See more articles, reviews, fiction and poetry, including more of my writings, at group blog PLUTO'S REALM.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Razor's Edge

Often I'm afraid to return to a book or to a movie that I enjoyed when I was younger. Often, I have changed, and the work I idolized is seen to be either adolescent or full of holes. Thus with trepidation I added The Razor's Edge to my Netflix and set in to view it this past Sunday morning. Verdict? This movie is just as great as I thought it was in the mid-80's and it is still probably my favorite of all time.

The Razor's Edge is the second movie adaptation of Somerset Maugham's novel of the same name, and is true to the book, as far as I can remember. Bill Murray portrays Larry Darrell, an American aristocrat of my grandparents' generation who is headed for a career as a well-connected stockbroker in Chicago; he is engaged to money and headed for the American dream of the 1920's. His life is forever changed when he sees the horrors of war in person as a volunteer ambulance driver both before and after America's late entry into WWI. Unable to return to his pipe dream of a former life, he heads out on a spiritual quest that takes him through the coal mines of France to India (actually, as filmed, it appears he goes to Lhasa). He finds his enlightenment in the mountains and attempts to return to his life, where he discovers that it is easy to be a holy man on a mountain, but....

This movie was made at the peak of Bill Murray's early fame, and the legend is that he agreed to make Ghostbusters just so the studio would put out this movie for him. It was the first indication of his dramatic talent; I'm sure I was not the only one surprised, and Larry Darrell is kind of a precursor to the characters he plays in his later works, such as Lost in Translation and Broken Flowers; the darkly illuminated sage with more than a wry twist. Bill Murray is a genius, and his selection and execution of this role are probably that genius' best expression. You have to excuse Garfield; we all like money.

You really have to see this movie for yourself; I can't tell you how great the acting is, or the direction, or the subtlety of the premise and its underlying message. I can't imagine the public at large would understand the movie, which sounds elitist and is thus probably true. Just make sure you don't wind up with the 1946 version of the movie with Tyrone Power, which is garbage except for a brilliant performance by Gene Tierney. In the early version, the scenes which appear to have been filmed in the Himalayas in the later version, appear to be soundstage reproductions of a child's view of Heaven, complete with paper angels. Gene was good, though.

This movie came out in 1984, but I am not quite sure when I first saw it; it seems I rented the VHS tape (I don't remember it in the theatres), so I don't know if it was before or after I started my short-lived but important "spiritual" recovery in 1986, which included my SGI (NSA) period and my introduction to my physical workouts. Buddhism and step aerobics have saved me from perdition more than once, so although this period ended in relative disaster in the early 90's, it was crucial to my becoming whoever it is I am now. Anyway I don't remember exactly who I was when I first saw this movie, but I have seen it many times over the years. I think I took Larry Darrell as a role model, and considering some of the other role models I had in my youth, this one was fortunate.

Darrell goes on a spiritual quest that would have been probable only in the first half of the twentieth century, when world travel had become an option, but we had not yet been inundated with Eastern spirituality. He hears of the Upanishads for the first time from a drunken coal miner, after spending a year or two in Paris reading Western philosophy. He then goes to India, supposedly, although the place he goes to wash dishes and experience enlightenment is clearly a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, but I'll let that pass (remember this was before 1950). His very physical journey can only be a metaphor for most of us, though some tried to emulate it in the 1960's. It may or may not be fortunate that we can now study Eastern thought from the comfort of our living rooms, as it makes it harder to sift through the crap (of which the East has its share, trust me).

There are pivotal scenes in this movie that will remain with me for all time, and for which I could've supplied the dialogue, even before seeing the movie last Sunday for the first time in, surely, ten years. Then there is the enlightenment scene itself, where Darrell, sent to mediate alone in a hut in a blizzard, smiles, uses his books for tinder, and decides he's been on the mountain long enough. That scene has no dialogue, and is a masterpiece of understatement that will not be found in a movie popular with today's dumbed-down masses. It's followed by his dialogue with the head monk (paraphrased):

Darrell: It's easy to be a holy man on top of a mountain.

Monk: The road to salvation is narrow, and as difficult to walk as the razor's edge.

The latter line is a quote from the Upanishads, I believe, and is featured on the flyleaf of the Maugham novel.

If the movie ended at this point or before, , it would have comported with whatever dim view most modern Americans have of enlightenment. It is however Darrell's choice to return to his life, and then how he lives it, which make this movie a true lesson on "spirituality." It certainly changed my vision of the same.

I think I took Darrell's path as a metaphor or model for my own, and I am glad I did. Most of it is metaphor; I've never been in a war, so I made my own wars. I didn't have to go to Tibet; I found people in America, in print and in person, who were able to point some things out to me, to wake me up. Now I don't really believe in sudden enlightenment, so I have to take Darrell's realization in the hut as an encapsulation of an ongoing process; but I have realized that the real tests of whatever understandings one comes to, come in real life, not in retreat from the world or in meditation.

The Razor's Edge is not the kind of movie I normally watch these days. Most drama which is supposedly based in reality appears to me to be a propaganda of our cultures' collective unconscious, an almost Reaganistic mass self-hypnosis, so I find fantasy to be more psychologically true. Of course, not many movies on the level of The Razor's Edge ever get made.

In confirmation of my current understanding that "enlightenment" is not an instantaneous permanent transformation, but an ongoing process of growth, Darrell comes to his deepest realization only at the end (of the movie), when the person he loves and tries to save is taken from him. He realize that in the end, there is no reward, there is no payoff, from our actions, separate from our actions themselves. This is an important message to those of you who are still suffering in hope of Heaven; Heaven is now.

John Lennon, for all his occasion wrongheadedness, said some remarkable things, some of them probably unconsciously. It might behoove us all to remember that all karma is Instant Karma.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Not Going to Bonnaroo? Here's Something Better

If you had told me when I was growing up in Manchester, Tennessee, in the sixties and seventies, that in the first decade of the twenty-first century my hometown would be the location of the largest ongoing rock festival in the world, I would have told you that you were doing, well, some of the same drugs I was doing, with different results. But it's true. Manchester has maybe 12,000 people, but once a year the population goes up by 90,000 or so when Bonnaroo comes. As to why they come, I can't really tell you; there was one really stellar year, I think it was probably about 2004, when almost everyone I would have wanted to see in the pop music world played there, from Bob Dylan to Ani Difranco to Liz Phair, and I don't remember who else. Unfortunately, most of the acts were announced late, and I wasn't in a good phase and couldn't go, despite the fact that you could hear the damn thing from my mother's carport.

Anyway, since then, the line-up has sucked so bad I can't believe it sells out. The headliners this year are the Police, a band that should have stayed broken up (if we could only get U2 to join them in oblivion...). There are a few good acts, but my days of spending four days in what promises to be mind-numbing heat in a former cow pasture are over. I did once live for three days at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina on acid and whiskey and almost got beaten senseless by Hell's Angels, but I digress. I no longer emulate Hunter Thompson as much as I admire his work. My advice: if you absolutely must go to Manchester, TN, this coming weekend, avoid Bonnaroo like the plague; I'm avoiding the whole town, even at the cost of not seeing my dad on Father's Day. Instead, the guy who just sold the land to Bonnaroo owns some real farms in the area, and if you drive around the right pastures you can see bison! Yep, real, authentic beefalo! This is the other thing I never wouldn've believed I'd see in Manchester -- rejects from a bad Kevin Costner movie (or is that redundant) are everywhere! A vision of the past without drugs! Whatever.

I also suggest that while you're avoiding Bonnaroo, you hop on your I-Tunes (or if you must, order a CD on the internet, or maybe while you're hunting bison you can still find a record store) and download Bif Naked's latest album, Superbeautifulmonster. You've seen me mention Ms. Naked throughout the months in these blogs, and I did feature that beautiful video someone made from computer game graphics with her version of Metalica's "Nothing Else Matters"; in fact "Nothing Else Matters" is on Superbeautifulmonster, which came out in 2005 (I am nothing if not timely). I just got around to purchasing her laterst because I listened to all of her previous stuff so much for so long I kind of burned myself out, but I was ready, and this album is worth it. If you like heavy but catchy pop-rock this is for you. Her music always gets stuck in my head and on my car system.

Bif's story is kind of interesting, too. I'll let you read it on her website, but basically, she was just another rootless rock waif, raised in India by Canadian missionaries, who came back to British Columbia to die of punk rock and alcohol. Then something changed; inspired by Gail Greenwood, one of my favorites who played with Belly and L7 among others, she went Straight Edge (until the fascistic edges of that movement got on her nerves), but stayed vegetarian, and has adopted a lot of the Hinduistic culture of the country where she was raised into her consciousness. In short, she became quite a fascinating human being, and she makes great music. I've seen her live a couple of times, and if you get the opportunity, don't miss her; she doesn't tour outside Canada often, and certainly not in the American South. She gives a great live rock and roll performance (think, latter-day Joan Jett, whose appearance at the Tennessee State Fair a few years ago reminded me that you can still be cool over 40, which thought I was desperately in need of), and she's absolutely beautiful, if tiny. Really neat tattoos, too. I just really find her inspiring, somehow.

Of course, like all the best music from the 90's, especially all those great female-fronted acts, Bif's career seems to be languishing now. But go out and get I, Bificus, and see why she almost broke big. And then you can wish she would show up at Bonnaroo, instead of the crap that's playing there. Apologies to Hot Tuna and Junior Brown, who are great, of course.

Here's an old video off Bif's Purge album. Enjoy! It's music time, again.

Friday, June 01, 2007


Namaste is a sort of Hindu/Yogi term that people say to each other at the end of Yoga classes. It means something like "the spirit in me speaks to the spirit in you," and it's pronounced "Na-MAH-stay" ( so you don't run around saying "NAM-aced" to each other). It's kind of like what Zen people mean when they say Gassho, but not quite. It's what I feel compelled to say to you this morning after perhaps the most amazing, vivid, meaningful, and heartwarming dream I've ever had, in the last few hours.

I also wanted to offer this as sort of a coda to Jim's pieces I published earlier this week. He tells me people say to him all the time, how can you get out of bed in the morning if you're really this pessimistic. He says he just tries to laugh. But I think he's right, and I think it's important and meaningful to realize that through circumstances of birth, you're living at the end of Western civililzation as we know it, if not the world. It's helpful because knowing where and when you are now helps you know how to live in it, your present life.

But there is no reason to stop working toward making the world better, nor a reason for despair. Why? I can't really tell you, but you can find out for yourself.

I won't give you the dreams I've just had; trying to really explain a dream takes up a huge amount of time and space for even a short dream, because the language of dreams is not the language of the spoken or written word, and cannot be reduced to it. It was one of those rare occasions when I come up from a dream in such a way that I only gradually realize it's not reality, and am saddened by it. Among other things, it gave me a chance to talk and hang out with my mother, whose birthday is a week from tomorrow and who died a little over four years ago. It was large and complex and involved a lot of people I've known throughout my life. I know you must've had those and with luck remembered them.

The most significant immediate impact of this dream was that in its process I understood the meaning of the Buddhist meaning of Rebirth as opposed to the Hindu idea of Reincarnation, for the first time. I'd always thought this term was a lame gibberish response to the Reincarnation concept, which was pretty universal in the time of the Buddha. I won't belabor it here, because words by even the most enlightened and intellectual teachers had never made any sense to me or led to any understanding; I could resproduce or respond to them with my own rational mind, but intuitively they felt like bullshit. Briefly, Reincarnation means the recurrence of a soul through time in different incarnations. Since one of the basic premises of Buddhism is that there is no soul, there is nothing to be reborn. Yet clearly in early Buddhist teachings, human existence did not end after one lifetime. You see the problem.

And I can't give you the answer, because it's not verbally possible. I can hint that it has a bit to do with the nature of time, but even that's misleading; the rest is in the dream language, which can't be spoken. See?

I'm not saying I had an enlightenment experience here, any more than we all have little ones every day. But my own understanding was deepened. And I can tell you that even the Christians are not entirely wrong, nor the Hindus.

It would be easier to tell you what I understood about the nature of dreams: They are how the different awarenesses that make up "you" talk to each other, learn from each other and unify. And I don't mean any huge cosmological thing here, although that could be involved too, if you look at it that way. I just mean the little awarenesses. Did you ever realize that you know something that you couldn't have known? Or how your car seems to drive itself home sometimes? Little awarenesses, like how you have a rock in your shoe as you sprint the last five yards. Or that perfect visual image you suddenly have of a house you haven't seen since childhood. You have more than one "mind" and the more they come together the more you "grow."

Against my better judgment, to make your life better and to make mine better when I interact with you, I would advise this: Pursue your zazen, or your yoga, or your religion if your religion is really deeper understanding and not just abuse of mind, body and soul (and how would you know?). And make sure you sleep enough so you can dream. And be kind to the people and the animals and even the things around you, because rest assured, you'll see them again. Even if you're not you and they're not them. Compassion isn't bullshit and it isn't being "nice," it's just the only real way to deal with your life.

But don't trust me in this. Rest assured, you're learning in your own way. I just had to try in vain to express it. And try to relax, because even when it's all really fucked, it's OK. Namaste.