restraintThe movie promoted the idea of self-restraint, both literally and figuratively, as a way of preventing violence and suffering. We should deny our anger, lust, desire for possession and so on; monks even tie rocks around themselves to do penance when their internal restraints aren't enough. With this such a strong theme, it was disappointing that the filmmakers didn't always show the same restraint they demanded of their characters. For example, the wife didn't need to be killed to expose the evils of possession; it would have been enough for her simply to have ran off and left the husband heartbroken. And the flashbacks to the animals with rocks tied around their bodies made me think of disaster pornography [also].
possession and appropriationThe movie is visually so stunning that I started daydreaming about how cool it would be to have a video projector in my apartment. Irony aside, it's funny how elements of Buddhism and "Eastern religions" are adapted to or appropriated by Western consumer culture. For example, Lancôme sells a small container of "Hydra Zen cream" (described as an "Advanced destressing moisturizing cream") for about $40. New York City seems to me a good place to find contradictions like expensive yoga classes attended by people financially locked into stressful livestyles. In Saturday's NYT Review of Books there was a piece by Lucinda Williams on Bob Dylan next to an article by David Frum on Walter Russell Mead. Trying to imagine the reader who would appreciate both articles led me immediately to the stereotype of a rich conservative (New Yorker) who grew up listening to Dylan.
violence is naturalsince our innate human urges inevitably lead us towards it and because children start off violent unless they're taught otherwise. This is both negative, since it means we'll never abolish violence, and positive, since placing violence within a larger cycle of life (more snakes are born by summertime) seems to lessen its evil. This subverts the seemingly anti-violent message of the movie (and of Buddhism); even if we are always struggling against violence, we shouldn't ever expect total victory. For example, if every life were sacred, the old monk could have stopped the boy in Spring from tying rocks to the three animals, but he wanted to teach the boy a lesson (which didn't even stop him from killing again). This makes me suspect that the ultimate goal is not so much to end suffering, but to achieve some sort of enlightenment, which brings me to the next point:
learning as fetishKorean characters are written beautifully, but not subtitled. The old monk carefully practices calligraphy, but writes with water on wood, so the words fade as soon as they're written. A long scene revolves around carving letters out of wood, but we never get a complete shot of them, so that even reading Korean wouldn't help us learn what they mean. It seems that learning, study and literacy have value beyond the meaning of the texts being read.
This is of course bigger than Buddhism. For example, literacy often has class implications. L. said there was one village in Sudan where after the government cut funding for schools people hired an illiterate man to teach, since they had a not-quite-understood notion that there was a connection between sitting in a classroom every day for a long time and getting a government job with good pay and status.
The idea of fetishized learning could also apply to the way that Western audiences receive the movie as a whole; we feel we should learn or appreciate or take away something from it more profound than we'd get from, say, Bruce Almighty. This connects to the particularly American drive for self-improvement [also]. Not that this drive is a bad one; it's just interesting to see what brings it out.
More movie reviewsSoon after I saw Evil Dead, the Army of Darkness predecessor in which a woman is raped by a tree before she turns into a flesh-eating zombie. I'm not sure what more to write about the contrast.
Balancing the gross-out with the political, I next saw Super Size Me, the recent documentary about a guy who eats nothing but McDonald's for a month. It was definitely successful at making me care about the importance of having healthy choices in school cafeterias (my high school gave Coke a monopoly of 20oz pop machines in the cafeteria in exchange for the rather lame ProQuest for the library), and in general validating my trend towards healthy, organic, home-cooked, vegetarian eating. (Recently I realized how thoroughly I had become part of this demographic when I caught myself getting excited at finding organic lactose-free milk in the grocery store.) As a movie, though, it had some problems. The central conflict seemed to be about the filmmaker's deteriorating health, but after the scene where the doctor talked about "pickling his liver" and he seemed on the verge of sudden death, the days started flying by without any more incidents. The style was watered down Michael Moore, of which the high point was probably visiting the middle school cafeterias where he asked school officials what they were doing to promote healthy eating, but it was mostly toned down a lot. For example, the food industry lobbyist never got challenged when he said that they marketed responsibly; obviously he didn't come across as credible, but we bought our tickets to see public humiliation! The statistics came by a little fast, and didn't have much context. Come to think of it, most of the movie didn't have much context: why are people exercising so little? and is the non-McDonald's portion of the American diet that much better? The stomach-stapling scene was reminiscent of Requiem for a Dream, a comparison which was a jarring reminder of how much more powerful movies (or should I say 'cinema'?) can be. The music (Beethoven? I can't remember.) during the scene suggested A Clockwork Orange, again to the current movie's profound disadvantage. I don't mean to deter people from seeing this movie; just think of it as a good student film and you won't be disappointed.
Natural Born Killers: The only thing I wanted to mention was Mrs. Marks' reaction. She came in halfway through and read her newspaper the whole time. As soon as the credits rolled she asked "Is that damn thing over yet?" and then launched into a tirade about how much she hated it, mostly because of violence but including the line "and I can't stand that damn language!"
The Abyss: Again I'm going to ruin the plot, if you care about these things. The underwater shots were pretty, but as with many movies involving aliens, I felt it suffered from a lack of imagination on a grand scale. Would aliens really care if we kill each other, or fight wars or movingly reconcile with our divorced spouses? The same complaints have been made about religion: wouldn't an all-powerful deity have more to worry about than our sexual indiscretions? Even a nuclear war would probably leave this planet better off for everything non-human; Chernobyl has been great for wildlife since so much land is now considered too dangerous for humans to enter. The only plausible sci-fi account of alien motivations that I've found was in Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves.