December 11, 2009

Two hours in Buddhist hell: the hijacking of The Vintner's Luck

There are two words that don't appear in the one hour, 50 minute-long podcast of a recent Vintner's Luck discussion -- Unity and Duality: When Angel and Demon Are One (a title that is actually meaningless in relation to the book) -- at the Rialto cinema, Auckland. Those two words are Elizabeth Knox. Who's she? Just the author. Imagine a nearly two hour discussion of Atonement that didn't mention Ian McEwan or two hours on Where the Wild Things Are that forgot about Maurice Sendak and you have some idea of how this story has been hijacked. The Knox story of a man and an angel in 19th century France is really, we now learn, a Buddhist parable in which the angel is merely "spirit". There are three speakers: director Niki Caro, co-writer Joan Scheckel (who dominates the session) and special guest, Buddhist monk ZaChoeje Rinpoche. The event was timed around the Dalai Lama's appearance in Auckland.

I have nothing against Buddhists or Buddhism but there was little in this nearly two hours of well-meaning waffle about happiness, truth and duality that struck me as remotely profound, especially in relation to this problematic film. But I was struck by the arrogance and self-absorption of Joan Scheckel. "These are early days for spiritual content in films," she says. "Not many film-makers attempt it." Really? Go tell it to Carl Dreyer, Robert Bresson, Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, Carlos Reygadas, Michelangelo Antonioni, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Bela Tarr (and Gus Van Sant), Terence Malick and any number of other film-makers who you might loosely identify with a style that Paul Schrader famously defined back in the early 70s as "transcendental".

Somewhat patronisingly, the American Scheckel tells her New Zealand audience that only in Maori culture could she freely bring up the subject of spirit. She goes on: "Everything we're talking about tonight is very new terrain in cinema." Again, no names from the above list are cited, not even in relation to an audience question about how to put "everydayness" on screen. In fact, Scheckel names just one other film-maker and film within the entire talk: "Scorsese made an incredible film of Kundun but then retreated to violence." Right, now we get it -- it's only "spiritual" if it's overtly Buddhist.

My review of The Vintner's Luck is here.