The ramblings of an Eternal Student of Life
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Saturday, April 27, 2013
Art & Entertainment ... Zen ...

One of my fellow Zen students at Clear Mountain zendo recently told me about the movie “Zen Noir”. I’m not much of an indie film buff (not much of a movie-watcher at all), so it wasn’t a surprise that I had never heard of it. Zen Noir was an indie from the late oh-oh’s that got some attention for being . . . well, rather unusual. It’s an attempt to wrap and present generic Zen teachings with cinema conventions.

As a movie, ZN mixes several movie genres. It starts off on a retro footing, a throwback to the WW2-era tough-guy detective “noir” films such as The Big Sleep. Then it transmutes into a campy parody of noir, an attempt at humor (sometimes successful, often not). Then it morphs into psycho-drama, taking on Hitchcock tones (such as a nightmare of doors that all open but won’t let you leave). And then . . . then it’s nothing, Zen nothingness. Mu-land.

Many film critics didn’t like Zen Noir. The Rotten Tomatos movie review site gives it an average 3.4 out of 10 rating. One Chicago newspaper critic called it “insufferably coy”. A Denver movie writer doubted whether you’d even hear the sound of one hand clapping when it ends. The Metacritic site counted 1 positive review, 2 mixed, and 5 negative. In terms of movie art, this one just didn’t make the grade.

Perhaps Zen and modern cinema don’t mix well. Zen Noir is not exactly an entertaining movie, nor an edifying movie, nor a funny movie (although there are a few bright spots — I chuckled when the old Japanese roshi tossed an orange at the surprised detective during an interrogation, with a martial-arts “haiiii-keeehhh”). It’s also not an ‘enlightening’ movie in the secular sense, such as “Lincoln” was. But it is a pretty good Zen koan, a 70 minute audio-visual koan. As with the best of koans, 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 of your precious time, 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, perhaps you can learn to love it. But you will need to double down on your suspension of disbelief, just let go of all the illogical and inconsistent details. It took me a couple of viewings to do that, but once I did I realized that the final scene is actually something of an old-fashioned happy ending, where love conquers all. Via the Zen route, of all things. The crazy opening scenes of an orange engulfed in flames finally starts to make sense.

So, if you are willing to forsake the latest artsy movie for something of an authentic Zen experience, maybe put off “The Place Beyond the Pines” for a couple of days, then I would heartily recommend Zen Noir. And get ready to clap with that one hand. Is ZN a good movie? Mu, baby!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 7:47 pm      

  1. Jim, Your movie review reminds me of another indie movie, on the same order as the one you mention, but from a different group of those seeking what(?). . . silence? union with a higher source of being? However, it has a different philosophical approach.

    Your description of “Zen Noir” and your reaction to it reminds me of the movie “Into Great Silence” (originally “Die Grosse Stille”). This one is about the Carthusian monks in a large Charterhouse in the French Alps. (I think that’s where they are located; they are definitely in the Alps; that’s for sure.)

    I too watched “Into Great Silence” several times; each time finding it more and more about the movie I liked and more and more about the movie that caught my attention.

    This movie too had great reviews; but most likely those reviews came only from those who were interested in silence, the monks, any sort of seeking of a higher being, that idea. I doubt a majority of the population would think of “Into Great Silence” as their first choice for a movie. However, I’m not sure one would have to suspend one’s disbelief for this movie; but then again, perhaps it would be necessary for some of those who might watch it.

    I too am not the kind of person who cares much for movies; good ones are so difficult to come by these days. But once in a while, there is one. You have one; I offer another, albeit mine is from a different standpoint than yours.

    The one I mention has a different philosophy and a different “religious” approach; yet I wonder if it could be all that much different.

    Then too, I wonder: Might seeking silence to allow one to find union with something higher be more important, yet unacknowledged, to more people than are willing to agree with the idea. MCS

    Comment by MCS — April 28, 2013 @ 1:38 pm

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