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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.

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