If you’re thinking of renting a movie and would like some ideas for great films infused with the Dharma, here’s a list with reviews from a Buddhist point of view. The movie reviews including popular hits, independent favorites and international award-winners were generously provided by Michael Parry with suggestions from fellow movie fans.
It's a Wonderful Life
During the Christmas holidays, what better film to contemplate the teachings of the dharma than the classic, It’s a Wonderful Life? As we know, the film tells the story of George Bailey (played in a great performance by Jimmy Stewart) who is deeply distraught over the loss of an $8000 loan and the cruel vindication that is sure to come from Bedford Falls’ evil millionaire, Mr. Potter. As George contemplates ending his life in order to escape what he feels will be unending suffering, the guardian angel, Clarence, appears to reveal what the small world of Bedford Falls would have been like if George had never existed. Dharmically, the wonderful thing about this film is that the archetypal characters allow us to place ourselves in the story and ask, which character am I most like? The miserly Mr. Potter whose selfish ways and obsession with money cause suffering in others? Or am I like George, the average person who forgets her or his immense value to the world? Or perhaps we relate to Clarence, the guardian angel who, realizes that in order to earn his wings he must help George to see the value of his life and his contributions to the world and people around him. Chances are, we are all a bit of all three.
The Truman Show
The Truman Show offers several paths to seeing how Buddhist ideas can be represented in a film. In The Truman Show, Jim Carrey plays Truman Burbank, an abnormally normal guy in a normal town with a normal wife and a quintessential best friend who stops by from time to time with six-pack in hand. What is not so normal though is that Truman’s entire world from the rain, to the sunset and even the death of his father is a staged event performed by elaborate special effects and a troupe of actors on the world’s largest soundstage. Beyond being a wonderfully made and very entertaining film, this depiction of the reality show extraordinaire, is a wonderful Dharma Flick in the way that it asks the question, “What do you do when you realize every moment, every thought and every experience is based on a misperception?” If you are like Truman Burbank, you undertake a great journey on the path to freedom.
I could just sing the praises of Capote as a wonderfully made film with performances that take the respective performers to a new level but dharma is there, as promised. As the title suggests, the film is about Truman Capote and the struggle that he faced in writing his novel, In Cold Blood. What is fascinating and what rings so brilliantly in Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s performance is the question of intention.
In the course of the film, Capote confesses to his friend Harper Lee (Catherine Keener), that he is writing his novel to “rescue the humanity” of the two young men who sit on death row, convicted of killing an innocent family in cold blood. It becomes apparent though that Capote’s true motivation is more likely the salvation of his own humanity. Caught in the paradox of needing to have two men executed in order to have his “humanity saving” venture succeed, tragedy ensues. When I look to see the dharma in the film, I ask myself, why did Truman Capote write the book? Was he honest with anyone whom he met? Was he honest with himself, even in his most personal moments? Thanks to a wonderful film, none of these questions are fully answered but they are asked in a most satisfying way.
My Dinner with Andre
Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, apparently playing themselves, share their lives over the course of an evening meal at a restaurant. Gregory, a theater director from New York, is the more talkative of the pair. He relates to Shawn his tales of dropping out, traveling around the world, and experiencing the variety of ways people live, such as a monk who could balance his entire weight on his fingertips. Shawn listens avidly, but questions the value of Gregory’s seeming abandonment of the pragmatic aspects of life. A slight disclaimer should perhaps accompany this review if only to say that if the idea of sitting in on a two-hour conversation between two middle aged men, sounds like a trip to the gulag, this probably is not the movie for you. On the other hand, if you think you can muster the attention required, you are in for a thought provoking and (all disclaimers aside) entertaining film that muses on the eternal conflict between reason and passion.
Recommending Flatliners (1990) may be taking the risk of dating myself but what have I got to lose in recommending one of the pinnacles of eighties filmmaking which hosts a fantastic constellation of stars (Kiefer Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin, Oliver Platt). In the film five medical students at the top of their class embark on the ultimate scientific journey; to pierce the veil of Maya by seeing what lies behind the veil of death. They hatch an ingenious plan that will allow them to lower themselves, one by one, into the afterlife and then to be revived. Of course, piercing the veil of Maya cannot come without consequences and the students learn that actions in life do in fact carry consequences further down the line. You can call it “erasing the apparent delay inherent in cyclical existence” or you can call it “a crash course in Causal and Resultant consciousness”, but I just call it a great movie that takes you way back to 1990 and makes you go hmmmmmmmmmm every time Mr(s). Karma catches you with your hand in the cookie jar.
About Schmidt is “part comedy, part tragedy, mostly masterpiece.” Warren Schmidt (Jack Nicholson) has arrived at several of life’s crossroads all at the same time. He retired from a lifetime job and he feels utterly adrift. Furthermore, his only daughter is about to marry a man whom he does not like. And his wife dies suddenly. With no job, no wife, and no family, Warren is desperate to find something meaningful in his thoroughly unimpressive life. He sets out on an unexpected journey of self-discovery. This movie is a hopeful story that suggests that it is never too late to look at our life and begin to make choices to reach our greatest potential. It is never too late to make a difference. Schmidt realizes that even if life has been meaningless, we need to make it meaningful. There are always opportunities to plant the seeds for a meaningful future that is in service to others. In the end, Schmidt realizes he has immense opportunity to create the meaningfulness that he wants because everything is intrinsically void of any fixed meaning. Sound familiar? I wonder if he had a pen with him…
This lavish musical drama, based on the hit stage production by Andrew Lloyd Webber and beautifully photographed by Darius Khondji, tells the life story of Eva Duarte (Madonna) who leaves her rural home for Buenos Aires in the company of Latin singer Agustin Magaldi (Jimmy Nail), eventually becoming the wife of President Juan Peron (Jonathan Pryce) and a heroine to the people of Argentina. Though Evita makes major changes in her life in a conventional sense and acquires great fame and fortune, she never attains true satisfaction. In all, this is a beautifully made tragedy about the folly of placing too much faith in the possibility of attaining happiness through worldly ends.
Little Miss Sunshine
The humor that ensues when six very different family members climb into a marginally functional VW bus for a trip from New Mexico to Redondo Beach would be enough to highly recommend Little Miss Sunshine. However, in light of what Lama Marut has said about the challenges of travel and the need to maintain a calm, happy outlook in the face of changing circumstances, this film is even more worth a view. Filled with a wonderful cast and the pressing need to get Olive, the 10 year old daughter, to Redondo Beach in time for the Little Miss Sunshine Beauty Pageant, the film covers such topics dharmic as the folly of intellectual pursuit for its own sake and the joy of placing the needs of another before your own. What really marked the film special is, as Lama Marut has mentioned, the need to slow down and enjoy the road because, as all of the characters of this film would attest, the destination we reach often looks far different than the one we set out for.
Wheel of Time
Werner Herzog’s Wheel of Time is a unique and interesting documentary on the Kalachakra Ritual. Yes, that’s the same Werner Herzog of Fitzcarraldo and Grizzly Man fame. While this famously obsessive and, to some, maniacal, director may seem an unlikely voice to create a documentary on Buddhism, his voice here is characteristically incisive and unique. Ranging freely back and forth between a postponed Kalachara ceremony in Bodhgaya, the subsequent ceremony in Austria and fantastic footage from Mt. Kailas and the Tibetan Plateau, Herzog has given us once again, a provocative piece of filmmaking.
Adapted by screenwriter Rafael Yglesias from his own novel, Fearless explores the complex struggle back to mental health of post-traumatic stress disorder victim Max Klein (Jeff Bridges). One of few survivors of a fatal plane crash, Klein remains calm and assists other survivors out of the burning debris, earning praise as a hero by the media. After stoically departing the tragedy without a word to emergency officials, Max returns home with detached feelings towards his wife (Isabella Rossellini) and son, along with a bizarre, seemingly authentic belief that he is now impervious to harm. Bill Perlman (John Turturro), a psychiatrist for the airline, fails to reach Max about his newfound fearlessness, but asks for his help in aiding Carla (Rosie Perez), a fellow crash survivor filled with grief and guilt over the loss of her baby. In this film, filled with fantastic peformances, we can see several different levels of emptiness as they are being taught by Cliff this month in our Tuesday meditatons. First, of course, the film dals with impearmanence and, even more poignantly it deals with the lack of control that we have over our lives. Eventhough we feel like there is a “self” that oversees and drives all of our activities, Fearless points out that this is in fact not the case. Not only does the film make this clear, it tells a great story in the process.
Imitation of Life
From one of America’s foremost directors, Douglas Sirk, Imitation of Life, at first seems like a just another melodrama from the 1950s centered on issues of domesticity. Looking more deeply into the film (and this is a wonderful characteristic of most of Sirk’s films) we see a story of complex relationships and identity. Set in 1947 Coney Island, the film begins as two single mothers, one in need of help in the home and the other in need of food and shelter, discover that by helping each other both of their needs can be met. However, the relationship becomes complicated when one of the daughters, Sarah, who is African-American, begins to look for acceptance in Susy’s (the white daughter of the other mother) community. Beyond the fact the fact that the film withstands critical scrutiny, like dharma itself, the particular situations of the characters is a powerful teaching in discerning which things in life will tie you to the world and which will set you free. Although these things may be easy to differentiate in theory, sometimes in life the distinction is not so easily made.
Only Communist Poland could produce a state funded TV series that interprets The Ten Commandments in ten 55-minute episodes. We should be happy though that the Polish Communists saw fit to make the films, as they are each beautiful explorations of human instinct running up against morality and law. Over and above the usual genius that we have come to expect from Krzysztof Kieslowski (director of the Three Colors Trilogy), Stanley Kubrik has called The Decalogue “the only masterpiece I can name in my lifetime.” Indeed, the films are so simple and direct that they somehow baffle the viewer in their ability to create the intense emotion that they do. With each episode a very digestible length and with each offering a great mediation on matters of the spirit, a DVD containing a couple of the episodes can be a great companion on a cold winter night.
Along with such books as Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Siddhartha, The Way of the Peaceful Warriorby Dan Millman, has become a classic contribution to the young-adult-with-burgeoning-spirituality literature canon. Based faithfully on the book, the film, Peaceful Warrior, is a poignant exploration of renunciation and overcoming obstacles. When we first meet Dan, he is a young athlete at the height of his powers poised for great accomplishments as a collegiate gymnast. When an accident strikes and all that he has worked so hard to accomplish as a gymnast, seems suddenly far out of reach, his is forced to look more deeply inside himself and to see that material achievements and achievements are not all they are made out to be. Dan is helped in this quest by Socrates, a very lama-like Nick Nolte, who himself has mastered the path of the peaceful warrior.
With a great cast that includes Sissy Spacek, Ben Kingsley, and William Hurt, Tuck Everlasting is a quiet and subtle meditation on the value of life and the need to ask the question, “Am I living to my highest potential?” On one level, the film is a sweet adolescent love story that begins as Winnie (Alexis Bledel) meets Jesse Tuck, a 17 year old member of the Tuck clan who, like the rest of his family has become immortal by drinking from a hidden spring. In Winnie’s story we see how the value of life comes from the fact that it will end and that although impermanence can be painful it can also be a great motivator on the path.
In Jim Jarmusch’s genre-bending classic, William Blake (Johnny Depp) disembarks from a train that has reached its terminus in a town called Machine. Normal enough, you might think, but it so happens that Machine is where civilization’s frail finger tip meets the great western wilderness. If Depp’s character’s name weren’t a clue to the major subterranean workings of the story, and the suggestive title of Depp’s destination didn’t get the wheels turning, true suspicions begin to arise when, in this town called Machine, Depp meets a native American named Nobody. Very quickly, the careful viewer begins to see that the tale unfolding is an austere but elaborate allegory. Where the allegory points though is mysterious.
Jim Jarmusch has this to say about the swirling mysteries in his film, “Death is life’s only certainty, and at the same time, its greatest mystery. For Bill Blake, the journey of Dead Man represents life. For Nobody, the journey is a continuing ceremony whose purpose is to deliver Blake back to the spirit-level of the world. To him, Blake’s spirit has been misplaced and somehow returned to the physical realm. Nobody’s non-western perspective that life is an unending cycle is essential to the story of Dead Man”. And there you have it; one of America’s renowned maverick filmmakers has gone and made a film about the Bardo. And with a great score from Neil Young to boot, Dead Man is not to be missed.
With the tragic events that have happened in Myanmar, I began thinking of Beyond Rangoon (1995), an American Film directed by John Boorman that gives an insight to the country’s political strife.
Beyond Rangoon was inspired by the history of political repression in Myanmar (formerly Burma). It tells the fictional story of Dr. Laura Bowman, an American who travels to Myanmar as a tourist, seeking to forget a tragedy at home. Confronted with the searing brutality of the ruling military dictatorship, she is transformed by the suffering of the Burmese people and the inspiring leadership of Nobel Peace Prize Winner Aung San Suu Kyi. To this day, Aung San Suu Kyi and the movement she heads still seek democracy and a government that recognizes basic human rights.
Dharmically, the film recalls a famous quote from Khen Rinpoche, “A dog wags its tail in Tibet the same as it does in New Jersey”. I take it that he meant something like, “Suffering in the U.S. can’t be escaped in Myanmar”. It’s no surprise that the suffering Laura finds suffering as soon as she disembarks in Myanmar but what makes the film especially worthwhile her discovery that wisdom and compassion are the only two things that can truly prevent suffering.
The Day the Earth Stood Still
From the director Robert Wise (whose eclectic filmography includes: The Sound of Music, The Andromeda Strain, and West Side Story) The Day the Earth Stood Still is a cautionary tale born of early cold war anxieties of 1951. In the film, The United States is visited by a being from outer space called Klaatu. Klaatu has brought with him not only greetings from outer space but also a stern warning that if the people of the Earth attempt to bring their atomc weapons into space, the residents of neighboring galaxies will not hesitate to destroy them. Although the film is campy by today’s sci-fi tastes, it does offer some dharmic intrigue of the highest rank.
Shortly after the film begins, Klaatu, our intrepid man from outer space, takes an alias so that he can inconspicuously move among the people of the earth and, he hopes, organize a meeting of world leaders who will agree not to take atomic weapons into outer space. In this low grade but, nonetheless, eyebrow raising hint of dharma to follow, the alias he chooses is “Carpenter”. Soon after, “Carpenter” asks his guide, a young boy named Bobby, to take him to the greatest person in the world. Bobby takes him to the home of a well known Math professor. Although the professor is not home, the pair finds an unsolved Mathematics equation on a blackboard in the home. As it turns out, the equation is a formulation of Newton’s Second Law of Motion: “The rate of change of momentum of a body is proportional to the resultant force acting on the body and is in the same direction”. So, a man from outer space called “Carpenter” happens to be an expert on cause and effect.
The most profound dharmic moment in the film was brought to my attention in a teaching from Lama Marut in Los Angeles. The teaching was on Nagarjuna’s “Wisdom: A Song on the Root of the Middle Way”. As Nagarjuna points out, and as Marut, reminds us, if reality really was an unchanging whole made up of separate entities with essences, time could not pass and the Earth would actually stand still. When asked to demonstrate his powers, Klaatu makes the earth stand still and offers the careful dharma student a direct look the impossibility of the incorrect worldview which holds that things exist essentially, that is, from their own side. Thank you Nagarjuna, Marut, Robert Wise, and Klaatu.
In keeping with the Dharma Flicks tradition of looking closely at holiday-themed films during the holidays, Love Actuallyis a charming and endearing film that is set almost entirely in London during five frantic weeks before Christmas. The film follows a web-like pattern of inter-related people and the complexities that are created in their individual searches for love. The central character is the very eligible bachelor and new Prime Minister David (Hugh Grant) who cannot express his growing feelings for his new personal assistant Natalie. The circle of interconnected lives spreads out from here in a Shakespearean “comedy of errors” fashion. In Love Actually the underlying desire to be happy can remind the viewer of the often absurd lengths that we go to secure our own happiness while often ensuring the opposite.
Regarded as one of Federico Fellini’s master pieces, 8½ is a thinly veiled auto biography that follows a fictional film director, Guido Anselmi, as he searches for the will and inspiration necessary to embark on a new film production. Released in 1963 8½ followed on two widely celebrated releases from Fellini La Dolce Vita (1960) and La Strada (1954). It is easy to see how Fellini might feel the victim of his own success and have difficulty dealing with the pressures and expectations placed on a successful film director. In the film, Guido is bombarded by his mistress, his wife, his producer, and the rest of his friends with selfish demands and outlandish requests. As a result, Guido retreats into his dreams and there, he finds inspiration to make his new film.
As a dharma student, one can see in Guido’s struggle that there often lacks the solace and meaning that we might hope for in our daily lives. Fraught with the tribulations of samsara, we are often sorting out which paths and influences are worthy of heading and which will only cause greater suffering. As students, we can take Guido as an example of one who retreats into an inner world to find what he must. Although Guido’s journey is far from serene, we can see that by following his own inner path, he ultimately reaches his higher goals.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
In 1995, at the age of 43, Elle France editor Jean-Dominique Bauby, suffered a stroke that paralyzed his entire body, except his left eye. Using that eye to blink out his memoir, Bauby eloquently described the aspects of his interior world, from the psychological torment of being trapped inside his body to his imagined stories from lands he’d only visited in his mind. The Diving Bell and the Butterfly directed by Julian Schnabel, is a film making tour de force and a fine example of the craft of directing. In addition, the film was nominated for an Academy Award in Cinematography for the fantastic work by Janusz Kaminsky. For the discerning Dharma student, the Diving Bell and the Butterfly, is a beautiful reminder of the fleeting nature of our human faculties and the unmatched power of the human mind.
Fifteen years ago, superheroes walked the streets of Metroville, performing acts of great heroism and inspiring many to follow their example. But a string of lawsuits by disgruntled people they’d helped lead to political and public outcry, and the Supers are forced into retirement and government-funded anonymity. Bob Parr used to be Mr. Incredible, one of the greatest and strongest Supers. Now though, he lives a mundane life as a suburban insurance agent. Although his wife Helen (formerly Elastigirl) has moved on and is more concerned with raising their children than battling evil, Bob still yearns for the good old days – and his chance comes when he is approached by a shadowy government organization and asked to join their numbers. But all is not as it seems, and Bob will find himself trapped by an embittered enemy. In the end, the suburban Supers are forced into action to save their endangered father.
The Incredibles is a great family movie for a warm summer evening at home. We can see in Mr. Super and later in his family that the spark of Bodhichitta is always present and no matter how removed we may sometimes feel from our highest selves, we always have the opportunity to achieve our potential with the simplest acts of kindness and compassion.
In The Game, Michael Douglas plays Nicholas Van Orton, a wealthy tycoon who, despite his successes in the world of business, lives a life of lonely solitude estranged from friends and family. In a surprise visit during Nicholas’ 48th birthday, Nicholas’ brother, Conrad, (Sean Penn) gives Nicholas a gift certificate for a “game” provided by a firm called “Consumer Recreation Services”. Conrad insists that the “game” will be beyond Nicholas’ imagination and will make for radically positive changes in his life. Although he is skeptical at first, Nicholas eventually concedes to curiosity and visits the CRS office. Unsure what to expect, Nicholas returns home and the events of “the game” begin to unfold. What ensues is truly a tour de force by an excellent filmmaking team.
Directed by David Fincher and photographed by Harris Savides, The Game is satisfying at every turn. Beyond cinematic thrills and harrowing twists, The Game is a clear look directly at a character that is forced to confront the inertia of his past deeds. As the events of the game progress and push Nicholas further in confronting himself and his past actions, we see that though the events themselves are empty, Nicholas is driven to near break down in suffering their consequences. We see quite clearly in The Game that although we cannot control what happens in a particular moment, if we take a step back, and ask our selves where the events of that moment are coming from we may well be able to react in a way that will make for a more positive future. In fact, we might even find that all the events in our life are part of an elaborate game constructed for our very own benefit, just maybe.
In another fantastic film by French director, Jean-Pierre Jeunet (Delicatessen, City of Lost Children) Audrey Tautou plays the lovable, Amélie, a waitress in Montemart who realizes that the best way to bring love into life is to help others find love in their own lives. We see Amelie grow up in an original, if slightly dysfunctional, family and interact curiously with her neighbors and customers. Through the course of the beautifully photographed movie and through the twists and turns of Amelie’s life we discover, as our heroine does, that the life of a Bodhisattva, though sometimes difficult to discover and maintain, is ultimately the best.
Adapted from the novel by Jerzy Kosinski and directed by Hal Ashby, Being There is a Shakespearean comedy of errors meets a Buddhist meditation on emptiness. Being There depicts the story of a gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers) who grows up in the townhouse of a wealthy man in Washington, D.C. For reasons that remain unexplained, Chance has had virtually no contact with the outside world and no social interaction for his entire life. Apart from his limited relationship with Louise the maid (Ruth Attaway), Chance’s cultural and social education is derived entirely from what he watches on the television sets provided by his employer. Chance’s situation takes a fantastic turn when he is emancipated from the house and, due to a well timed cough, is introduced as “Chauncey Gardinier”. The company present in this moment instantly begins to conjure extravagant notions of who this new and exotic man might be. With the wit and charm that we would expect from Peter Sellers, the rest of the film plays out as the blank screen of Chance the Gardner is seen as everything from a businessman down on his luck to a possible presidential candidate. Emptiness indeed.
After we return to work from a retreat or vacation, we may find ourselves with the thought, “Wasn’t that the way it should be all the time? Shouldn’t our ‘normal’ lives be the exception?” Well, if we work hard enough, and stay focused on the right endeavors, of course, all suffering will fall away and bliss will be ours. First though, we have to be sure which is which. Which is suffering and which is pleasure. It may not be as easy a question as it seems. On the way to figuring it all out, Richard Linklater’s Waking Life is a great, diversion…..it begins with the question: What are dreams? Are they an escape from reality or are they reality itself? Waking Life follows the dream(s) of one man and his attempt to find and discern the absolute difference between waking life and the dream world. While trying to figure out a way to wake up, he runs into many people on his way; some of which offer one sentence asides on life, others delving deeply into existential questions and life’s mysteries. We become the main character. It becomes our dream and our questions being asked and answered. Can we control our dreams? What are they telling us about life? About death? About ourselves and where we come from and where we are going? The film does not answer all these for us. Instead, it inspires us to ask the questions and find the answers ourselves.
Sara from Detroit wrote in to inquire why The Matrix, the Dharma Flick par excellence, or Mahadharmaflick, if you will, was not on the list. Thanks Sara for writing. The Matrix would certainly rank for many as the most identifiable Implicit Dharma Flick of all times. Much has been said about the ways that The Matrix portrays certain tenants of “eastern thought”. Indeed, entire academic conferences have been convened around the topic. For this reviewer though, the two most important elements of The Matrix qua Dharma Flick are that, “reality” is a constructed phenomenon and that the hero is one who uses this fact to serve others. In the film, the analogy between the reality created by “the machines” and the one created by us vis-à-vis our Karma is drawn beautifully. The film makes extremely clear that this deceptive reality (of either sort) will do us no real good and that it is our duty to get underneath it so that we may see how things “really” are. What is even more significant though is what the film suggests we do with the knowledge that there is, in fact, an ultimate reality. With the hope that the film places on Neo (Keanu Reeves) to free all other humans from the tyranny of the machines the expectation is set for us, in our own lives, to act appropriately once we have accumulated wisdom. The Matrix is indeed an excellent portrait of Bodhisattva as action hero. Enjoy!
Into the Wild
In the Spring of 1992, Chris McCandless graduated from Emory University. His life until that point had been, superficially at least, a model of the American norm. His parents had risen to a respectable upper middle class existence and had provided a very comfortable life for their children. What lied beneath the surface though would soon capture the interest and imagination of many, many people. After Chris finished his obligatory stay in academia, he donated the remaining $24,000 in his savings account to Oxfam and headed west on a quest to find truth; on a quest that would take him into the wild. Chris’ story was originally told in the book, Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer ( Eiger Dreams, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven ) and adapted by Sean Penn. What is remarkable about Chris’ story is not that he had the feelings that he did. Many of us feel that there must be a more simple and more true world beyond the commuting, clocking-in-and-out, bill paying existences that many of us live. What haunts us about Chris’ story is that he actually DID what he did. With a huge amount of courage and unapologetic verve, Chris set out to find a place that was true and unencumbered by mundane predictability.
The film, directed with simplicity and grace by Sean Penn and shot with gorgeous austerity by Eric Gautier, strikes a special chord for the dharma student. To us, Chris is reminiscent of the ancient Indian yogi, fearless and full of renunciation; sure of only one thing: that samsara must be escaped at any cost. On the one hand, Chris’ story is an inspirational tale that shows that one can renounce the things that they know will never lead to happiness and on the other, it is a cautionary tale which reminds us of Shantideva’s teaching that we should give according to our abilities; to start small and that if we are able only to give fruits and vegetables, this is what we should do.
Directed by Moustapha Akkad, The Message is an historical epic concerning the birth of the Islamic faith and the story of the prophet Mohammed — who, in accordance with the tennets of Islam, is never seen or heard. The film begins in Mecca in the 7th century when the future prophet, Mohammed, is visited by a vision of the Angel Gabriel and is urged to cast aside the 300 idols of Kaaba and to worship Allah. The Message (originally screened in the U.S. as Mohammed, Messenger of God ) proved to be highly controversial during its production and initial release. Unfounded rumors had it that Mohammed would not only be depicted in the film, but that he was to be played by Charlton Heston or Peter O’Toole. This resulted in angry protests by Muslim extremists, until director Moustapha Akkad hired a staff of respected Islamic clerics as technical advisors. It was this attention to detail that makes The Message a fascinating portrait of the origins of one of the world’s major religions.
From 2008, Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road is a standout. In the film, April (Kate Winslet) and Frank Wheeler (Leonardo DiCaprio) are a young, thriving couple living with their two children in a Connecticut suburb. They seem the model of 1950′s American success but their self-assured exterior masks a creeping frustration at their inability to feel fulfilled in their relationships or careers. Frank is mired in a well-paying but boring office job, and April is a housewife still mourning the demise of her hoped-for acting career. Determined to identify themselves as superior to the mediocre sprawl of suburbanites who surround them, they decide to move to France where they will be better able to develop their true artistic sensibilities. In this film fueled by powerful performances, confident directorial choices and beautiful cinematography there is a great reminder for the astute Dharma student. Although the good looks and great potential of our two protagonists may tempt us to think otherwise, it remains true that happiness comes from serving others. Similarly, as Khen Rinpoche (the teacher of Geshe Michael Roach) has famously said, “A dog wags its tail in Tibet just as it does in New Jersey”. If we take these two ideas together we see the message placed subtly in Revolutionary Road. There is nothing to do but serve others now, in the place that you are and happiness and satisfaction will follow.
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, directed by David Fincher, is the imaginative tale of Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt) who, born an octogenarian, lives life aging in reverse. What may indeed be a “curious” case for the average viewer is, for the dharma student, something far more interesting. One of the most difficult concepts to wrap one’s mind around in the pursuit of wisdom is the emptiness of time. Time’s tendency to move from the past into the future, like the sun rising in the east or Ben & Jerry’s being a delicious treat, seems to be one of those conditions that is hard wired into the human experience. We know though from our study of karma and emptiness that there is no condition and no reality that is not malleable; that is not without condition or cause. Although is it difficult to imagine the karmic causes for being born an octogenarian and aging in reverse, it is helpful to remember that the fact that most of us were born infants is not something that is automatic or uncaused. Even though The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a fantastic flight of fancy by one of our most inspired directors, it is, even more importantly, a powerful reminder that even the most subtle and seemingly fixed elements of our lives are caused. Thanks to Sandra from Brazil for the great recommendation.
Thelma and Louise
Recently, in the midst of three evenings of sublime teachings on the Bhagavad Gita, Lama Marut suggested that the students consider the predicament of the eponymous characters at the end of Thelma and Louise. My thoughts traveled back to the air conditioned summer theater and the racing heart that anticipated their decision which ends the film. The Bhagavad Gita, as you’ll remember, is the story of the valiant warrior, Arjuna, and the crisis he faces when arriving at the battlefield; the Kulukesetra; the field of Karma. Instead of looking down and seeing a gathered enemy, he sees the faces of his own family. Deeply distraught and overwhelmed by the impasse, Arjuna turns to his charioteer, Krishna to help him decide what to do.
Much like Arjuna, Thelma and Louise, face a daunting impasse. At the end of their long run and wild escapades, they must decide to turn back, into the hands of waiting police or to drive their ’66 Thunderbird into the abyss of a deep canyon. What is intriguing to the careful dharma student is that Thelma and Louise refuse to give back the freedom they have enjoyed in the course of the film and instead surrender to the unknown. When we can see that because we live in Samsara we are like Thelma, Louise and Arjuna, we live constantly in the grip of choices that could never satisfy us. That is, of course, until we surrender.
Defending Your Life
First of all, thanks to June Hayes for recommending this film to me. Albert Brooks’ film, Defending Your Life gives a light-hearted view of the Karma cam. Many of us have heard of the karma cam but who knew that the drab interior of our apartment in the after life, would be caused by our past actions? Well, yes, in fact it must be. And here for a few minutes, you can have a laugh at the antics of Daniel Miller (Brooks) and Julia (Meryl Streep) as they figure out that in fact, all is really cause and effect. Take a break from the more challenging aspects of taking on Mrs. (or Mr.) Karma cam and enjoy a great film that helps us to remember that on the path, a healthy sense of humor is essential.
If American Beauty had a subtitle to describe its Dharma related theme, it would be called American Beauty: How NOT to have a Spiritual Partnership. The film, which is the wonderful first collaboration between director Sam Mendes and Cinematographer Conrad Hall (their following collaboration, Road to Perdition, was Hall’s final film project before his death in 2003), is also a tour de force by actors Kevin Spacey and Annette Bening. In the film, Spacey and Bening play Lester and Carolyn Burnham, a married but deeply estranged suburban couple in their mid-forties. They are successful professionals with a nice home and a bright and beautiful daughter. All seems well. However, what stirs below the surface is a different story. Lester is so profoundly dissatisfied with his life that he quits his job, begins to pursue the friend of his young daughter and is unaffected by the infidelity of his wife.
Although few of us unravel to the extent that Lester does, the dissatisfaction that he feels is not hard to imagine. What is particularly interesting to the Dharma seeker is that we get to see a character who understands that life as he is currently living it will never in a million years bring him happiness. In this respect, Lester is way ahead of the crowd. Sadly, the perverse form of “renunciation” that follows only leads Lester further into the mire of samsara. If Lester had only had the good fortune of a Spiritual Partners teaching, he would have realized that his dissatisfaction was not based on the world changing around him but rather, the changes forced on him by his own karma. Lamenting the dull predictability that now governing his life, he asks his wife, now a straight-laced real estate broker, “What ever happened to the girl who used to feign seizures at Frat parties?” How much better it would it have been Lester, my friend, to realize that there was no entertainment and no satisfaction outside yourself. There was no wife feigning seizures, there was no laughter and no loving mother of your daughter that did not come from own karma. So take heart and take responsibility for your own happiness by making the happiness of others your first priority!
Glass: A Portrait of Philip in Twelve Parts
Academy Award-nominated director Scott Hicks documents an eventful year in the career and personal life of distinguished composer Philip Glass as he interacts with a number of friends and collaborators. As a student of the dharma, Mr. Glass’ life and work serve as great examples of living life according to a higher calling and persevering on a path that requires great personal commitment. Glass’ music offers a rare transcendence and has been the score of such notable dharma flicks as Baraka and Kundun. In this film, a glimpse into the life and the mind of such a musician is a special experience.
A classic among classics, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window is a mystery and thriller starring Jimmy Stewart and Grace Kelly that, in 1954, raised the bar for what intrigue could mean in motion pictures. The film opens with professional photographer, L.B. “Jeff” Jefferies (Stewart) confined to his New York apartment with a broken leg. Despite his injury, or perhaps because of it, Jeff turns his investigative interests upon his neighbors whose apartments are arrayed before his window as if the activities inside were meant to be on display. We soon meet the neighbor who exercises constantly, the married couple who sleep on their small balcony, the struggling songwriter working at his piano; and the salesman with the nagging bedridden wife. Throughout the film, we are treated to our own “rear window” each of us looking into Jefferies’ life as he looks into the lives of his neighbors’ and throughout, we sit front and center on a time when films reveled in the simple act of a story unfolding and the grist of the human emotions therein. This being Hitchcock though, the choices of which details are reveled and which are concealed are masterful and like Jefferies, we are quickly swept into the apparent mystery unfolding in the apartment of the salesman and his wife.
For the dharma student, Rear Window paints a picture of how we come to have such commitment to a state of affairs that just could not be that case. We believe for example, that “things could just happen, that they are random”, or that “some things just are, or that they exist from their own side”. Like Jefferies, we sit on the perch of our minds looking out into the world and too often mistake the signals we receive for “facts”. Like Jefferies, we should endeavor toward knowing just exactly what is “out there” but should always remember that the veil through which we peer is subtle and difficult to pierce. For whether or not Jefferies is able to break through into seeing the truth in his neighbors’ activities or to decide if such a thing is even possible, you’ll have to see Rear Window.
In Chris Nolan’s 2000 break out feature, Leonard Shelby (Guy Pearce), is an ex-insurance investigator who is caught in a trying conundrum. While, on the one hand, he must compile clues in order to solve the murder of his wife, he is, on the other hand, stricken with a type of amnesia that leaves him unable to form new memories. Sound like a major obstacle to inductive reasoning? It is. In desperate attempts to wrest the truth from his reality, Leonard begins take polaroids and to write notes to himself across his body. These clues slowly start to begin to paint a picture of what might have happened in Leonard’s mysterious past. The brilliant complexities that weave through the story are far too numerous to recount but what strikes the heart of the dharma student is how much we all toil in our own states of amnesia. HH the Dalai Lama recently commented that, “Discipline is the capacity to do what is in one’s own best interest”. How often it seems that when confronted by a choice we lack the means to choose and option that is truly in our own, long term best interest. Once you see Leonard’s struggle in the brilliant tale of Momento, the effort to act according to what is best might at some point always come without and difficulty at all.
In what is widely viewed as one of the greatest filmmaking achievements of all time, Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner enters the Dharma Flicks ranks as an unlikely contender. How, might you ask, does the stoic Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) impart onto us, intrepid Dharma students, any notion of the Buddha’s teachings? In the 2019 imagined by the film, a race of beings called “replicants” are androids built to resemble humans in every possible way and to act as laborers on “off planet” colonies. The film begins when four malevolent replicants escape from their colony and land on earth in order to coerce their maker into extending their four year life span. Enter Deckard, a preeminent replicant hunter or, Blade Runner. It becomes Deckard’s job to apprehend the four fugitive replicants. So wherein lies the Dharma? As noted by Lama Marut in his current newsletter, there is a movement afoot to unearth the real Buddhism; a Buddhism that is free from both historical influence and modern reinterpretation. What Lama Marut points out is that the “real” Buddhism is the Dharma passed from a Guru to a student. Though Deckard’s search for the four replicants might be aided by certain objective facts, it is not without it’s complexity. Like the student who must look within to find his or her Guru to discern the truth of that Guru’s teachings, Deckard too must resolve the lingering question: Is he too a replicant? A mere simulacrum; a copy that has no original.
13 Conversations About One Thing
The Dalai Lama says that all beings want to be happy and all beings want to avoid suffering. 13 Conversations About One Thing speaks to this democracy of humanity. It is about happiness: the search for happiness, the envy of happiness, the loss of happiness, and the guilt about undeserved happiness.
On the surface this film is about the confusing experiences of life. There is an attorney who wins a big case, celebrates his success in a local pub, buys a drink for a pessimist he sees at the end of the bar, drives home drunk and almost kills somebody. There is a middle management person who needs to fire somebody, so he fires the happiest guy in the office because he will be able to see the silver lining in the situation. It’s about a married man who seeks happiness in an affair because society says it is a way to happiness. It is about a woman who works hard for her clients who can only criticize her… It is about the connections between these unhappy people seeking to be happy.
The movie finds connections between people who think they are strangers, finding the answer to one person’s problem in the question raised by another. Although one might need to take the longer view of karma to understand the seemingly random relationship between cause and effect in the film, the knowledge that life is suffering is clear. Even so, the yearning for personal happiness and the happiness of others comes through. Indeed, the film concludes there is a way to find happiness. No, it is not an introduction to the Lam Rim, but it is an attempt to foster curiosity about all of the interlocking events that add up to our lives. It is a call to notice connections, to understand the ways things work out… to seek real happiness.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill
As fog rolls through the Golden Gate, jewel green birds pluck cherry blossoms from trees on Telegraph Hill, their red heads emerging from the foliage as the birds chatter to each other and take flight. As awestruck tourists watch, Mark Bittner holds up a palm full of sunflower seeds to the eager, noisy birds. Wearing Levis and a ponytail, surrounded by the jostling flock, Bittner is a Bohemian Saint Francis.
The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, tells the story of who Mark Bittner is, how he was drawn to North Beach by the music scene of the 50’s and eventually how and why he became the close with a wild and beautiful flock of birds.
In his Siksasamuccaya, Shantideva delivers a beautiful teaching on the significance of the Buddha having reached Enlightenment. He comments that, metaphorically, we should all be dwelling in a quiet and serene place in our hearts and minds, even if we do not have the opportunity be in such as place physically. In this respect, we see how Mark Bittner has so well achieved this goal in the face of huge personal and public obstacles. In addition, Mark takes this precious kind of solitude and uses it to care for a group of beings that otherwise would have no help in a large and very inhospitable city.