Closing the Distance: From Collapse to Collection in “Everything Everywhere All at Once”

BY Emerson Goebels | May 12, 2023 | Student Essay Awards

Goebels uses Jenny Odell’s New York Times bestseller, Doing Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (2019), as a lens through which to understand the winner of the 2022 Academy Award for Best Picture, Everything Everywhere All at Once. Lucid and carefully argued, the essay effectively offers new ways of understanding both the film and Odell’s theory. The essay was written for Dr. Emily West’s and Dr. Alex Creighton’s Spring 2023 Art of Writing class, “Intermediate Film Writing.”

Jenny Odell’s “Restoring Grounds for Thought,” the sixth chapter of her 2019 book, How To Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, presents the concepts of context collapse and context collection. Odell warns that context collapse, a term coined by scholar danah boyd, gives rise to “instantaneous communication [that] threatens visibility and comprehension because it creates an information overload whose pace is impossible to keep up with” (164). Here, Odell elevates the value of “visibility and comprehension” when consuming information and addresses how context collapse poses a threat to their potential. Odell turns to what she deems “context collection,” a turn that would consequently redirect and infuse our “attention” and “communication” with intention in the act of seeking out and acquiring context in the process of its restoration.

The critically-acclaimed film, Everything Everywhere All at Once (Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, 2022), initiates a similar turn, as it visually and audibly presents Odell’s notions in enlightening, arresting ways — especially as the film’s characters chronologically progress from being on the brink of collapse to embodying collapse itself to, finally, achieving collection and restoration. While Odell sharply condemns context collapse, Everything Everywhere All at Once refuses to reject it, asserting instead that it is wholly necessary and valuable. Indeed, the film posits that context collection is possible only in the aftermath of collapse.

In the scene during which the Wang family first visits the IRS building in Everything Everywhere All at Once, the cinematography, editing, dialogue, and mise-en-scène all work together to posit that the film teeters on the verge of context collapse, functionally foretelling the arresting decontexualization into which the film is about to launch. The sequence begins with a long shot of the Wang family arriving at the IRS building. Not long into the shot, the camera tilts upward to reveal the exterior of the building while the characters, now offscreen, continue their conversation. We then hear the family’s conversation that visually occurs in the following shot near the end of this long shot — making this a J-cut.

In offering new visual material — that is, the building’s exterior — while simultaneously continuing the family’s dialogue, and subsequently even beginning the dialogue that occurs in the impending shot — making this an L-cut — the film diminishes the audience’s ability to fully view and comprehend the unfolding events and prevents viewers from lending their attention to a singular object of focus. This successfully introduces the idea that the film is edging near context collapse.

A medium shot of Waymond, Gong Gong, and Evelyn that tracks backwards follows, and the camera then quickly cuts to a medium-full shot of the trio. In both of these shots, the mise-en-scène is quite cluttered, as numerous extras populate the background, all of whom are bustling around in their own world.

Next, a medium close-up tracks backward, keeping pace with the family as they advance through the space with Evelyn in focus in the foreground while Waymond and Gong Gong continue their conversation in the out-of-focus background. Although technically onscreen, in intentionally placing Waymond and Gong Gong’s conversation out of focus while placing a silent Evelyn in focus, the film effectively explains that, though Evelyn is the literal and metaphorical “focus” of their conversation, the camerawork signals the couple’s disconnectedness while disabling the audience from acquiring complete visibility and comprehension of all the developing action on screen.

Within the same shot, the camera rack focuses to Waymond, who longingly and lovingly looks at his wife after he says, “It’s nice to be needed.” However, when he is unable to catch Evelyn’s attention — and she is still out of focus — his face visibly drops, and the shot ends. Waymond’s crucial piece of dialogue implies that there is a certain level of attention and love that he wishes for her to return, which he does not receive from the out-of-focus Evelyn — intentional camera work which notably parallels her sense of being distracted and out-of-touch with her husband, thus enforcing the idea that he is not in focus for her in the way that she is in focus for him.

These cinematic techniques work together to build an atmosphere riddled by distraction and disconnectedness, achieved by the film’s visual and auditory inability to wholly focus on a singular moment. Although we have the appropriate amount of time to devote our attention to these shots that construct the sequence, the individual moments themselves are not fully visible nor comprehensible.

Yet the film will end up going even further in its depiction of context collapse: in the montage during which Evelyn traverses a vast multitude of universes, the rapid editing and constantly-changing mise-en-scène throughout the sequence effectively visualize and dramatize context collapse, therefore threatening the film’s ability to wholly achieve visibility and comprehension. The sequence begins with a medium close-up of Evelyn screaming — quite literally visually depicting “shouting into the void”—after stabbing Waymond, and the camera launches backward as the perspective pulls out to show her speck in the multiverse. As the perspective continues to draw further and further back, we see thousands of her specks overwhelm the frame before the film launches into an astonishing montage during which we see dozens of Evelyns in different universes as the sequence progresses, with each Evelyn occupying the center of the frame, and with no Evelyn lasting more than a second or two.

All of these cinematic techniques combine to create a daunting overload of information that assaults the viewer in alignment with the notion of context collapse in the span of about 33 seconds. The individual frames that comprise the montage are presented with such rapidity that each individual visual stimulus is not quite comprehensible unless slowed down, an act which would certainly require effort and energy to decipher and organize context for understanding. Thus, in its bare form, the viewer is unable to dedicate the appropriate time and energy to wholly understand and consume each and every frame of the montage as it progresses at a pace that is exceptionally difficult to keep up with. Furthermore, none of the cinematic techniques employed throughout the sequence allow for crafting a space “small and concentrated enough” to un-collapse “the plurality of its actors,” which further eliminates the possibility for context collection at this particular moment in the film.

The film only reaches peak context collapse when it subjects the viewer to what Evelyn has been increasingly subjected to: the loss of the capacity to maintain the walls between discrete contexts. As these walls come down, the contexts blend together and the film markedly enables context collection. More specifically, although context collection is impossible throughout this pivotal montage, the visual differences are held together by means of rapid match cutting and the fact that each shot is generally of Evelyn’s face, often with the same expression, as she continually resides in the center of the frame.

This fact, combined with the changing mise-en-scène, allows the viewer to register that Evelyn is traveling across the multiverse she inhabits. Although the moments almost blend together, they are still held together—we are thus, fascinatingly, compelled to understand — but not completely. In other words, the film, again, suggests that the individual moments themselves do not matter — what matters is understanding what Evelyn is doing. At the very moment the endless Evelyns overlap — the moment of greatest context collapse — the pieces start to come back together, and the film momentously enables context collection. The film therefore interestingly posits that collection is only possible by first working through collapse.

Because of the possibility opened up by the frenetic sequence of decontextualized Evelyns, the poignant, single shot near the end of the film during which Evelyn and Waymond share an intimate kiss contrastingly rejects context collapse and instead decisively enforces context collection through its cinematography and mise-en-scène; this shot consequentially crafts a space of appearance within the frame in the creation of a shared moment imbued with meaning and connection on screen. The shot begins as a medium shot, with Joy, Evelyn, Waymond, and Gong Gong occupying the in-focus foreground and numerous extras residing in the out-of-focus background.

In distinctly placing the family in focus in front of the relatively cluttered mise-en-scène of the out-of-focus background, the film nicely sets up the idea of investing our attention meaningfully in certain spaces, thereby enhancing both visibility and comprehension within the start of the shot. The camera continues to follow the family’s movement closely as it tracks backward while they enter the IRS building. In intentionally and steadily moving with the Wang family rather than with any other characters, the film continues to reinforce the idea of dedicating our energy and turning our attention to specific spaces rather than overwhelming the audience with a daunting overload of information within the frame.

This choice forms a sharp contrast with the film’s typical rapid editing sequences and quick pacing utilized prior to this moment that parallel context collapse, thereby enforcing context collection. Joy exits the frame early in the shot, and the camera comes to a halt when the family does — again cementing the idea of creating and drawing attention to certain spaces as the camera continually works with the characters’ movement. The camera pans slightly to the left as Evelyn tells her husband to give her his bag before they share a moment in which they lock eyes lovingly, which nicely sets up their shared, distinct moment of intimacy into which the film is about to launch; Waymond hands his wife his bag and turns to go, however, Evelyn catches his hand and pulls him close before he can leave. The pair then inhabit the center of the frame, and the camera inches closer to them, transforming the same, singular shot from a medium shot into a medium close-up by means of movement, as they share a long, intimate kiss near the end of which Evelyn wraps her arms around Waymond. This particular movement of the camera closes the distance in that it further cements our attention on the pair as the camera intentionally progresses forward and serves as a mechanism for pushing the couple closer together within the contained space of the frame. More specifically, the film’s cinematography constructs this small and concentrated space in the shot’s transformation from a medium shot to a medium close-up, and the pair’s positioning in the center of the frame throughout this transition allows Evelyn and Waymond’s shared moment of intimacy to serve as the meaningful moment of the sequence that we clearly invest our attention in.

As in Odell’s argument for context collection and the space of appearance, this moment in the film seems to argue for taking more care and directing more attention to connecting with others emotionally and personally. In this intentional camera work, the film closes the distance between the couple and crafts a lovely moment of central, distinct intimacy that is clearly imbued with meaning between them. The singularity and steadiness of this shot — which clearly counters the initial scene during which the family first enters the IRS building — therefore allows for the appropriate dedication of energy and time to its unfolding events while not requiring strenuous efforts to decipher or organize context for understanding. Rather, the audience is able to understand the narrative as the shot progresses because our attention is directed to the events within this concentrated space of appearance.

Furthermore, as a distinct moment of shared intimacy between the pair in the film, this particular instance reignites their connection in its singularity, which is further reinforced by the fact that the film crafts this moment in a single shot. Evelyn is continually experiencing everything, everywhere, all at once, but she still chooses to exist within this singular space of appearance intentionally and meaningfully shaped by the love she and Waymond share. This shot therefore builds a sense of belonging between the two in the acquisition of visibility and comprehension within this unified, designated space of appearance the film creates as the couple’s relationship is finally and momentously restored.

Spring 2023 Award Winner