped. When he returns home, hoping to find his wife and resume his former life, he finds his wife has moved out, reminding him of his own repeated lesson to his students about entropy and the irreversibility of events.

In contrast with Walker, who from the film’s outset is experiencing a crisis of meaning, Troy asserts in an opening scene, during “Happy Hour” at a bar, that he is happy because he has just won a victory in court with the result of “putting another low-life in jail.” When Gene suggests that all happiness is illusory and that even apparently good luck is really bad, Troy responds that “luck is a lazy man’s excuse,” that we make our own luck, and that his success in court was the consequence of hard work and effort, not luck.

Troy’s initial happiness is destroyed by events that follow. As he is driving home after his victory celebration, he hits Beatrice with his car in one of the film’s most surreal moments. When the shirt she is carrying is swept from her grasp by a strong wind, the flash of white momentarily blinds Troy, and in the moment of blindness, he hits her with his car. Believing that Beatrice is dead and knowing that this accident will destroy his career, Troy leaves the accident scene. Yet, unable to escape his sense of guilt, (despite the toast he makes earlier in the bar, “F**k Guilt”) Troy carries out a secular form of penance: he sells his car and plunges himself so single-mindedly into his work that his colleagues begin calling him “St. Troy.” Most important, Troy does not allow the wound he sustained in the accident to heal. Whenever the cut appears to be closing up, he lacerates it with a razor blade to reopen the injury that is a reminder of his guilt. (This act seems spurred by his conversation with Walker, who said that when the bruise from the mugging healed, he forgot about the event.) This “ritual” leads him eventually to contract a nearly fatal case of blood poison. Near death, he wills all of his possessions to the family of the woman he thinks he has killed, only to learn that she survived the accident.

As was the case with Walker, events seem to mock Troy’s own proclamations. He believes that he can make his own luck and control his own fate, and yet his happiness is undermined by an accident whose randomness is reflected in the image of a white shirt floating directionless in the wind. Troy earlier scoffed at the notion of luck as a “lazy man’s excuse,” but when his fellow lawyer informs him that Beatrice was not killed by the accident, the colleague tells him, “Sometimes people get lucky; they get a second chance.”

If Troy’s understanding of the world is proven inadequate in face of the events that unfold in his life, he also fails to establish meaningful relationships with others. When we first meet Troy, he is surrounded by his friends in a bar, is congenial enough to initiate a conversation with a stranger (Gene), and frequently gives a colleague a ride to the office. As his sense of guilt increases, however, Troy isolates himself more and more from relationships with others so that by the end of the film, he is alone, having narrowly escaped death. Unlike Walker, however, Troy seems prepared to make a new beginning in life with a revised conception of the world’s workings and a renewed openness to others.

Beatrice, the victim of Troy’s accident, is a cleaning woman whose expectancy of miracles makes her the antithesis of Walker, with his belief in the predictability of all events. Beatrice is the image of naïve and innocent faith: clothed in a white robe, she sings in a church choir; she does most of the work while her working partner, Dorrie, lounges around and watches television in the opulent apartments the two are assigned to clean. The array of candles Beatrice burns in her apartment point to the light she brings into her otherwise bleak world. In response to Dorrie’s assertion that life isn’t fair, Beatrice responds, “It may seem that way now, but we don’t know what’s up ahead. Amazing things happen all the time.”

Like her doll with one eye stuck closed, however, Beatrice remains partially blind to the cruelties and harshness of life until the accident with Troy. In another example of the irony of events mocking characters’ convictions, the white shirt suspended in the air by the wind that caused Troy to strike her, sounds similar to the “miraculous” vision she describes to Dorrie. When she nearly drowned as a child, Beatrice saw from beneath the water what looked like a white sail floating in the air. The vision gave her a sense of peace that everything would be alright and that she was saved for a purpose. Just as both of the doll’s eyes are suddenly opened, so too the accident opens Beatrice’s own eyes to the unfairness of life. When a former employer for whom Beatrice has romantic feelings reveals his suspicion that she had stolen his watch, Beatrice is plunged into complete faithlessness. Dorrie, Beatrice’s working partner, laments that Beatrice had formerly been the one who had made everything right for others, but that since the accident it is no longer comforting to be around her.

Beatrice’s optimism and faith are restored when a small miracle occurs. She explains to Dorrie that while standing on the sidewalk during rush hour in the city and reflecting on the way everyone is so selfish, uncaring, and predictable, she considered stepping into the traffic to kill herself. Randomly selecting a complete stranger in the crowd across the street, she looks to him as a sign of what to do. When that individual looks at her and smiles, she changes her mind about committing suicide.[6] With a renewed faith, Beatrice seems open both to “amazing things” and to new relationships to others.

In contrast to Beatrice’s optimism is Gene English’s cynicism about life in general and pessimism about human relationships. No doubt his cynicism and pessimism are bred in part by the bureaucracy in which he works. As a mid-level manager, Gene is at the mercy of impersonal forces that make decisions, like the naming of a new vice president, for no apparent reasons and that are communicated through office gossip.[7] His failed marriage and broken relationship with his only son, a drug addict and petty thief who will have nothing to do with him even after Gene has posted his bail, are also sources of his pessimistic estimate of human relations. Gene expresses his cynicism clearly in the opening scene with Troy. Good luck, he tells Troy, is really bad luck. “Show me a happy man,” Gene says, “and I’ll show you a disaster waiting to happen.” To illustrate his conclusion, Gene tells the story of Mickey Wheeler, who seemed to have achieved the best of luck – he won two million dollars in the lottery! – only to be the object of a variety of scams and a lawsuits, one by his mother-in-law who claimed that she was entitled to half of the winnings since she had prayed for Mickey’s success.

Gene’s cynicism and pessimism are challenged by Wade “Smiley” Bowman, a claims adjustor in Gene’s department. Perhaps the only unambiguously happy individual in the film, Smiley is the living embodiment of the Matt Munro song “Put on a happy face,” that Troy plays on the jukebox for Gene English in one of the film’s opening scenes. Persistently optimistic, Smiley has a knack for seeing the positive in bad situations. For example, as he leaves to inspect a house where the roof has collapsed, he says it’s good it didn’t happen during the heavy rains of the previous week.[8]

Gene’s annoyance with Wade is one of the persistent threads of his story. Gene’s feelings toward Smiley stem in part, as Gene’s assistant suggests, from jealousy. Smiley’s award-winning children and happy marriage to a woman who sends cookies to the office highlight Gene’s own failures with his family. More important, however, is Gene’s tacit recognition that Wade represents an anomaly in his view of the world. If there is no such thing as good luck, then Gene’s own failures seem justified. And, even if he is a nothing more than powerless pawn in a bureaucracy, Gene can at least be satisfied in being right about the way the world operates.

Concluding that Smiley’s happiness cannot be genuine, Gene bets his assistant --in a Job-like wager -- that he can wipe the smile off of Smiley’s face. (Comparing the bet with Job is not entirely arbitrary, because as he makes the wager, he repeats Job’s words, “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”) Using the company’s financial woes as an excuse, Gene tells Wade he must let him go. Gene’s timing highlights the sardonic nature of his actions as he breaks the news just as Smiley, with bouquet of flowers in hand, is preparing to leave the office to celebrate his twenty-third wedding anniversary. After the initial shock of the news, Smiley is nonetheless able to “put on a happy face,” by saying that he will have more time to spend with his family. As he opens the door to leave the office, Smiley waves and smiles at Gene.

On several subsequent occasions, Gene meets Smiley, who not only remains optimistic despite his lack of success in his job search, but also praises Gene for his work and managerial skill in the company. Contrary to Gene’s expectations – and serving as another example of events mocking characters’ expectations -- Smiley demonstrates the possibility of genuine hope and optimism even in the face of misfortune.

At the close of the film, as we learn that Gene has lost his job and his son is going to prison, Richard, Gene’s former assistant, reports that the lawsuit against Mickey Wheeler has been dismissed. Mickey’s luck turned out to be good after all. Reflecting on the judge’s pronouncement, reported by Richard, that the effects of prayer cannot be proven, since “faith is the antithesis of proof,” Gene states that one must have faith in something, and that Smiley might be right with his belief in miracles. Richard, paraphrasing a comment by Kierkegaard, points to the basic dilemma all the characters face in trying to find meaning in their lives, that life only makes sense when we look at it backwards, though we have to live it forward.

In this same conversation, Gene recounts a story that takes on special significance in the film’s final scene. Gene recalls a time prior to his divorce when, as he left his home, he felt his wife watching, as if waiting for some type of gesture from him. He failed to wave, and wonders if his life would have gone differently – if he might still be married and his son might not hate him -- if he had simply waved to his wife. In the film’s final scene after making eye contact with a woman (Walker’s former wife, Patricia) on the subway, he waves to her as he stands on the sidewalk and the train pulls away.

The film’s final moment, a simple exchange between these two characters that have previously been unacquainted, raises the question of what the film suggests about the possibilities of happiness. To answer this question, one must consider the ways the characters have been transformed by the events of the film and whether these changes seem to have brought them closer to their goal of achieving happiness. Walker, it would seem, remains hopeless. The world he inhabits is devoid of meaning; he has learned nothing that will open him to new relationships with others.

The situation of Troy and Beatrice seem somewhat more hopeful than Walker’s. Troy’s confidence in his ability to control his own luck has been undermined; he has nearly died because of his sense of guilt. Yet, having escaped death he seems ready to resume his life with a fresh outlook about the way the world works and the possibilities of human relationhips. The events in Beatrice’s life have helped her attain a more mature faith, one that is not blind to the harshness of life or the cruelty of other people. No viewer can ignore the possibility that Wade – Smiley – Bowman offers the best model of happiness. Perhaps the key to human happiness, Wade demonstrates, is to always look at the positive side of experience and events, and “put on a happy face” as the song advises.

The resolution of Gene’s story – and perhaps because it is the most fully developed of the “conversations” – offers the film’s central insights about human happiness. While it would be difficult to conclude that Gene achieves happiness, he seems to have been transformed in ways that may lead to future happiness. Like all of the major characters, Gene has seen that his conceptions of the life and the world are too limited and that they cannot fully account for all that happens in his life. By the end of the film, he is ready to develop a deeper understanding of the world’s workings. Having lost his job, he has an opportunity to begin his life anew. With his recognition of the need for faith in something and his admission that Smiley’s belief in miracles may be right, Gene has softened his earlier cynicism. Gene seems to accept Richard’s statement that life makes sense when looked at backwards, a statement that affirms that there is a perspective from which life makes sense.

Not only has Gene relented in his earlier cynicism, he seems to have overcome his pessimism about relations with others. He remains estranged from his wife and son, but he shows grace toward Smiley when he speaks, anonymously, on Smiley’s behalf to another employer, who gives Smiley a job. His simple wave to Patricia in the film’s final scene indicates a new openness to other people and, despite his past failures as husband and father, a willingness to endure the risks inherent in human relationships. It seems that Gene has achieved one of the preconditions for happiness, hope.

Gene also seems to have come to a perspective kin to faith. Even though it would be incorrect to conclude that Gene has become a person of faith, he has developed a sense of humility that is related to faith. This sense of humility is derived from an awareness of the mystery at the heart of being. It is spurred by the recognition – one that is repeatedly reinforced for viewers by the many ways events contradict characters’ expectations – that reality transcends all of our conceptions of it. Gene appears open to the possibility that his life has meaning and purpose even if its meaning and purpose are not easily perceived. He has come to “the cusp of the religious,” to use Thomas Hibbs’ phrase to describe the characters in this film.[9] And, it may not be too much to imagine that his simple gesture to Patricia in the final scene, which signifies an openness to the new and unexpected and a willingness to take risks, is a first step toward a leap of faith in a transcendent source that gives meaning and purpose to individual existence and human relationships.[10]

Thirteen Conversations About One Thing is an extraordinary film in its treatment of happiness. Through the characters it depicts, the film functions as a philosophical meditation that places it within a long tradition of thought, from Arisotle and Ecclesiastes to Bertrand Russell, about the nature of human happiness. Rejecting simple and popular concepts that define happiness in terms wealth, pleasure, fame, or romance, the film suggests that happiness is one of the most fundamental aims of human existence, a goal that is shared by humans in all circumstances, times, and places. At the same time, the film also shows how elusive happiness can be, and that this elusiveness stems, at least in part, from our own conceptions and expectations. Walker’s scientific certitude, Beatrice’s initial naiveté, Troy’s self-confidence, and Gene’s cynicism are as much the cause of their unhappiness as the events and occurrences that happen to them.

The film points to something more than the ways we undermine our own efforts to achieve happiness. It also teaches us something about humility and human limitations. The characters’ preconceptions are consistently undermined by the events and occurrences. With this vision of human limitations, the film points toward, even if it does not explicitly affirm, a religious understanding of the world, one that suggests that happiness requires hope in the possibility of meaningful human relations and faith that life has meaning and purpose, even if these meanings and purposes are not always immediately evident. The fundamental yearning for human happiness, the film suggests, drives us to recognize that this most basic need cannot be satisfied within the confines of immanent reality, but demands are reference to a transcendent source of meaning.

Notes

[1] Thirteen Conversations About One Thing, Sony Pictures Classics, Directed by Jill Sprecher; written by Karen and Jill Sprecher; 2001. I have used the filmmakers’ comments included in the DVD release of this film in writing this paper. With the disjointed time sequences of the different stories and the evidently random intersections of characters’ lives, the film is comparable to other contemporary films, such as Memento, Wilshire Boulevard, and Amores Perros.

[2] The philosophical nature of the film is attributable in part to the fact that Jill and Karen Sprecher reported that they read Bertrand Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness in writing the script.

[3] My comments in this paper are based on numerous film reviews; some of the most notable are: James Bowman, “Review of Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” http://jamesbowman.net/reviewDetail.asp?pubID=1156, 23 May 2002; Mark LaSalle, “Review of Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” San Francisco Chronicle, 31 May 2002; Rene Rodriquez, “’Conversations’ a work of sound character,” Miami Herald, 14 June 2002; Roger Ebert, “Movie Review: Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” Chicago Sun-Times, 14 June 2002; Carrie Rickey, “Arkin, Conversations’ Sing,” Philadelphia Inquirer, 14 June 2002 Ken Hanke, “Movie Review: Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. 6 September 2002; Abby Luttrell, “Movie Review: Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. 13 October 2002. http://www.arts4all.com/.   For a review that makes points similar to those presented here, see Thomas S. Hibbs, “One Thing You Should See,” National Review Online, 30 August 2002, http://www.nationalreview.com/comment/comment-hibbs083002.asp.

[4] This is an observation from the filmmakers’ comments in the DVD release of the film.

[5] See especially Hibbs on this point.

[6] The sequence of scenes here tempts a viewer to identify the person who smiles at Beatrice as Wade “Smiley” Bowman, creating an especially significant intersection between the film’s disparate stories. In their commentary on the film, Jill and Karen Sprecher deny that this connection was intentional.

[7] With the story of Gene, Jill and Karen Sprecher are exploring the world of corporate bureaucracy that was the focus of their first film, Clockwatchers (1997).

[8] Some reviewers have pointed to Smiley as the film’s answer to the question of happiness. The one-dimensionality of the character, I believe, prevents him from serving as more than a foil to Gene’s cynicism and pessimism.

[9] Hibbs, ibid.

[10] This paper was presented originally at the 2002 annual meeting of the North Carolina Religious Studies Association. Comments from the conference participants were helpful in developing the final draft of this paper. Especially useful were comments by Gregory Rich, Rama Datta, Blanche Radford-Curry, and Joe Frank Jones.


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