Now and Zen and an Imperial Adventure

Robert Avila March 27, 2007

The relationship between now and Zen in “A Zen Life: D.T. Suzuki”

From one angle, the impact of Eastern philosophy on Western society might be gleaned from a contemporary billboard advertising Zen MP3 players. Zen, in one form or another, is part of the cultural vocabulary and scene. And yet much of the interest in the subject over the last half-century or more, MP3 players aside, has much to do with the career and talents of one man, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. The Japanese-born and globetrotting Buddhist author and translator whose life spanned nearly an entire, historically fraught century from 1870 to 1966, acted as a highly influential bridge between Eastern and Western philosophical traditions in the aftermath of World War II’s unprecedented catastrophe and the ominous birth of the Cold War and the atomic age. Impressing leading Western thinkers and artists as varied as Alan Watts, Martin Heidegger, Alan Ginsberg, Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, Erich Fromm, and John Cage, Suzuki’s public talks, lectures, and writings (including his classic An Introduction to Zen Buddhism) ensured Buddhism “burst like a bomb on America” (in religious scholar Huston Smith’s somewhat unfortunate, if apt, phrase) and left a decided impact on art, philosophy, psychoanalysis, Christianity, and the shape of the culture at large (not least via the dissident subculture of the Beats).

And so, for all its slightly stodgy, public-TV flavor, Michael Goldberg’s new documentary opening this week at the Roxie — the first on the life and influence of DT Suzuki (as he’s best known in the West) — is timely and, indeed, overdue. True, “A Zen Life” is far from the sexiest doc out there, looking and sounding (especially in the intermittent voiceover narration) not unlike a typical BBC documentary. Stylistically, it’s pretty much at the opposite extreme from filmmaker Philip Gröning’s experiential and deeply artistic (though otherwise thematically complimentary) exploration of a Carthusian monastery, “Into Great Silence.” But Goldberg, a veteran video artist and TV producer who has spent many years in Japan and made several documentaries on various aspects of Japanese society, approaches his subject with sensitivity and insight, which he backs with solid research, excellent and rare archival footage, and an array of impressive interviews.

Among the latter are generous excerpts from a wide-ranging talk with Gary Snyder (of all the Beats, probably the most rigorously engaged with Eastern ideas and practice), Suzuki’s personal secretary Mihoko Okamura, Christian-Buddhist author Frederick Franck, American Zen master Robert Aiken, and American psychoanalyst Albert Stunkard. Suzuki himself appears or is heard in several rare recordings, as he expands on the meaning of Zen Buddhism’s response to its central insight, that “Reality as we perceive it is an illusion [and] so is the concept of our self.” Limning Suzuki’s fascinating life serves ultimately as vehicle for conveying the sense and trajectory through Western culture of Zen’s key concepts such as Satori or “enlightenment.” One of Goldberg’s achievements here is the clear and concise way “A Zen Life” traces these lines, while affectingly elucidating ideas inherently subtle and elusive. Anyone interested in the impact of Zen Buddhism in the West, or the life of one of its most distinguished representatives, will be intrigued and affected by the film’s alluring intersection of biography, history, and transformative ideas.

Reporting an imperial adventure in “The Situation”

“I could not believe it could get worse.” That’s something of a refrain among Iraqis in director Philip Haas’s outspoken new indie, “The Situation.” Rafeeq (played by Iranian-born actor Nasser Memarzia) refers of course to the dramatic deterioration of life under the American-led invasion and occupation that toppled the brutal dictatorship of erstwhile U.S. ally Saddam Hussein. As we soon discover, Rafeeq hasn’t seen anything yet. As the Iraq War enters its fifth year, with the debacle continuing to grow worse by the month, Haas’s film makes up for its formulaic character and slick but generally basic-cable look with its unusually sophisticated and pointed depiction of resistance and occupation politics in Iraq — a hopeless tangle, and an impossible life for average Iraqis, that everyone calls simply “the situation.”

Set in the Iraqi city of Samarra (smoothly re-imagined on location-shooting in Morocco), the plot is put in motion by a real-life incident recreated in the opening sequence: two Iraqi teens wandering around after curfew are thrown into the Tigris by a patrol of American soldiers, leading to one boy’s death. The investigation that follows winds its way through a layered plot whose melodramatic linchpin is a romantic triangle between an increasingly frayed but intrepidly hands-on journalist (played by Connie Nielsen), an open-minded nice-guy CIA agent (Damian Lewis), and an Iraqi photographer (Mido Hamada).

As the intelligence agent, ensconced with most other members of the American and Iraqi leadership inside the Green Zone, Lewis’s character channels much of the film’s liberal political critique, doing his best to advocate a reasonable, pragmatic approach to the insurgency against the arrogant intransigence of hardliners, ideologues, and military men who only feel comfortable when they’re given something to blow up (as one bluntly confesses). Nielsen’s weary courage in the role of Anna, a reporter and his sometime lover, meanwhile puts us on the ground, as it were, beyond the Green Zone, where she wades into dangerous waters trying to piece together the complex picture behind unfolding events. In this context she becomes increasingly drawn to her handsome young photographer, who as a supplier of images to foreign journalists normally hunkered down in their hotel rooms walks a fine line between the Americans, the widespread insurgency, and general Iraqi hostility to the occupiers.

Within the confines of genre and formula, the film — based on a screenplay by journalist Wendell Steavenson, who covered Iraq herself (though she has said that’s about all she has in common with her female protagonist) — manages to express a good deal of dissent, critique, and perhaps basic but informed and under-represented analysis. “The Situation,” unlike much mainstream media over the last four years, does a decent job of limning the new, ever shifting alignments of power inside Iraq and, in the process, the ruinous consequences of continuing America’s imperial adventure.