The Breath

January 25, 2014

A precious thing, breath...
From Raw Deal:

I always said I like talking to a sharp guy.  You don’t waste breath.  Precious thing, breath.

When people think of the soundtrack to 2001: A Space Odyssey, they think of Richard Strauss’ Also sprach Zarathustra, but the soundtrack is suffused with the sound of breathing, which is what I think of.  The breathing in the space suits, in the space pod, as Dave decommissions HAL9000, and in the final scene, as the old man Dave meets his end.

Let’s Eat Slop

June 6, 2012

Once when I visited a farmer’s house, he served me a vegetable dish with miso bean-paste sauce cooked in clamshells – a style called kaiyaki in this part of the country – and fish.  While he drank sake over his meal, he said to me in thick dialect, “You might wonder what could be interesting about living in a hovel like this and eating slop like this.  Well, I tell you, it’s interesting just to be alive.”

from Something Like an Autobiography by Akira Kurosawa

Russian Satori

December 25, 2010

I am in Michigan now, and it is snowing lightly as I near the end of War and Peace.  The much-reproduced graphic, depicting Napoleon’s disastrous retreat from Moscow in 1812, tells the story of the military defeat.  Is that the real story?  Or is it the twin spiritual journeys of Prince Andrei and Pierre?  When I return to NYC, I will go to this exhibit at the Japan Society – it’s all about what Andrei and Pierre discovered.

Andrei and Pierre have an important conversation, a little debate, on the meaning of life while they ride on a river ferry early on in the story.  They didn’t know they were being ferried back and forth across the Styx.  Andrei is destined to remain on the far side, achieving enlightenment through war and death.  First, he is wounded at Austerlitz (1804) and encounters the infinite sky as he lies wounded.  In 1812, back in the military, waiting in the reserves during the Battle of Borodino while his troops are killed off by stray artillery shots, he confronts death in the form of a spinning, hissing shell that seems almost like a toy top, until it explodes.  He realizes the pointlessness of everything, and the true meaning of a few things, and dies of his wounds among his family.

He is barefoot as the weather is still mild.  He looks down at his big fat toes wiggling and he feels happy, complete.  This scene is echoed, perhaps purposely, by Thomas Pynchon when he brings Tyrone Slothrop, a character with some similarities to Pierre, to a state of calm peace as he regards his bare feet wiggling in the mud, in The Zone, as he wanders across the debris of WWII in Germany near the end of Gravity’s Rainbow.

Pierre survives the invasion and burning of Moscow, has a near-death experience with a firing squad, and is kept prisoner as the French begin to retreat.  A soldier bars his passage as he tries to visit some prisoners – he sits down and thinks for hours, then breaks out in uproarious laughter as he regards the dark, starry night.  They are keeping him prisoner!  Him, and his immortal soul!  They think they have locked up in a shed something that is infinite, for he is the universe, and it is in him!  Satori, the zen enlightenment,  comes at odd times.

Follow your breath

November 16, 2010

Anthony Mann’s Raw Deal (1948) goes a lot further than his definitely B-moview flick, Railroaded.  There were times when it dragged, but right from the start, we know we are in for something unique in film noir.  The story is told in flashback narration by a woman, and it’s accompanied by an eerie theramin soundtrack.

Raymond Burr plays Rick, the heavy heavy – He let Joe take the rap for him, and now he’s helping him break out of the joint, knowing that the chances are excellent that Joe will be killed.  That would be convenient.  Rick likes to play with fire, and he likes to use it to make women talk.  Denis O’Keefe plays Joe; he isn’t so bad:  he’s gotten a raw deal in life.  Anne, the cute paralegal who was involved with his case knows, or believes, that deep down he’s good, but he doesn’t give all that much evidence of it.  Then she realizes he’s like something from under a rock – I love that line!  Later, she surrenders to her love for him, regardless of his morals.

The film has wonderful atmospheric shots, especially the ending, which includes a shootout on the foggy San Francisco docks.  Throughout, there are striking compositions, and one truly amazing audio-visual sequence (see the video at the bottom) that portrays the state of mind of Pat, Joe’s moll.  The level of violence shown in the film was remarkable for 1948, and includes brutal fights, an attack with a broken off bottle, and Rick dumping flaming liquor on a woman.

It all begins with that eerie voice-over as Pat narrates her visit to Joe to tell him of the plan to spring him that night.  The camera shows her point of view as she drives up to the prison gate.  He’s receiving a visit from another woman, Anne, who is there to encourage him to seek parole.  No dice, he wants to breathe!   The ending is a given – she loses him to another girl, and he dies, but he gets his breath of fresh air.

When John Ireland, playing Rick’s henchman, Fantail, prepares to kill Joe, they have a little Zen exchange on following the breath.  A precious thing, breath.  A bit of satori via noir.

More and Zen

October 17, 2010

I have been hearing about the new movie, The Social Network, from all over the place.  My first question was simple:  How the heck does Facebook make money, anyway?  Again, the answer is simple – advertisements.  My next question was simple too:  Who cares?  Obviously, a lot of people.

I have a Facebook account, but I rarely use it.  I got it to keep up with my daughter when she was abroad.  I’ve read a lot of critical raves about the movie.  Joe Nocera’s in the NYTimes Business section was the most interesting:  he felt it was an excellent study of an important personality-type in our culture – the entrepreneur.  I get that, but I’m so un-entrepreneurial, that I have little interest in it.

On another planet, I have been reading an old book lately called How to Want What You Have.  It’s by a psychologist who approaches life from a Zen-Cognitive point of view, and it’s very down to earth.  I find that it encapsulates a lot of what I have been thinking for years.  One of the central, and novel ideas he proposes is that it is instinctual for humans to always want MORE.  He says spiritual-meditative-ethical discipline as going against the human grain, but he believes it is necessary because our evolved instinctual drives are out of synch with our culturally evolved existence.  The Buddha and innumerable religious thinkers agree.  I don’t know if his Darwinian take is valid, and I don’t even think it’s necessary, but that’s where he starts.

What brings me to Facebook & How to Want… is that they seem diametrically opposed.  Facebook is all about more, more MORE.  More “friends,” more “celebrity”, more chatter, more pictures, more connections…shading off into my own blog obsession with the number of hits to my site (down lately!)  Zen is all about letting go of more, more, More!

One thing about discussions of Internet “culture” in journalism that strikes me often is the constant failure to evaluate.  Journalism is all about filling columns and tickling readers to come back to read more.  Heavy questions are a turn off.  So in the New Yorker review of the new film, the author writes that Facebook recognizes that “we all treat each other now as packets” of information, not individuals.  Is this…dare I ask it, good?  Okay, it is a fact, it is popular, it might be fun, not everyone is obsessed by it, so…beyond the fact that it made some people fabulously rich, why care???

The Unbearable Pain of Mindfulness

April 6, 2008

The goal of enlightenment, mindfulness, being-here-now, is much sought after these days…perhaps always. Many associate it with zen or other varieties of Buddhism, and eastern religion. It is, I think, generally discussed as a state that partakes of bliss – certainly a cessation of earthly pain. Odd, then, that it is so hard to attain; that our minds and beings seem to actively frustrate our attainment of the state. Perhaps we don’t want enlightenment?

I am beginning to suspect that mindfulness is so difficult to achieve not only because it is difficult per se, but because we actively flee from it, just as some flee from love that they claim they want. Like love, mindfulness can bring pain, terrific pain?

I am lying on my bed – I have no obligations – I am free to do what I want. I need think of nothing – do nothing. My free time, free to attend to the moment, appreciate the here and now…My mind is racing like a formula one car engine, but not in gear, a high pitch scream – – “What shall I do?” Most times, I would dive into a book, do some chores, clean, watch a movie, kill time surfing the Net, read the paper, but at this moment, I don’t feel drawn to any of that. Just sit and attend, observe yourself observing the universe…and what happens? A high pitched whine as of an engine running at full-tilt without load…will it explode?

To simply spend such times attending to the what-is is so painful, so disorienting, so explosive in its energy, the tendency is to rush to fill the time with something more trivial that will get the mind in gear and discharge its energy safely. Perhaps that is the real difficulty in mindfulness. Not that we cannot stop the incessant chatter of our minds no matter how much we want to, say we want to, but that we do not want to!

The alternative is to be left naked, still, simply sitting and observing the nature of what-is at the moment. The light filtering in from the window. The complexity and simplicity of the tree branches. The calming geometry of my room. The rebus of my history that is the clutter of knick knacks around me. The then and the now…The unfathomable indifference of everything to the trivial thing that is me. The weight of the universe pressing down on a single point on my head where my mind perceives it and comprehends it…without a reciprocating care or concern. It’s too much to bear!! Where is that crossword puzzle!!

To Study Philosophy is to Learn How to Die

January 21, 2008


Okay, so philosophy isn’t to solve puzzles…so what is it for? To study philosophy is to learn how to die. If you don’t want to take my word for it, read the complete essay by Mr. Michel de Montaigne, one of my favorites by him. I think he knew whereof he spoke. Maybe that’s what Ludwig Wittgenstein was groping for when he said philosophy should teach us how to live.

Whaaaa?! Live, Die, aren’t they the opposite? A zen Buddhist might say that you cannot truly live unless you are ready to die. Story:

Woman is chased by tigers, runs to cliff. Jumps off and grabs a branch sticking out. Hanging in space, she sees water filled with vicious snakes below. Looking up, she sees rodents gnawing her branch off. Soon she will fall to her death. She sees some succulent berries hanging nearby. What does she do? Scream, wail, go crazy? No, she eats the berries, relishing their wonderful taste.

That lady knew how to live- knew how to die!

Some of Montaigne’s essay is about the old cliches, “living each moment like it is your last…” but in scholarly humanist garb. Carpe diem, all that. It’s always the same message, isn’t it? If you can’t take the measure of your own life, the measure of your life’s value to yourself, how can you live well? And how can you take the measure of your life’s value if it isn’t over? (Sure, any fool can take the measure of his life when he’s lying on his deathbed, hee, hee. That’s why priests always show up!) The trick is, to see the truth when your death is far off, and so he finds himself saying to himself during everyday actions, “What if this action were my last..?”

Upon all occasions represent [death] to our imagination in his every shape; at the stumbling of a horse, at the falling of a tile, at the least prick with a pin, let us presently consider, and say to ourselves, “Well, and what if it had been death itself?” and, thereupon, let us encourage and fortify ourselves.

As a zen nun wrote, when you are dying, will you really care who won that argument? And if not, why care so much now?

And so, with the help of Philosophy, we learn to live. Maybe we learn some other things too, like the difference between universals and particulars, but that’s all rather trivial compared to our own life and death, isn’t it?

Heaven & Hell: Zen Tale

October 10, 2007


Based on a Zen mondo – an arrogant warrior is struck by enlightenment when he leasts expects it.

Watch it here.

Zencomix No. 2

March 17, 2005

~ click to see an enlarged image ~