Welcome to a new, regular exploration of Buddhism and film at elephantjournal.com. We call it “Seeing in the Dark.”
You can read more about us at the very end of the blog, but at this point, suffice it to say that we’re Danny Fisher and Gary Gach, and we’ve been friends for a few years now. Recently, we talked about our mutual interest in Buddhism and film at a lunch during the 2011 American Academy of Religion Meeting. We sensed our collaboration would be fun and fruitful for others, and so: this is it!
Buddhism and film entails (evokes?) many things for us. Two perspectives stand out. There are many films explicitly about Buddhism or Buddhists, such as Yong-Kyun Bae’s Why Has Bodhidharma Left for the East?, Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche’s The Cup, Doris Dörrie’s Enlightenment Guaranteed, Kim Ki-Duk’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring, or Marc Rosenbush’s Zen Noir.
There are also movies not explicitly concerned with Buddhism or Buddhists, yet convey Buddhist ethics, practice, and wisdom. This could, of course, be completely unintentional on the part of the filmmakers. Indeed, as the scholar John Lyden has written:
“The study of film from a religious studies vantage point has produced a broad consensus. Films include religious symbolism, consciously or unconsciously, and films may project a world-view which functions much like a religion in our culture.”
We can certainly think of a number of films that communicate Buddhist themes or world-view. Indeed, we think Buddhist ideas have, consciously or unconsciously, been exceedingly well articulated in world cinema. Indeed, in some basic ways, cinema itself is Buddhist.
Each week, we’ll examine a particular topic or theme, and each suggest a film that illumines it. For our first post, the best theme seems to be Religion and Film. What movies do Danny and Gary pick as representative? Take a look below. We invite your comments on our choices, comments on cinema, comments on the Dharma, on whatever comes up for you. Please enjoy!
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), dir. Steven Spielberg
Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind remains for me the greatest film yet made by the truly magnificent, often unjustly maligned American auteur in his impressive, ongoing career.” But what does it have to do with religion and film?” you might ask. On the surface, not much. The film tells the story of what happens when benevolent visitors from outer space begin to make contact with those on Earth, including blue collar worker Richard Dreyfuss and single mom Melinda Dillon.
And yet, Mr. Spielberg’s film is less a touchy-feely sci-fi story than it is a difficult, emotional one about mankind’s striving for communion with the divine. Consider: the characters in the film are tortured by a special vision delivered to them from the sky, so much so that they are marginalized by society, alienated from family and friends, single-mindedly focused on understanding and communicating what they have experienced, and able to find solace and understanding only in fellowship with those who share their vision.
When we look at the history of religious figures and communities, and certainly spiritual experience, there’s an awful lot of resonance here. (And I can think of no better cinematic metaphor for the joining of Heaven and Earth than scientist Francois Truffaut’s facilitating dialogue between human and alien through music and gesture). When we speak of movies that are not explicitly concerned with religion, and yet convey quite a bit about it, I always think of Close Encounters of the Third Kind first.
Diary of a Country Priest (Journal d un Cur de Campagne) (1950), dir. Robert Bresson
Robert Bresson made only 12 works, but carved out vast space in cinema for not only La Nouvelle Vague filmmakers and others, but also those committed to the life of the spirit.
For film lovers, this one, of his 12, can be initiatory, a threshold. Even a religious experience. For Bresson himself, this one proved absolutely pivotal in his finding his true calling in the religion of cinema, in his taking his vows as a religious filmmaker. So it seems an apt choice for a single film with which I might co-create this corner of the elephant universe, starting with the topic of religion.
First, that pivot. Robert Bresson’s first two feature fiction films had been theatrical, working first with Giradoux, then from Diderot. Afterwards, he’d felt discouraged with the conventions of acting, and with it all of what had become and is still standard formula. It all seemed false. As he would say in an interview, towards the end of his career:
“For me, filmmaking is combining images and sounds of real things in an order that makes them effective. What I disapprove of is photographing with that extraordinary instrument the camera things that are not real. Sets and actors are not real.”
Consider the first few images of Diary. We pan in on a pair of hands opening a diary and voice reads,
“I don’t think I’m doing anything wrong in writing down daily, with absolute frankness, the simplest and most insignificant secrets of a life actually lacking any trace of mystery.”
It’s a challenge as much as a premise, and enticement. The implication of something secret is intriguing. Plus, there is the possibility of some transgression. But do the simplest elements really lack mystery?
Next, we see a roadside sign for the village commune, to which the young priest has been assigned, Ambricourt. Then we see a close up a young man, wiping his face (the face whose inner life we read and hear in diary form, so both first- and third-person).
Fourth, through a gate, a mid-shot of him, in his cloak, holding a bicycle, with a country house and some bare trees behind him. He puts his rag back in his pocket, and turns to look the other way, and sees a pair of lovers, embracing. Suddenly, the woman pulls back, looks towards the young priest, the man turns, he look towards him, with disdain, then leads her away.
(Question: How do they know they are being looked at? Is this sense of being stared at akin to guilt? Please take a good look at their faces. It’s a small village: who they are will prove crucial to the plot).
We return, back to the young priest. He gives no sign of recognition, just moves off in the opposite direction. He’s as impassive, as silent, as a Noh drama mask. Then we see the couple moving in the opposite direction, far off, in the vast woods. It’s thus far told as a silent film. Yet the central conflict, the drama at hand, is already laid out perfectly. (Story is not only plot, but also the manner in which it s told).
But along with these five or six images, there’s a sound: a dog barking. The sound has deep resonance to the story, too. In it are fused the animal impulse of the couple, and the youth of the priest, who’s renounced. (But is he immune from temptation of impulse within his monastic vows?) It’s as if we had a composition by Giotto, or Fra Angelico, and along with the religious figures, there’s a donkey braying, or a dog barking.
Such expressiveness is indeed intensely painterly, and often with a Medieval or Renaissance sensibility, such that I’d love to watch it, Sister Wendy. I’ve actually recently seen the recently struck print, one with new subtitles, and numerous images still glow in my mind’s eye such as the young priest at night, framed by a window, with what I recall as his bed making a cage-like structure behind him, and his face as illuminating as a Russian icon.
After this, with A Man Escapes, Bresson would come into his own (he too having been a prisoner of war). That was followed by Pickpocket, whose semi-improvisatory construction influenced my generation s filmmakers with the force of Rosellini s Voyage in Italy. That opening of a stranger riding into town has the austerity of the Western, or Samurai stories (aka morality tales). And the protagonists of all three above, (like that of Danny’s pick), are men at odds with customary society, a thematic thread throughout Bresson’s work.
Yet, through them, we might see what is. (Soul? Grace? Salvation? In Bresson’s realm, seeing is believing). And, never alone, in the universal temple of cinema, his work was always in dialogue with other filmmakers, such as Carl Dreyer, and Yasujiro Ozu, and Ingmar Bergman. Like Ozu, for example, he doesn’t emphasize acting. Like Ozu too often each image is given equal weight, yet he can deliver more of a punch.
Over time, his influence would become global, drawing such diverse acolytes into his orbit as Bae Yong-kyun, the Dardenne brothers, Michael Haneke, Aki Kaurismaki, Paul Shrader, and Andrei Tarkovsky. Cinema can create community. On that note, I d like to close this humble rambling beginning, adding just that it is indeed an honor to be invited here, in this online ashram, this internet sangha, this beloved community, dedicated to bringing together those of us working (and playing) to create enlightened society.
[Palms joined in elephant cinema vow: May my on-going dialogue with Rev. Danny inspire you all too to contribute your own unique vision and voice, to benefit all beings. And bring peace and joy. Please dispose empty popcorn & soda containers in the bins beside the Exit doors. And enjoy the show!]
About the authors:
Rev. Danny Fisher is a professor and Coordinator of the Buddhist Chaplaincy Program at University of the West. Danny was ordained as a lay Buddhist minister by the Buddhist Sangha Council of Southern California in 2008. In addition, he is certified as a mindfulness meditation instructor by Naropa University in association with Shambhala International. He also serves on the advisory council for the Upaya Buddhist Chaplaincy Program, and in 2009 became the first-ever Buddhist member of the National Association of College and University Chaplains. Danny is the author of the Patheos blog Off the Cushion, and also serves as a blogger for Shambhala Sun, Buddhadharma: The Practitioner’s Quarterly, and elephantjournal.com. In addition, he has written for Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, Inquiring Mind, Religion Dispatches, The Journal of Buddhist Ethics, The Journal of Global Buddhism,The Journal of Religion & Film, Eastern Horizon, New York Spirit, Alternet’s Wiretap Magazine, and other publications. He has commented on Buddhism in America and other religious issues for CNN, the Religion News Service, Buddhist Geeks, E! Entertainment Television, and The Washington Post’s On Faith as well. You can read more on his award-winning website.
Gary Gach is author of The Complete Idiot’s to Buddhism, third edition (Nautilus Book Award), and editor of What Book!? ~ Buddha Poems from Beat to Hiphop (American Book Award). His work has also appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including American Cinematographer, The Atlantic, Buddhadharma, Harvard Divinity Review, Language for a New Century, The New Yorker, Technicians of the Sacred, Tricycle, and Yoga Journal. He facilitates mindfulness practice groups in the tradition of Ven Thich Nhat Hanh, and a zen creativity circle in San Francisco. He’s also acted, done voice-overs and is a popular speaker and panelist. Gary’s Homepage
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Editor: Kate Bartolotta