Movies at the NHFPL

Here Goes Nothing

Today is National Nothing Day.

Unlike Squirrel Appreciation Day (Jan. 21), or National Corn Chip Day (Jan. 29), or National Inane Answering Message Day (Jan. 30), or Do a Grouch a Favor Day (Feb. 16)—straightforward, comprehensible holidays all—the internet says National Nothing Day was created as a deliberate paradox, an “un-event” that you can’t even celebrate because doing so would undermine the whole premise.

But paradoxes are meant to be resolved, and we think the way to go about it is by getting up to something many of us like to do when nothing’s going on: watching movies. Even better if you can pile on the nothings—say, by watching a movie that costs nothing to procure, or one in which nothingness plays a role in the plot or dialogue. And for that, your best bet is the lower level of the main branch of the New Haven Free Public Library (133 Elm St, New Haven), where hundreds, maybe thousands, of DVDs await.

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There’s The Jerk (1979), which offers a thorough treatment of know-nothingness. In his first starring role on film, Steve Martin plays Navin R. Johnson, an earnest backwoods buffoon convinced that show-biz stardom is in his destiny. One day, he’s ecstatic to find the local phone book arriving in the mail at the gas station where he works. “I wish I could get that excited about nothing,” his boss, played by Jackie Mason, remarks. “Nothing?” Martin replies incredulously. “Are you kidding? Page 73—‘Johnson, Navin R.’ I’m somebody now! … I’m in print!”

The library’s copy of the underrated and brilliantly cast I Heart Huckabees (2004) offers much ado about nothingness. It pits a pair of relentlessly optimistic “existential detectives” (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin) against a formidable nihilistic nemesis (Isabelle Huppert) in a battle for the souls of two wayward truth-seekers (Jason Schwartzman and Mark Wahlberg). In one of the movie’s signature scenes, Hoffman and Wahlberg debate the “universal connectivity” at the center of the sleuths’ philosophical arguments. Says Hoffman, “You and me and the air are actually tiny particles that are swirling around together. Look right here, ya see?” Where his finger points, the scene breaks into small parts that float around the screen. Wahlberg retorts, “Okay, but look at the cracks between these particles, and the cracks we fall through: the holes of nothingness!”

The Big Lebowski (1998), also a part of the NHFPL’s collection, follows a chronic underachiever who coasts past such questions with the help of copious amounts of ganja—until a gang of nihilists raid and defile his apartment, setting in motion an escalating chain of misunderstandings and bad decisions. A scene-stealing John Goodman, playing the emotionally unbalanced bowling fanatic Walter Sobchak, delivers this deliciously loaded line: “…these men are nihilists. There’s nothing to be afraid of.”

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In The Matrix (1999), almost nothing is real. An army of super-intelligent machines has set up a sophisticated virtual reality to deceive and placate the minds of the humans plugged into it. Protagonist Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves) is recruited by a mysterious figure named Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne), then given a pivotal choice: he can swallow a red pill, which will reveal to him the truth of the matrix, or a blue pill, which will send him back to the false but comfortable existence he already knows. As Anderson begins to choose the red pill, Morpheus gives him the chance to reconsider: “Remember: all I’m offering is the truth. Nothing more.” And that hedge wasn’t for nothing: in the film, life in the real world is grimy, grey and grim.

Another good-for-nothings gem to be found at the library is the classic satirical comedy Dr. Strangelove (1964). As American officials scramble to stop a rogue nuclear bomb heading towards the Soviet Union, the Soviets reveal that they have an automated “doomsday device” rigged to blow up the entire world should an attack hit their soil. From there to the film’s absurdist finale, nuclear nothingness is the dark specter driving all the action.

There you have it—five sweet nothings for a happy National Nothing Day.

New Haven Free Public Library
Ives Branch – 133 Elm St, New Haven (map)
Mon-Thurs 10am-8pm, Fri-Sat 10m-5pm
(203) 946-8130…

Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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