SXSW 2010: The Duality of Edward Norton


The following post is a continuation of BustedHalo’s coverage of the 2010 South By Southwest festival.

The search for the spirituality at the South By Southwest media festival in Austin began with a pot movie.  No, I am not advocating alternative lifestyles… at least not those of the Cheech and Chong variety.  But when I found out that Edward Norton would be showing his latest film at the Alamo Draft House on South Lamar, I put a big black circle around the showing of Leaves of Grass on the extended grid of movies offered on the opening night of the festival.

It might have something to do with the fact that the theme that seemed to permeate last summer was the movie Keeping The Faith. For those who have not seen it, the 2000 film featured Norton as a Catholic priest from New York whose best friend was a rabbi played by Ben Stiller.  And while those months did not involve a love triangle with Jenna Elfman, I was indeed living on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and my best friend that summer was a Jewish Rabbi-to-be.  I even went to my first Jewish Shabbat service at the temple in which part of the movie was filmed.  And rumor has it that one of the homilies used in the film was based on that of the Paulist who often took me out for Magnolia’s cupcakes. 

Keeping The Faith was kind of an anomaly for Norton… in that the film did not involve a character with a dual personality.  But with one look at the poster for Leaves of Grass, the viewer is quickly reminded that Norton is back in familiar territory: he plays identical twins.  So what did a film about an Ivy League Classics professor and his dope-dealing brother from Oklahoma have to do with spirituality?

A week before this past Ash Wednesday, we gave a pre-Lenten retreat here at the church.  The main thrust of the retreat was that Lent was a time in which we need to confront the darker sides of our personality.  But the twist came from a piece of truth given by a Jungian Psychologist form the parish; he said that we so often believe that our darker side is what is evil about ourselves, but that’s not the case.  Our darker sides are just that, the other side of the coin from our brighter side and we ignore them at our own peril.  Rather, it is our ego—the part of us that insists on its own way—that is evil.

And the first scene of Leaves of Grass states that very premise.  The film opens with the classics professor teaching his students that all of the major religions and spiritual movements point us to one thing: denial of self.  Over the course of the film, we see that the classics professor is forced to encounter his dope-dealing brother and as he is lured into one crazy situation after another, has to face the part of himself that he has been running away from all of these years.

In the process, the classics professor is forced to let go of his own sense of control so that he can get to a place where he can integrate the darker part of himself (his brother).  Of course, this process does not come without a fight; it does not come without being forced into situations where the professor has no choice but to let go of his own self in order to come to terms with the life that is unraveling in front of him.  And during the film I thought of my own past spiritual journeys—as well as the ones I have yet to make—and realized how much surrendering control was the one thing I needed to do… yet it was the one thing I was so seemingly incapable of doing.  Ego.

Still, after watching this film I could not help but notice how consistent the theme of duality has been throughout his films: Primal Fear in which he plays someone with multiple-personality, Fight Club in which he plays someone who invents a personality to deal with the darker part of himself, The Incredible Hulk in which he plays someone who turns into… well… The Hulk, and now these twins.  So during the Q and A after the film, I asked him what it was that drew him to these roles.

“You know, I occasionally get asked that question, and the truth is that I just look for great roles.  I don’t usually go out and look specifically for schizoid roles or anything.”  Then he paused.  “That being said, I frequently walk down the street muttering something to myself, so at some point I figured that I might as well get paid for it.”

Leaves of Grass will premiere in select cities on April 2. To get more information, visit