Monday, May 3, 2010

Growing to the Movies

The snow is falling, despite the calendar showing May. I'm walking to my car, body heavy, shoulders rolled forward in fatigue. I'm walking like an old man, not so much from the weather as from the weight of the previous five days. I'd attended a Zen retreat that was a film retreat that was a writing retreat, led by Upaya's Sensei Beate Stole, and co-taught by Natalie Goldberg and Dyanna Taylor. Prior to entering the zendo that first night, I wondered how the three of them would pull this off, this retreat named "Going to the Movies," but jokingly called by some the "First Upaya Film Festival." Yet any feelings that this would be five days of popcorn and entertainment disappeared moments into the premiere feature, a short student film made by a woman whose husband had been medivacked from Iraq after suffering major burns. Each subsequent film packed a similarly significant wallop. The films that we saw in the mornings were especially hard hitting, each of us in that room quietly wandering off to lunch, brutalized by what we'd just seen. Even the lighter films seemed to set us up, the comedy serving to lull us into a false complacency, unprepared for the painful truths about to batter us. I felt particularly bludgeoned by day three, despair giving way to despair. But in the midst of all this darkness there was hope. A couple who finds solace in the fellowship of suffering. The absurd yet unfailing optimism of extreme environmentalism despite a chorus of contempt. The genetically driven perseverance to continue despite increasingly difficult conditions. Art as means of humanizing systematic dehumanization. Activists who lose what they're fighting for but, through the courage of the spirit, somehow get more than what they'd wanted. A victim's self-justified sadism finding identification in mutual suffering. Cultivating compassion for those whose actions hardly warrant it. Overcoming inconceivable trauma with blind faith.

Prior to the retreat, I'd wondered what to expect, thinking somewhat flippantly that, well, meditation and film are both about sitting and observing, right?. But as the week went on, I realized that what we do in the Zendo is superficially a collective act, but ultimately, we are sitting alone. Film is the same. Though we are all watching the exact same images, the internal process is vastly different for each of us. Which is why we love not only to view films, but also to talk about them. How ruthless (yet, in hindsight, brilliant) to bar this discussion. The film retreat came at the end of a intense Spring practice period, where we were in silence for most of the day, forcing us to keep that critical mind at bay, and allowing all the reactions from our own personal journey to arise with full voice. Natalie Goldberg facilitated this in giving us writing assignments, pen and paper allotted equal importance to the meditation cushion. We were allowed only a single opportunity in which to discuss the films, but even then it was limited to a four minute monologue that inevitably returned to the realm of personal reaction and experience. The critical mind was once again banished behind the velvet rope. Ironically, each of the 10 films were about community, and how we can overcome our suffering -- both individual and shared -- in combining strength through human connection. My own desire to connect culminated in me walking the Upaya grounds one afternoon, desperately looking for somehow to have a conversation with.

Of all the films, I was most affected by "Stranded," yet another telling of the 1972 plane crash of the Uraguayan rugby team. This time, we were told the story from the point of view of the survivors, and got to see where they were 30 years later. This brought a sort of closure to me, having been exposed originally to their story in the film, "Survive," back in 1977 . When I saw it, I was all of 10 years old, and this film could be the source of my fear of flying. The seventies, and the wake of the Vietnam War, were full of similar disaster films, dramatizing the breakdown of the American dream. At my current age, 42, I get the metaphor, but as I child, all I could identify with were the graphic images my young mind was unable to disconnect from.

During the introductory talk of the retreat, Natalie asked us to write on our relationship to film. I wrote that film takes me places I'm not ready to go. I wasn't ready to enter the worlds represented by any of these films. I see myself as an 'educated' film viewer, easily seeing "the man behind the curtain," but I still found myself manipulated and beaten up. The films we watched, and the order in which they were shown, were a premeditated Zen lesson in the ways of the mind and the mind's reaction to the constant bombardment of stimuli in the modern world. I wasn't ready to feel pity for Richard Nixon; I wasn't ready for the rage and hopelessness I felt in viewing "Manufactured Landscapes" (though half of that rage was resentment at the obvious manipulation by the filmmaker in his use of soundtrack and visual composition); I wasn't ready for several of the characters to lead me into areas of my own suffering and grief.

The final night, we saw a presentation by Gerry Moffatt, a mountaineer who doesn't like to be called mountaineer. He showed us stills and video footage from a handful of his expeditions: recreating Mallory's attempt at Everest, skiing the Andes, rafting the uncharted rivers of Bhutan. Gerry being here in the first place was a complete fluke, though it was poetic that he closed the show. For in his talks, we heard him speak warmly and lovingly of the members of his teams with whom he shared hardship and peril. The films we'd been viewing all week had exposed us to inconceivable challenges. Gerry's footage too were filmed images of similar challenges, this time in the form of stone and storm, ice and water. Yet he and his community had found ways to-- not conquer, not surmount -- but harmonize with those challenges, in a way that was ever on a human scale.

On the turntable: J.J. Johnson, "Tangience"
On the nighttable: Francois Bizot, "The Gate"

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