Everyone in L.A. knows that survival here depends on how well one masters the art of making connections. Networking is this town’s middle name. The result is that just about anyone is open to meeting (or setting up a meeting with the assistant of) just about anyone else. After all, the guy across the café might be your next film’s financier. The woman sitting in front of you at church might be the well-connected agent who lands you your next audition. Hence, people are running around with frazzled brains and overloaded rolodexes, trying desperately to find their fit in this massive jigsaw puzzle of a town.
This kind of “connectivity” exhausts me, however, and as much as I hear that it is essential to doing anything of significance, part of me wonders if this is really the best way. Making connections is good and all, and heaven knows I have been blessed by some very wonderful people who’ve found their way into my life via friends of friends, flukes or whatever. But when we think about “connection,” why does it always seem to be a lateral, “people-centric” notion? That is, why do we think of having connections as a utilitarian, class-infused ideal (it’s who you know) rather than something of greater, perhaps less quantitative, value?
What if we re-framed “connection” as a term that refers to more than just interpersonal relationships? What if we began to see that connections could be made to things, ideas, mysteries and more? In the same way that we can network among people and build up a broad patchwork of human interconnectivity, can we not look more broadly at the world and thread together some sort of quilt of existential connectivity?
This is what I mean:
I. A few weeks ago I was walking home from a screening of Little Children—a film about two people lost in their suburban lives and actively pursuing some sort of transcendent connection in the mire of the everyday. I met a girl who had been walking next to me anonymously, but finally broke the ice. I took my iPod headphones out, and for the next two blocks we talked about the movie and about ourselves, realizing we had a curious amount of commonalities for two strangers walking on a sidewalk in L.A. Before I knew it, we came to an intersection where she had to turn for home, while I still had to walk another mile. We introduced ourselves at this departing point (as is so often done), but no contact information was exchanged. Moments later I regretted this; though I told myself that I would meet this girl again one day if it was meant to be. If not, it was still a welcome break from my lonely walk home.
II. More recently I was at a party where I didn’t know anyone. I was making small talk with this kid who had just moved to L.A. to pursue a career in filmmaking. Somehow we got on the conversation of RELEVANT, and I said I’d been writing articles for the magazine and website for three years. He looked a bit surprised. “You write for RELEVANT?” he said. I nodded and he continued: “That magazine is the reason I’m out here.” I raised my skeptical eyebrows and asked him what he meant. He proceeded to tell me how a while back he’d read an article on this website about Christians taking different approaches in Hollywood, and it inspired him to move out to L.A. for a semester internship with the Los Angeles Film Studies Center (a program which I had mentioned in that article). “Did you write that article?” he asked … I told him I had. “Then you’re the reason I’m here right now.”
III. There is a tiny, little film called Old Joy that just came out. It’s tiny in the indie sense (its biggest star is folkster Will Oldham) but also literally (only 72 minutes long). The film is about two former college roommates who reunite in Portland for an overnight camping excursion in the nearby mountains. They try to re-connect and re-live their friendship as it was in the golden days of college, but it doesn’t work. Things change: circumstances and time and “growing up.” The film is about how old joys haunt us in the present and elude us when we try to resurrect them. I went on a road-trip this weekend with three of my closest college friends. It’s only been a year since we graduated, and so “old joy” might be an overly dramatic way to describe our reunion. But this milky autumn morning as I dropped them off at the airport and drove home alone, I could feel our collective past drifting further away. Sometimes life is just a collection of all-too-short walks with people who happen to be on the same path for a portion of the journey.
IV. Marie Antoinette is a film that shows a lot about the nature of life and passing joys. Here is a woman with all the riches and pleasures of life, living it up royally as the teen queen of France. She parties like it’s 1999 (or, if the music is any hint, 1989), all night until the sun comes up. But then it’s another day; the party ends; the honeymoon is over. The film exquisitely evokes this feeling of “afterness” that haunts anyone who experiences the peaks and valleys of anything in quick succession. Like the people you meet at parties, or just walking down the street—the little connections you make in life bring everything into focus for a few brief minutes. Oh but for a lasting clarity …
V. Do you ever wake up and feel that curious feeling of momentary dislocation—that you thought you were somewhere else, at some other time? And then you wake further and realize it is another day, here and now, here where you were yesterday and the day before … I always think of Ecclesiastes and the lines about how nothing new happens “under the sun.” Days press on, the sun also rises, and after a while all we can do is start to repeat ourselves. I wonder if that is why going to the movies sometimes feels like déjà vu. I just saw The Prestige, which I could have sworn I’d seen two weeks earlier in The Illusionist. And seeing Infamous less than a year after seeing Capote was even worse. You can make arguments for their differences, but the fact is they are two sides of the same coin. Nothing new happens under the sun.
VI. Recently I attended the City of Angels Film Festival, an annual weekend-long festival in Hollywood that focuses on the intersections of faith and film. The event struck me as an example of how connectivity is both about networking with a diversity of people (even Christians in Hollywood throw down business cards like candy) but also networking with complex ideas. Whereas many film festivals are simply schizophrenic exhibitions or competitions of dozens of unrelated films on unrelated topics, City of Angels makes an effort to show how films from different eras, countries, perspectives and theologies can help us to make connections with the world in which we live. A film screened this year, for example, was Ken Loach’s Bread and Roses, an expose of social injustice in urban Los Angeles. Among other things, the screening of this film for a bunch of Christians—many who live just miles away from where it was produced—opened our eyes to the desperate plights of fellow Los Angelinos. It contextualized, made real and de-mythologized this “City of Angels” as a place where the best kind of connection is not always about giving something to get something.
Sometimes the best connections we make in life are fleeting acts of grace or mutual understanding. Whether it is 90 minutes of a film that clarifies some aspect of how the world is, an exchange of 50 words with a girl on the street, or 50 cents in the bucket of a beggar on the curb, the ways in which we connect in this world do not have to be dramatic to be significant. They are often ephemeral and over before we see how they fit into anything else in the world. And perhaps it is not our place to see. When we do make connections it is like God showing us a glimpse of his master plan for redeeming His people. It is too broad and beautiful for our eyes to behold, and sometimes that is frustrating. For every “I know the reason why I am here right now” moment of clarity, there is a faceless infinitude of mystery waiting in the wings.
But this is how it should be; this is God’s plan. For what would be the joy in “lightbulb moments” if everything was already illuminated?