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Posts Tagged ‘Kundun’

“What interested me about the story (of the Dalai Lama) was how a young man who lived in a society based on the spirit, found himself in conflict with a strongly anti-religious society, the Maoist government of the Chinese communists. How does a man of non-violence deal with these people?”
Martin Scorsese

“A dog is not considered a good dog because he is a good barker. A man is not considered a good man because he is a good talker.”
Siddhartha

As unlikely as it sounds, the Dalai Lama will be speaking today in Cedar Falls, Iowa.  Since I moved here in 2003 I’ve come to almost expect these kind of things. After all, just in the last few years Yo-Yo Ma and Itzhak Perlman have performed here, and Rudy Giuliani and Barack Obama stumped here.

So I wouldn’t say this is a typical small town of 35,000 people. The Dalai Lama will speak a of couple times on education at the University of Northern Iowa.

There are many kinds of Buddhist (sort of like denominations among Protestants), but the one I am most familiar with is the Hollywood Buddhist. Richard Gere being the leader of the pack and who recently did the narration for The Buddha which recently aired on PBS. Harrison Ford did the narration for the documentary Dalai Lama Renaissance. Martin Scorsese directed Kundun, based on the life and writings of the Dalai Lama. And Brad Pitt starred in Seven Years in Tibet. (Not that they all claim to be Buddhist, but there is a connection, and much of what the average person in America knows about Buddhism flows from those sources.)

Others linked with Buddhism in Hollywood are Sharon Stone,  Orlando Bloom, and Oliver Stone. (Scorsese and others are interviewed in the John Halpern documentary Refuge, which is a look at why Buddhism is so popular in the West.)

Melissia Mathison, who wrote the screenplay for The Black Stallion as well as E.T., wrote the script for Kundan. The Scorsese directed film is based on the life of the Dalai Lama and the political struggles between Tibet and China. In an interview Mathison did with Erin Free she had this to say about writing the script for Kundun:

“I buried myself in research, and I loved it. I had to learn about the people, the religion, the history and it was all quite fantastic and tantalising. I read everything I could find on Tibet and this went on for a couple of years. So that was the basis. I also did interviews with lots of people, including His Holiness, the Dalai Lama… It was wonderful. I would send him questions and his secretary would fax me back the answers. I took a couple of different drafts at different times to India and read through them with him. You could imagine what a pleasure it was.”

The script for Seven Years in Tibet was written by Becky Johnston. (Johnston was nominated for an Oscar for her script Prince of Tides.) She also did a great deal of research on the religion and met for a short time with the Dalai Lama. Both Seven Years in Tibet and Kundun came out in 1997. (For whatever reason both of those films were the last film credits for both Johnston and Mathison.)

That’s as close as I could find of American screenwriters with any ties to any kind of Buddhism. William Froug did write two volumes of Zen and the Art of Screenwriting, though the title really is just a play on Robert Pirsig’s book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. But Froug does include a quote in the second volume by screenwriter Ron Bass that I think is a pretty wise quote about life and the stories we tell; “It’s all one story really, the story of who we are and how we relate and how we get it wrong.”

Scott W. Smith

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“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial” is a reminder of what movies are for. Most movies are not for any one thing, of course. Some are to make us think, some to make us feel, some to take us away from our problems, some to help us examine them. What is enchanting about E.T. is that, in some measure, it does all of those things.”
Roger Ebert
Chicago Sun Times

“The image of E.T. emerging from his mobile tomb summons a storehouse of symbols that mark the presence of God and divine miracle.”
Roy M Anker
Catching Light

Hollywood has had an interesting dance with religious films over the years with various degrees of successes, failures and controversy. An abridged list includes The Ten Commandments, The Greatest Story Ever Told, The Robe, Seven Years in Tibet, King David, Kundun, The Last Temptation of Christ and The Passion of the Christ.

The biggest game changer being The Passion of the Christ. Oddly, the violent retelling of the crucifixion of Christ became the all time R-rated box office champ. Mel Gibson’s $30 million dollar gamble eventually  paid a dividend of $600 million at the world-wide box office. Despite it’s predicted failure at the box office, in the year it was released (2004) it became the seventh highest grossing movie ever. (With the audience it found some would say it paved the way for films like The Book of Eli and The Blind Side.)

Speaking of The Passion, did you ever see the humorous studio notes Steve Martin wrote for the The New Yorker?:

Dear Mel,
We love,
love the script! The ending works great. You’ll be getting a call from us to start negotiations for the book rights…Possible title change: “Lethal Passion.” Kinda works. The more I say it out loud the more I like it.

But in general Hollywood has had much more luck dealing with stories that would be considered spiritual allegories. They tend to me less didactic, less overtly religious and less controversal, and generally better stories.  And the box office responds much better to them. Films I would put in this category are Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia,  Star Wars, and The Matrix. (Though it’s fair to say that not everyone is in one accord with the meanings of these films. But then again, how many different religions are there? Focus on something like separate protestant denominations and you’ll see the numbers climb into the the thousands. Getting people to agree is not that easy.)

In the spirit of Easter, one film that has been closely identified with the death and resurrection of Christ is E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial. Gary Arnold of The Washington Post called the movie,”essentially a spiritual autobiography, a portrait of the filmmaker as a typical suburban kid set apart by an uncommonly fervent, mystical imagination.”

Written by Melissa Mathison (a self-described “ex-Catholic’) and directed by Steven Spielberg (raised Jewish in Anglo-Saxon suburbs) there has been much written about the spiritual aspects of E.T., but Spielberg has said (in Take 22; Moviemakers on Moviemaking) that, “If I ever went to my mother and said, ‘Mom, I’ve made this movie that’s a Christian parable,’ what do you think she’d say? She has a kosher restaurant on Pico and Doheny in Los Angeles.”

So much detail went into the technical aspects of E.T. it would be hard to believe that Spielberg and Mathison were not at least aware of the spiritual parallels they were drawing on. (At least kicking around somewhere in Mathison’s Catholic-schooled subconscious in the eight weeks she took writing the first draft.) But I don’t think they were pandering to a Christian audience, in fact, when the movie first came out some Christian leaders were calling the film “new age.”

Spielberg and Mathison were simply trying to tell a story that would make a good movie, and in doing so tapped into their own upbringing (Spielberg has talked about his parents divorce and his longing for an imaginary friend), their spiritual upbringing, mixed with creative imagination, as well as a powerful death and resurrection theme that many associate with the cornerstone of the Christian faith. (Of course, Joseph Campbell would make the case that death and resurrection themes pre-date Christ, but that opens up a whole different can of worms.)

But in making E.T. the filmmakers made one of the most uplifting films ever and the one that the American Film Institute currently lists as the 25th greatest American film. Sitting nicely between Raging Bull and Dr. Strangelove.

© 2010 Scott W. Smith



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