Monday, July 8, 2013

What It Means To Not Mean Anything

Rubber, cars, desert, IKEA, Crispin Glover-ish, tie, road

by Ben Howard

The movie opens silently with a picture of two chairs sitting on an empty desert road. The camera flicks through several more angles revealing the road is populated by perhaps a dozen black, ordinary chairs, the kind you'd buy at IKEA. Next we pan up from the feet of a man standing in this desert. In his hands he holds maybe two dozen binoculars by their lanyards. The camera pulls up to disclose a man in trousers and a tie who looks slightly like Crispin Glover in Back to the Future. He looks nervous.

The camera shifts again to show that the man is standing on the side of the road with the chairs. They are arranged in a kind of makeshift slalom. Slowly, a black mid-90's sedan turns onto the deserted road and carefully, methodically begins to tap each chair. As soon as the car makes contact, the chair breaks apart and crumples to the ground.

The car pulls up beside the Crispin Glover-ish man with the binoculars. The camera shifts to the trunk as it opens. Slowly a man dressed as a sheriff (including shoulder holster and sunglasses) emerges from the trunk, feet first.  He walks to the driver's side, knocks on the window and hands the driver his sunglasses. In return, the driver hands the sheriff-looking man a glass of water.

The sheriff then approaches the camera, looks straight into the lens and gives a monologue about the fact that certain things happen in movies for no reason. In fact, he says, life is full of things that occur for no reason. Whereupon he tells us that the film we are about to watch is "an homage to the "No reason." He looks at the glass of water as though he'll take a drink, and instead pours it onto the ground and climbs back into the trunk of the car.

These are the first five minutes of an independent film called Rubber which my friends and I ended up watching last week. The film isn't "good" by any traditional measure. I'd say it was an interesting 10-15 minute short film except it's been stretched to an unsustainable 82 minutes. In fact, the only information we had before clicking play was the Netflix description, which read, "A car tire named Robert rolls through the desert Southwest using its strange psychic powers to blow up birds, bunnies, human beings and more." It's essentially a lucid fever dream, or perhaps a mildly bad acid trip.

Jack Plotnick, sheriff, water, Rubber, movie, sedan, desert, indieMoreover, as the sheriff-like figure informed us at the very beginning, it exists for no reason. There is no point to this film. It's entire reason is to not make sense. However, even with that very direct (and very accurate) proclamation, I still watched the next 77 minutes trying to figure out what it meant. What exactly was this movie, that wasn't saying anything, trying to say?

Interestingly, this is a question I've been asking in one form or another for most of my post-adolescent life. What point is being made when nothing at all is said?

I was raised in a Christian tradition that doesn't use instruments in worship. As they see it, the Bible never directly tells the Church to use instruments in the worship therefore the use of instruments is prohibited. This is often referred to as "The Argument from Silence." Nevermind that this isn't a good hermeneutic, that's not the point I'm trying to make. Just consider the argument that if something is omitted, it is prohibited.

This same reasoning led us to avoid saying creeds or Trinitarian language or the ordination of pastors or establishing a central denominational leadership. Those things weren't mentioned in the Bible; therefore they were not allowed. And even more conservative churches used this line of reasoning to ban such things as Sunday School and kitchens in the church building.

It wasn't possible that the Bible simply didn't speak to some specific question. It was assumed that if God didn't divinely inspire someone to write about a topic, then clearly that topic was a no-go for the Church. Meaning was assumed and as a result saying nothing was interpreted to mean the same as saying everything.

But I'm learning more and more that meaning or purpose or just simple reason isn't inherent to all acts or decisions or omissions or inclusions. Many, many things are done for, more or less, no reason. Meaning is something we infer from our own interactions and often we infer it where it doesn't exist.

The brain is trained to recognize patterns. It's why people always choose ATM PIN codes that mean something to them or why you remember phone numbers in blocks of digits instead of one number at a time. We see patterns everywhere and intuitively connect the dots giving rise to meaning. While this trait is incredibly useful for things like basic human interaction, or, you know, solving crimes based on evidence, it's less useful when we try to create patterns where they don't actually exist.

You can see this dramatized in the fantastic movie A Beautiful Mind when Russell Crowe's character, John Nash, becomes obsessed with breaking non-existent Soviet codes embedded in newspapers. I'd argue you also see it when people rush to blame/praise God for acts of violence, or the weather, or getting a good parking space.

John Nash, Russell Crowe, A Beautiful Mind, soviet, decipher, cipher, codeWe do not handle random well. We want patterns. We want meaning.

Don't get me wrong, I do think there is meaning in the universe, just not in everything. Chaos exists. Things occur for no reason, or at least, not for the reasons we too readily assume. We are not an accident, but we are also not pre-programmed for life. Meaning and non-meaning exist together. Some things have a reason and others don't.

I think it's vitally important to remember that though we might be tempted or trained to find meaning in everything, not everything has a meaning behind it. This can be anything from believing that luck exists in day-to-day life to saying that maybe an "Argument from Silence" isn't much of an argument at all.

I guess that movie made a point after all, but it was only the point that I made it have.


Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87. 
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