This week’s installment in the Ethical Dilemmas on Film series is the 2001 Jill Sprecher film Thirteen Conversations About One Thing. Here are some questions to get you started in your thinking about the film:

What is the “one thing”? 

Can you figure out the actual chronology of events? Why is the film told in the particular order that it is? 
Is there such a thing as a coincidence in this film? 
Does the film prove that reversibility is impossible? 
What does the film have to say about Schadenfreude? 
The film takes place in New York City. Is this surprising to realize? 
A motif is a recurring subject, theme, idea, form, shape, or figure in a work of art. Does Thirteen Conversations rely on any particular motifs? 
Is there a particular character with whom you identify or sympathize? Is this identification or sympathy surprising to you? 
We see each of the main characters in his/her workplace. Does the film have anything to say about work? 
Does the film have any religious/spiritual dimension? Does it believe in the possibility of grace? 
Why is it important that John Turturro’s character is a physicist? 
When the director, Jill Sprecher, moved to New York City, she was mugged and landed in the hospital with a concussion. Her life spiraled into a serious depression. One day a stranger on the street smiled at her and “the curse was lifted.” Does the movie reflect Sprecher’s optimism? Despair?
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13 Responses to Thirteen Conversations About One Thing: Questions for Reflection


    Towards the beginning of the film, Walker says “It can never go back to the way it was.” Though this took place in a physics class, this statement stuck out to me. As he said this he wrote “irreversible” on the board in large letters and underlined it. Knowing what I know about the rest of the film, this did prove to be important. I believe that the one thing, or maybe just the theme of the film is the irreversibility. I do not mean this in the pessimistic sense. I believe that in this movie the idea of irreversibility simply means that things cannot be exactly how how they were, but they can change.

    It is quite obvious that Gene’s character is the shining example of schadenfreude. Before he calls Smiley into his office to fire him, he makes it quite clear that he will take pleasure in letting him go. He notes that he finally wants to wipe that smile off his face. After he let’s him go, Gene seems incredibly disappointed the Smiley was able to look on the bright side of the situation. This does not sit well with me because for some reason I sympathize with Gene’s character. Perhaps it is because it is just such a great performance by Alan Arkin that distracts us from his cruel intended actions.

    Another aspect I found interesting that a lot of people touched on was the idea of the six degrees of separation in the film. I first realized the connection between the characters when I first saw Troy and Walker in the car together. However, when I became more familiar with the characters and their names I realized all the smaller connections and how their stories connect and affect each other.


    I loved Alan Arkin’s performance in this, and I think this was a nice primer to seeing The Lives of Others. I think the film taking place in NYC is beautiful in both it’s predictability and it’s romanticism. NYC is the setting for an infinite amount of films, and this film pays homage to that by taking a stab on the “one man’s life touches so man others” principle. I was not surprised at all to see a film like this in such a city. We are so desensitized to those around us, and this is a kind of film that bursts that bubble we create (also similar to Six Degrees of Separation!).
    I agree that the one thing is “happiness.”
    Focusing on Alan Arkin (because I love him), his character Gene is the perfect example of the schadenfreude trope. His own depression causes him to become frustrated with the happiness of others, so much so that he tries to cause harm to another in order to knock him down a peg. Gene’s journey through the film is all the more enjoyable when you know that he comes from suffering. How tragic a picture is it that he often wonders if he had waved at his wife, he might have saved his marriage? This film forces you to consider the consequences of your actions, however small. And when Gene recommends the man he fired for another job, and then waves to that woman on the subway? That’s poetry. That’s the kind of magic that only happens in New York City.


    Personally, I believe the “one thing” is happiness. It was always happiness that got them in the end- happy or unhappy. One character, blissfully celebrating a successful case, believing everyone should be happy, finds a rude awakening when he is the culprit behind a drunken hit-and-run. That same girl, before happy and at peace, struggles to find happiness again. Another, terribly unhappy at where life has taken him, struggles with the happiness of another and facing his own mistakes. Another, after being mugged and injured, intensifies a “mid-life crisis,” in which he coldly comes to terms with the fact that doing what he is “supposed” to do has not brought him any closer to happiness and tries to logically deduce a path to happiness, much like one would deduce the laws of physics.

    But the laws of physics don’t always apply to matters of the heart. Reversibility and irreversibility is another theme played at during “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing.” Each character in the play learns something during the course of the play, and wants to change something about the past. The future changes as a result. I don’t know if one can “change” their past by changing what they make of it as a future—but that seems to be a stance this movie takes.

    Gene struggles with the fact that if he just turned around and waved to his ex-wife before he left for a career opportunity, so he turns and waves to a woman on the subway. That woman is the physics teacher’s ex-wife, the same teacher who seems to have just discovered that making one’s own decisions in the pursuit of selfish happiness may cause insufferable damage to others. It goes full circle. When I think of the smiling man that saved the girl from suicidal thoughts simply by that act of kindness from against the road, I think of Smily- walking on that path because of Gene’s regret in firing him and placement at a new, rewarding job. One mistake turned into another’s forture. Reversibility.

    There are even more motifs and themes in “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing,” each one of which hit me in places I could understand. It’s one of the things I love about this movie. Everyone can relate to it.


    Thirteen Conversations About One Thing seems to have a lot to say about Schadenfreude. The main points can really be divided into two categories, though. The first is that Schadenfreude is only a temporary fix, something that while it might help in the moment, will really only mask and add more pain down the road. The second thing it has to say is that Schadenfreude goes hand in hand with karma. That is, while you may take pleasure in someone else’s pain for a bit, it won’t be long until you feel that same amount of pain, and maybe someone will be laughing at you.
    The greatest example of the first point about Schadenfreude is Gene’s character. We see him, a miserable insurance manager, constantly getting annoyed with his happy-go-lucky co-worker. At least him in particular. He doesn’t seem to differentiate too much with whom he gets annoyed. Regardless, he finds means to fire this employee, hoping to knock him down a peg or two. This doesn’t work, and in turn he ends up even unhappier than he was before. It isn’t until he finds this co-worker a job that he starts to find a bit more rest. This balancing of karma makes him a happier person, even if it doesn’t make him happy.
    Gene is also an example of karma’s role to play in the movie, but I think his co-worker who wins the lottery ticket is an even better one. One minute he is leaving the shop, high on his winnings, calling Gene a miserable person. The next minute, we hear Gene telling Troy a story about why he should be wary, using his co-worker’s life as an example. He went from riches to being absolutely miserable, something he was lording over Gene as he walked out of the office. Perhaps Gene is trying to capitalize on what helping the other man out did for him, trying to be happier by warning Troy about the dangers of life. Regardless, his experience and experiences tell us many things about Schadenfreude and the dangers of it.


    As I watched the movie, I’ll admit it was not one of my favorites. In discussion, someone mentioned that the film revolved around our fickle friend happiness. She said that the film is a testimony to its transience: before we know we have it, it is gone. If you look at it in this way, it really puts you into perspective about your perspective. How do you approach life: as an optimist or pessimist?

    Few things in life are certain and universal. In fact, I can argue that nothing is. Sure, there are the laws of universal gravitation, which do exist. But they do change as you move across the solar system. We hear stories everyday about those whose lives are changed in one day because of a shocking bombshell with health, family, or some other part of their lives. Maybe your faith will always hold true, if you are religious. If not, where can you turn?

    To me, this film denounces happiness as nothing but a fair weather friend. She is there when times are easy: in the summer, when our workload has slowed down, or during the good parts of our lives. But sometimes life seems to take a turn for the worst: there is a death in the family, we fail a really important midterm, a loved one falls ill, or we have to move because of our job. And so where do we turn? We smile, tell our parents that it will all be okay and to have faith, and put on a show like everything is okay. But it isn’t.

    When we try to act happy in the darkest moments of our lives, the world can seem bleaker. So what is the solution to a dismal situation? Manufacturing some sort of false happiness and security won’t always make life better. And so how can we turn the negatives into positives?

    In Sprecher’s “Thirteen Conversations About One Thing,” the answer is adjusting your outlook on what is happening, which is not the same thing. Wade is consistently the happiest person in the film. No matter what crosses his path, he is ready for it. When Gene lets him go from the office, he knows it is a bad thing, and he is not happy about it. But he smiles as he walks out of the office, and he looks for jobs in the paper every day, because he knows something even better will present itself. And it does. Wade is not the only one whose life is made better by an optimistic outlook.

    Similarly, Beatrice’s perspective is drastically altered throughout the film. As she works for a rich man as a cleaning lady, she thinks life will only get better. But then one day, she is hit by a car and almost killed, and her world is turned upside down. For a time, she loses hope; indeed, to most of us her bedridden life wouldn’t seem worth living. But then one day she sees a smile, and she knows that if she takes everything in stride, life will get better.

    Perhaps that is the outlook everyone should adopt. Not that everything is okay, because not everything will always be okay. We can’t always a beacon of hope. But one thing we can do is take life in stride and know that each day is a chance to grow and experience. Things will eventually get better, and happiness will once again be achieved.

  6. ANNA PRINCE says:

    “Thirteen Conversations about One Thing” is an interesting movie with a clever style and way of portraying life. It provokes an unanswerable question as to what the “one thing” really was. That “thing” could be different to each viewer, but to me, it seemed to be about hope. Each character in the film represents a different kind of person with a different kind of outlook on life. Some are extremely optimistic, while others struggle to find a good reason to do the things they do. Jean is one character that struggles because of his unhappiness and lack of hope. What’s worse is that he lets the happiness of others get in the way of his own. Instead of looking at Bowman as an inspiration for his own life, Jean allows himself to become annoyed by the man’s optimism. He appears to have no hope that he could one day be like Bowman, he just automatically deems it impossible.

    The entire film is very coincidental. The way the characters connect to each other, and the uncertain chronology of the events that occur give the viewer that rare sense of content surprise at the end of the film when the true relationships are revealed.


    I feel that this film addresses the blessing and curse of thought. We discussed the “thinking thing,” or what it means to embrace a lifestyle that revolves around constant thought, analysis, interpretation, awareness, and open-mindedness. This not only exhausting, but also is confusing, challenging, and uncomfortable to not silence your inner dialogue. I find that I work to keep a conscious and aware mentality, one that challenges and questions practices I could otherwise accept as natural and normal. Yet, this practice often complicates things, and makes it harder for me to feel confident in my beliefs. Is this beneficial? What am I really accomplishing? However, I think what this movie exemplifies is the need to forego the desire to accomplish something and relish in the journey or process. Jean couldn’t understand why Bowman was always smiling, always trying to figure out what had happened to warrant such happiness. Yet, what Jean was so awakened with is that if he keeps waiting for that reason to smile, nothing will ever measure up. Nothing will seem good enough or will last long enough to factor into a prolonged satisfaction with life. On the other hand, however, this constant struggle for something to be “happy” about allows one to fully and entirely appreciate that touch of good when it appears. By allowing your inner dialogue to run and discuss the hypocrisies and issues of the world around you, any time things seem to line up and work smoothly, it can be much more intensely appreciated. This “thinking thing” experiences a much stronger mind-body connection, rather than a permanent smile without an identified reason. I want to understand why my mouth wants to smile or my legs want to run. There are too many factors that play into happiness that one cannot silence any of them and expect to reap the same benefits as those who confront the beauty, the ugly, and the whole.


    This film really got me thinking on some things. I really like the line from the movie that says, “fortune smiles upon some and laughs at others.” Does fortune treat us all the same, do we create our own luck in some ways? These were some of the questions I asked myself after watching the film. In terms of the question, “is there such a thing as coincidences?” I believe that there are such things as coincidences, but that there aren’t as many things that are coincidences as we think there are. I think a lot of the things that we write off a coincidence are not coincidences at all, merely made to see that way. It was a coincidence that the co-worker won the lottery, but there was no coincidence when “Smiley” got fired. He got fired because he was to happy, and it wasn’t coincidence that the angry boss was the one who let him go. It was also not a coincident that “Smiley” later got a job interview, because his old boss felt bad and set him up with it, without him knowing. This film seems to portray that life has a sense of humor so to speak. Some of the things that happen are so improbable, such as the lottery ticket, but at the same time it seems that they are just meant to be.


    I find Thirteen Conversations About One Thing to be an incredibly dark film that raises a lot of issues that we face in life, but perhaps do not want to necessarily address: guilt, acknowledging our wrong-doings and selfishness. It deals a lot with empathy as well, which many of the characters deal with internally. I have always thought that the titles for Thirteen Conversations About One Thing and Six Degrees of Separation should have replaced each other, the latter being more appropriate for this film because of how all the characters are somewhat connected. One particular motif of this film is the idea of letting your work consume you. We see Gene, the miserable and stressed insurance claims manager, Troy, the over-confident attorney who’s life soon takes a turn for the worse, Beatrice, the cleaning lady who bends over backwards to try to please her client and Walker the physics professor who’s marriage is failing. Not a single one of these people are satisfied with their lives. However, when they all interact and develop different coping mechanisms and the film ends as resolved as possible. The setting of this film is very important. Taking place in New York City, a city that is known for never resting, and where connections are everything, it shows how easy it is to be swept up in a fast pace lifestyle, not allowing us to see what is truly important, or to even care about others.

  10. Natalie Masters says:

    I think the “One Thing” that the movie is talking about is the idea of perspective and attitude. The importance of the actions taken after a significant life change or experience is what defines the course of the future. My High School volleyball coach instilled that lesson in our team after a few matches that were hard fought, but did not go our way. Today I carry the same ideas that reflect this lesson. No matter what happens in the course of my life, I know the importance of reacting to the situation at hand.

    The characters in this movie are all pressed in very realistic but difficult situations. Smiley is the best example of a character who will not let the situations in his life affect his positive outlook. He was always able to see the silver lining, and make it seem like gold. He never takes the time to feel sorry about himself that he was laid off. Beatrice cannot look at her car accident and see the fact that she is still alive as a blessing. It takes a smiling stranger for her to realize that she should be thankful she is still alive. This lesson can transcend into the affect our attitude has on the lives of others. Some people are very perceptive to the attitude of those around them. Smiley’s overly energetic and positive attitude has a negative effect on his boss, while Beatrice’s cleaning partner cannot seem to operate without Beatrice’s perspective.

    I would also like to touch on the theme of reversibility. One of the more memorable scenes of the movie was when the physics professor was erasing the word “Irreversible” from the chalk board. I thought this was extremely important for the movie because of the time that was taken for that scene. This may imply that an event may not be reversible, but the course of actions taken after can define the a new course or revert to the original. For example, the physics teacher used his mugging as a wake up call. The reaction afterward caused him to start cheating on his wife and end up alone. He cannot reverse what he did, but if he reacted different after the mugging, his attitude could have reversed the effects of the mugging.

    Additionally, New York City seems like a very appropriate venue for this movie because of the various socioeconomic classes that are present throughout the city. The inter connections are also plausible because of the chance meetings that the characters have. It reminded me a lot of Love Actually.


    I think that the “one thing” that this film is talking about is happiness. What makes all of these conversations different, though, is what defines each person’s happiness. We see this time and again in this film, but it especially becomes apparent in Gene’s character. His view on happiness is probably the most cynical in the whole movie. He finds every instance of happiness in his co-workers to be unfair and put on, but never genuine. A lot of his attitude seems to come from his own inability to find positivity in anything that he is involved in. Regardless, though, we all talk about happiness in some shape or form and this film exemplifies that point. Some people define happiness by riches, others by experiences, and others by personal success. It is through these definitions of success that changes the nature of the conversation, but the underlying discussion, the subtext if you will, is all about happiness.

    After reading about the director’s experiences after first moving to New York City (which I never really questioned this setting), I can see great similarities between Beatrice’s experiences and the director’s. I imagine that this character was written in the likeness of the director and actually followed the same trajectory in despair and optimism following her mugging experience. Obviously, by the end of the film, Beatrice’s despair was “lifted” by a stranger’s smile, much like I imagine happened when “the curse was lifted” after a similar event occurred after the director’s mugging.

    Finally, I am still trying to figure out the chronology of events in this film. At first, I guess that I did not realize that the events were not in order. I mean I sort of did on some level because the professor’s black eye appeared and disappeared, but I figured that only really applied to that character for some reason. Unfortunately, I am not sure why the events were presented in the way that they were even after reaching the end of the film. My only semblance of understanding of this is to conflict with the role of the physicist and the scientific response of “cause and effect” to the student about his grade, indicating that events happen in a specific order and they cannot be broken. Clearly, this film breaks that assumption by putting the order of events non-chronologically. That as much as I’ve got on this, but maybe one of my peers can shed some light on this aspect of the film.


    After watching this movie the first time, I remember thinking that this movie more accurately depicted the concept of “Six Degrees of Separation” than its respective film. Everything and everyone in the film is connected, certainly in line with the idea that nothing is coincidence. Every small action of each character can majorly affect the life of another, as seen with Beatrice and the ‘stranger’ who smiled at her and gave her the hope to continue living.
    The fact that the film takes place in New York is so crucial to this idea of interconnection because the city is basically an actual representation of the concept. The city is made of thousands of strangers from all walks of life interacting and affecting each others lives through their decisions. In theory, any town could also demonstrate the concept, but I think it works so much better in a setting where almost every person you meet is a total stranger. Pretty much every character in the film is a stranger to one another, and by showing their effects on each other, it makes the argument for interconnectedness so much stronger.


    I wanted to go back to our discussion about the unhappiness we tend to associate with those “who think for a living.” I find the connection made between misery and knowledge is a phenomenon of the current time and a function of a global initiative to accelerate industrialization, which exponentially increases the standards measuring success. However, in believing that we are capable of anything, we have inferred an unlimited range of success and prevented our means from every reaching an end. Our ability to communicate and discover information instantaneously has pushed people to expect gratification in the same manner, making contentment almost impossible. The film illustrates how society has merged the definition of what it means to be content with what it means to settle, making the two inseparable. For most of the characters in the film, they view a person’s ability to reach contentment as an act of settling, for that person has clearly surrendered their drive and ambition. As a result, they must be unhappy.

    Jean for example, feverishly questions Bowman’s character because he is able to find happiness in his marriage, his job, and his life, even though it remains the same from day to day. The film infers society’s inability to remain idle, to be the reason why the concept of constancy has change and is now also a sign of surrender. As an audience, we then have to decide which perspective we want to approach life with, in order to determine success and failure. It could be the case that Bowman measured his success in the ability to find a secure job, one that would allow him to return to his wife “at exactly 5 everyday.” Perhaps that was his ambition, and now that he has achieved his goal, he can now focus on other ambitions like: raising his family, growing a garden, and spending time with the person he loves. It is Bowman’s recognition of success, that allows him to find content, but that does not mean he has surrendered. He is just now free to pursue ambition in other ways. Therefore, we can see why some characters confuse the act of being content with the act of settling. They are incapable of recognizing success and thereby become unaware of what they have already achieved.

    We see this in Jean’s character, as he has grown old pursuing a “happy life,” because his has failed to set a standard for what that is exactly. When on the phone with his wife, he states: “I have worked very long to get where I am.” But what does that mean? Why do people feel they have to constantly prove their worth? Why are Jean’s capabilities to post $1,500 just for his son’s bail so easily forgotten? And why does he have to interject at the last minute, his future promotion of becoming Vice President as evidence of success? The irony of Jean claiming he will be the next Vice President is that he is using the potential of future success, as means to measure the success he currently has. It is because of his perspective; his inability to recognize the success he has already achieved, and his failure to put a cap on the amount of success he can obtain in one lifetime, that Jean is unhappy. Not the other way around.

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