catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 2, Num 7 :: 2003.03.28 — 2003.04.10


Haunted by happiness

A review of 13 Conversations About One Thing

Very occasionally a movie comes along that raises so many important issues, so clearly, so compellingly, that discussing it with friends seems mandatory. 13 Conversations is one of those films. It allows us to watch three groups of ordinary people pursuing the ordinary events of their lives. Though they don't know one another, their lives are intertwined. The film is divided by title screens into thirteen vignettes, each containing a conversation about one thing. The one thing we all talk about: whether happiness, significance and meaningful relationships can be found in a world that is not only broken, but where life is finally beyond our control. The conversations unfold throughout the film, following the trajectory of each character's life. One person's answer prompts a question in someone else, good things do not always happen to good people, tragedy can strike when we least expect it, and contentment is fleeting in a world in which disappointment and suffering lurk just around the corner.

13 Conversations is a remarkable window of insight into the lives of people who are just like us, finite creatures who yearn for meaningful relationships in a world in which honesty compels us to face the fact that try as we might, very little in life turns out exactly as we had planned. There are no easy answers here, nor a tidy ending, as if the film's producers expect the 14th conversation to be ours.

We meet Troy, an attorney celebrating a court victory who will flee from an accident after the party. As a prosecutor it has been easy for him to assume the accused are always guilty, but now he discovers that he has far more in common with the felons than he had ever imagined. Though his involvement is never discovered, the guilt over his wrong choice slowly corrodes his soul. We meet Walker, an engineering professor whose marriage and life, unlike the tidy and predictable formulas which direct the cosmos, are spiraling out of control. We meet Gene, an insurance company manager who has, in Walker Percy's memorable line, achieved success but failed at life. Alienated and bitter, Gene lives alone and only sees his former wife when they meet in court at the trial of their wayward son, a petty thief and drug addict. His company is facing hard times, and the guileless happiness of one of Gene's employees seems to mock his very existence, prompting him to act. And we meet Beatrice, an honest, simple, hard working maid whose optimism is shattered by suffering and distrust. For all her life she has lived in light of a mystical experience she had when rescued from drowning as a child, but now she sees the world as a dark place. "You've changed," her friend tells her. "I'm just like everyone else," Beatrice replies.

We meet these characters in 13 Conversations, listen to them talk, watch them live, and are drawn into their search for significance, for happiness, and for someone who in the end, will be there for them. Their choices and settings are unremarkable, but the film is compelling in the way it forces us to see ourselves, and our friends and neighbors, in the characters. The imaginary world conjured up in this film is the world we live in. Broken, but full of people who yearn for redemption, even if they never use that term.

13 Conversations was a labor of love. Sisters Jill and Karen Sprecher (who directed and co-wrote it) went deeply into debt to produce this film. Jill studied literature and philosophy at the University of Madison, and some of the movie's most poignant scenes are inspired by true events from her life. Soon after arriving in New York in 1985, she was mugged, hit over the head, and less than a year later was mugged again. Alarmed and despondent as she tried to make a living in the world of independent film, she was cheered one day when a stranger on the subway made simple human contact, by smiling. These extraordinarily ordinary events, along with Bertrand Russell's book, The Conquest of Happiness, gave birth to this thoughtful and sensitive film.

"Movies are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily, only about story," Brian Godawa says. "And those stories are finally, centrally, crucially, primarily, mostly about redemption." 13 Conversations is not sentimental, but insists we see life as it truly is in this fallen world. It is also not unremittingly dark. Each character receives some measure of grace, some kindness, some insight, which allows them at least a glimmer of hope while they continue to walk through a world which is simultaneously broken and glorious.

You will need to watch the film more than once to keep all the details straight, I certainly did, but it is well worth the effort. Watch it, and then use it as a point of contact to discuss with friends, Christians and non-Christians, the one thing that matters most.

Hollywood Worldviews: Watching Films with Wisdom and Discernment by Brian Godawa (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press; 2002) p. 54.

This review was originally published in the Ransom Fellowship journal, Critique. You can view their discussion guide to 13 Conversations at the Ransom Fellowship web site.

your comments

comments powered by Disqus