Monday, 15 June 2009

Zen Noir: A Review

This film requires patience. Some experience of long retreats or sesshins wouldn't hurt either for fully understanding the complex emotions of the characters.

If you have both of these, it's a pretty good film. Not great, but good.

According to the trailer page on youtube:
http://www.zenmovie.com If David Lynch, the Buddha and Woody Allen all took acid and made a surrealist mystery, this would be it! ZEN NOIR is a brilliantly funny, award-winning independent film that explores zen buddhism, meditation, life, death and spiritual enlightenment.
I think that sums it up well enough. I'm not sure about you, but I have to be in a particular kind of mood for a Woody Allen movie, and a very different mood for a David Lynch movie, and a different mood altogether for something on Buddhism. So mixing the three together didn't set very well.

The high point, the moment where it all pays off, is a monologue by the aged Zen monk about an experience long ago with his teacher, an orange, and an ominous phone call. Until then the mix of Lynch and Woody Allen styles made it difficult to get into the movie. But if you've managed to get into it even just a tiny bit, to empathize with our main character, to see his suffering as one with your own, this monologue will make it all worth it.

If not,you've just watched a very weird movie. Lynch's haunting and confusing style isn't there enough for you to feel it like you do with "Mulholland Dr." or "Lost Highway," and the wit of Woody Allen, while there at times for a good, if awkward, laugh, doesn't sustain the movie.

Practitioners of Zen might even be more annoyed by the odd portrayals of life in a Zen Temple, the blending of surrealism and actual practices leading more to confusion than "spiritual enlightenment."

This film does deserve our attention, though, as an example of the emerging genre of Buddhist fiction in the West. It will be, whether we like it or not, the first taste of Zen Buddhism for many viewers and I can't help but cringe a bit at that. For instance, I'm not sure if lines like:
"[I'm] just a very dedicated layperson."
"What's a layperson?"
"A person who can still get laid."
give a very good impression of Zen life. But then this is surrealism and the Buddha on acid, isn't it?

I'm very curious about what others thought of it, especially given their backgrounds. I'm no stranger to Zen, but my practice has mainly been in Tibetan and Theravadin traditions. Perhaps insiders will have very different impressions of Zen Noir.

6 comments:

  1. Thanks Justin - I'll have to check it out, looks interesting.

    I think the lines:

    "[I'm] just a very dedicated layperson."
    "What's a layperson?"
    "A person who can still get laid."

    is perhaps just a poor attempt to perpetuate the pop cultural understanding of koans, turning them into some bizarre mindf@#k.

    But thanks for the heads up, I'll check out the movie this week!

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  2. I haven't seen this. I think I'll either love it or hate it.

    "[I'm] just a very dedicated layperson."
    "What's a layperson?"
    "A person who can still get laid."

    I see what you mean - this is very Woody Allen humour. It almost works too - apart from the fact that Zen monks don't have to be celibate.

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  3. yea - there's lots of bizarre mindf... / Woody Allen humor of that sort. I should also leave it open that I might 'get' more of it in a second watching (some day) and thus like it more. I'm kind of hoping still to hear from Progressive Buddhist types who've seen it and wan to defend it (or explain it, or both).

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  4. Nice review, I just saw it and I like it.

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  5. Perhaps Zen and modern cinema don't mix well. Zen Noir is not exactly an entertaining movie, an edifying movie, nor an 'enlightening' movie (in the secular humanist sense of the word). But it is a pretty good koan. A 70 minute audio-visual koan. Your mind can't make sense of it on first take, it doesn't add up, you feel uncomfortable, you've wasted more than an hour and maybe some cash. But if you are patient, if you go thru it a handful of times, if you let it sink in and take it with you, then you can learn to love it. Mu, baby!

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  6. I wish someone had told me that the murder is never solved. Or, if you doubt it was murder, there was also no solution to the mystery of who called the detective to the temple. Noir without plot resolution is like a zendo without a zafu. So it's strictly experimental.

    If you're looking for a Buddhist-themed crime movie you can watch with your friends I nominate Detective Dee. For a hard-edged and realistic drama tailor made for the Zen sangha and admired among cinema buffs I enjoyed Mandala by Im Kwon Taek. And an experimental film I thought was better than expected was Why Has Bodhi Dharma Come to the East.

    Our host wrote "I'm kind of hoping still to hear from Progressive Buddhist types who've seen it and wan to defend it (or explain it, or both)." Zen Noir writer-director Marc Rosenbush has some great lines. Debra Miller is a most convincing Jane. Steven Chesne's score does miracles.

    As for explanation, some people think narrative is overrated. Cat videos are a popular nonnarrative entertainment. But the chronic pretense of "not depending on words and letters" creates a vacuum, and incoherent shreds of stories end up flying around the room - amnesia, suicide, hallucinations, melodrama... Not coincidentally, I wish I had a nickel for every Zen narrative. Which often end with "...and then he was enlightened". Zen Noir is experimental theater that can serve as a little comfort food for those who have a strong appetite for both Zen and noir imagery. We get a short dharma talk at the end that makes a point about attention that is instantly recognizeable to the sangha and whatever members of the general audience haven't tuned out. The detective gets pointed at the moon. Beyond that the director almost certainly has no intention to make the story believable or for there to be any satisfactory explanations.

    A final thought: What if Jane poisoned the oranges?

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