Monday, May 18, 2009

Movie Review: Into Great Silence; Philip Gröning, dir; 2005


Halfway through the film I said to Mutsumi about a scene that struck me as particularly well-composed, this looks like a painting. Most of the film, she said, looks like a painting. And she's right. It does. Into Great Silence is perhaps one of the most beautiful movies of recent years, a cinematic poem of tranquility and serenity that may leave you wishing you didn't have to return to your hurried life in a noisy, cluttered world.

German director Philip Gröning lived for six months with the Carthusian monks of the Grand Charteuse, a 17th century monastery in the picturesque quietude of the French Alps. With no crew and shooting only in natural light, he followed the renunciates on their daily rounds, capturing the languid flow of days filled with prayer, study, and labor. What he produced in the editing process is described in his publicity material as a document “seek[ing] to embody a monastery, rather than simply depict[ing] one.” That is, Gröning offers the viewer the opportunity to experience the life of the monastic, rather than be told about it. There is no narration, no explanatory subtitling, no score, and except for the passing of days and the passing of seasons essentially no narrative.

What you might find while viewing is exactly what you experience when you live quietly in sheltered environments. You begin to notice detail. Small details that your mind usually flirts over in a rush to complete a task or in search of more gross forms of stimulation. Close shots of a masticating jaw, a piece of fruit, a length of hanging cloth, or a wash basin suggest Gröning experienced the same. When you take away the cacophony of telephones, television, cinema, radio, and the internet, when you take away the need to live by the clock, to keep appointment books, to always be in a rush, your senses have a chance to rest, to experience the rhythm and pulse of the body. And then you find the most mundane things intriguingly beautiful – the grain in a piece of wood, the dance of dust motes in a sun beam, the play of water over rocks, trees swaying in the breeze. Quite suddenly, the world is full of wonder.

Is it any surprise, then, that though they lead what most would consider lives of deprivation, the monks of the Grand Charteuse appear to be men whose lives are filled with great happiness.


Saturday, May 16, 2009

Movie Review: Act Normal; Olaf de Fleur, dir; 2006

Act Normal addresses questions faced by many young men who join a monastery at a young age: What is the “real” world like? What am I missing by not being in a relationship, by not having a family? How can I renounce what I haven't yet experienced? Shot over a decade in Iceland and Thailand, the film follows a young Englishman who after 16 years as a Buddhist monk puts aside his robes for a wife, a job, and a “normal” life.

In the early moments of the film Dhammanando (formerly Robert T. Edison) explains that while the monastic life may seem to be an escape from “real” life, it is in fact a direct confrontation of reality shorn of all distraction. It is the grand experiment in finding out what it is “to be.” Perhaps Dhammanando's renunciation of his renunciation was part of this journey of discovery, but the audience is never sure because the director never asks. To what degree did the ex-monk continue his practice while a layman? His wife suggests certain patterns of behavior continued – such as mindfulness and kindness – but when he set out to be a lay person, did he also set aside all he had learned, or was his journey into the “real” world a journey deliberately informed by Buddhist principles?

In his choice of title, director Olaf de Fleur may have been suggesting more about the film than its subject. His narrative sequence seems a bit contrived, with the first part of the film jumping back and forth across the span of Dhammanando's life, resolving into a mostly conventional narrative that preserves the dramatic disrobing for the latter third of the film. Along the way de Fleur mixes in high contrast, black and white, Dutch angles, and dramatic recreations of childhood, a hodge-podge of styles and effects that keep the viewer intrigued but never really suggest anything meaningful in the context of the story. The most notable aspect of the production is Barði Jóhannsson's lush music, written not for the film itself but taken from the artist's 1997 release Haxan, a neo-romantic score-without-a-film performed by the Bulgarian Symphony and nominated album of the year for the 2007 Icelandic Music Awards.

Perhaps if Dhammanando had been doing academic or intellectual work, instead of putting in hours as a security guard, he may have found “real” life a bit more challenging, a bit more worth the effort. In the end, he finds the commercial world contentious, competitive, and confusing. He seems genuinely happy to be back in the monastery, a safe environment for a retiring, self-absorbed lover of language and ancient Buddhist texts.

Dhammanando is currently living and translating in Thailand and is an active member of the online Buddhist community Dhamma Wheel.

Act Normal is available for rent as streaming video at Poppoli Pictures. You can watch several clips, as well as a 10-minute documentary on the Making of Act Normal.


Friday, May 15, 2009

Westward from Kobe

In Tarumi with the Kawamuras

This past week we had guests from Thailand. Krit and Knot, the couple whose wedding we attended back in March, flew to Tokyo to meet up with their friend, Dr Earth (whose real name is much longer and more difficult to read), who had already been in Japan a month studying surgical procedures at the National Cancer Center. After a few days in Tokyo and Kyoto, they met up with us in Kobe, where we spent the night at Mutsumi's family's home, sleeping on full bellies after a lavish spread of sushi and tempura that squashed even the Dr's appetite.

At Himeji Castle

The Dr as we often saw him


We spent half a day touring Himeji castle, before returning to Fukuoka and moving on the next morning to the onsen resort town of Yufuin, where we strolled through town and sat in hot springs. While the others were shopping, I rented a bicycle and enjoyed the several kilometers of dedicated bicycle lanes and quiet roads winding through and around this mostly agricultural valley. Once back in Fukuoka the push was on to finish up last minute shopping (souvenirs courtesy of the 100yen shop) and yesterday morning the gang left for the airport, leaving the house feeling a bit empty. =sniff=

Momoka, the innkeeper's daughter:
"Everyone likes me but I don't know why."

Mt Yufu

A few hours later I had my first of three interviews scheduled this week with universities on the Arabian peninsula. It was the first formal interview I remember since the mid-90's when I interviewed with Kuwait University, but even so I think I did alright. A reply is expected from this institution by next week. In the meantime, I have another tonight, still another Sunday evening, and one more – Insha'Allah – coming soon.


Thursday, May 7, 2009


In a mirror, in water, in an eye, in a vessel, and on a gem, images are seen; but in them there are no realities anywhere to take hold of.


DT Suzuki, trans

Clearing out and starting over

I talked to my mother this week. She asked me what I've been doing. And I didn't know quite what to say. It seemed I haven't been doing much.

But that's not really true, of course. It's just that there is nothing too terribly unusual or interesting to write about. Mostly I've been working on sorting through stuff that we have collected over the years in Fukuoka, 12 years of books, cds, textbooks, grades, student reports, financial records, boxes of letters and photographs, suitcases and bags full of old clothing – just a big pile of junk taking up space. Some of this stuff goes straight to the trash or for recycling, some of it we've been putting on Yahoo Auctions. The photos we have been going through a little at a time, pulling out stuff that I have been scanning and archiving.

With my stewardess class in the Summer of '99

We've also decided to close our music store, CDJam, which has been limping along the past couple of years, mostly neglected but at least paying the cyber rent. For the next few weeks we'll be selling everything at 50% of retail, and after that finishes early June we'll be finding ways to clear out the outstanding stock.

In anticipation that I may need to work, I have been applying for a number of teaching positions, mostly in the Gulf. You may have seen this week reports filed for Children's Day showing Japan's under-15's to number just 17 million, or 13.4% of the island's population. Schools are consolidating or closing, the number of full-time jobs in nearly every sector of the economy is declining (replaced with underpaid part-time jobs that include no benefits), and the number of unemployed PhD candidates from Europe and North America arriving in Japan is making the university ESL market more competitive. Besides a not so promising outlook, the hiring season here won't begin until fall (with the next academic year beginning in April), which means hanging out and hanging on with not too much to do.

The Gulf, however, is continuing to grow in all the ways Japan is not. Native and immigrant populations are expanding, revenues from oil are mostly stable and other sources are being developed, universities and colleges are growing, many of them implementing English-medium programs in which all subjects are taught in English. That means nearly every university has, in addition to an English department, an intensive remedial English department. Salaries are not what they once were, but still decent and with all the perks – free housing, insurance, annual airfare, lots of vacation, and no taxes. And now is the hiring season, with the academic year beginning in September.

So far I've had four nibbles (Hamdulillah), two in Saudi and one each in Oman and Qatar. One wanted an interview, but never got back in touch and has been silent ever since. One has said (off the record) that the department wants to make an offer but that it may be a couple of weeks before they get to sorting out the paper work. I'm in the process of scheduling an interview with the third and with the fourth I have a telephone interview scheduled for next week. In preparation, I've been researching the universities as well as writing answers to interview questions. So far I've got eight pages of single spaced text.

Here in Fukuoka I've lined up some part-time work through a Japanese publisher and provider of language training. When I applied I thought I'd be teaching conversation classes in the downtown area, where the company's office is located. Instead starting the end of this month I'll be teaching the same textbook at the same university where I used to teach but, because of the university's decision to outsource their English education, making less money.

On Friday we're off to Kobe to meet our friends from Thailand, the ones whose wedding we attended. They're here visiting another friend who has been in Japan doing medical training and we're going to do a bit of traveling together for a few days in southwest Japan. Look for some photos next week.

That's what I've been doing. I hope mom is reading.


Movie Review: The Beginner's Guide to L. Ron Hubbard; Simon Egan, dir; 2006

L. Ron Hubbard was a pulp fiction writer of the 1940's, a man with an apparently charming personality and a knack for self-promotion. To those who knew him well, he was also paranoid, spiteful and cruel. He is regarded by his followers as a 20th century guru, to the rest of the world as perhaps the century's most successful fraud, the founder of the Church of Scientology, the pseudo-religion most commonly associated with actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta.

But you won't learn much about this in Hardeep Singh Kohli's mistitled 2006 film, The Beginner's Guide to L Ron Hubbard, which follows the presenter as he makes a foray into the practice of Scientology. The film is one of a three-part Beginner's Guide series in which celebrities live for a short time as members of traditionally non-English faiths, including Islam and Hinduism. Hardeep was an interesting choice for the Scientology project, a Scottish-raised Sikh with a degree in law and a career as a comedian and presenter. His humor, though, seems to be kept in check by his fear of being brainwashed, of his two week journey resulting in a scarred psyche.

It appears his adventure may end prematurely when the Church of Scientology takes offense at the program being hosted by a comedian and refuses a request for an introduction. What most viewers might not realize is that Scientology is practiced outside the official church by small groups loosely associated as The Freezone, and it is with them that Hardeep finds the opportunity to explore.

Contacting the Freezone

But he has to go to Russia to practice, a literal free zone beyond the reach of the church's army of lawyers. Along the way he chats with his apostate guide and tries reading one of Hubbard's introductory texts, finding that though he understands the words, the concepts remain elusive. It doesn't get much better when he finally arrives in Russia, where he has to work through a battery of training routines that don't seem to add up to a coherent practice. Until, that is, he finally undergoes auditing, Scientology's equivalent of psychoanalysis, when the long hours of practicing to stay focused on a subject, to clarify meaning, to speak with emotional honesty, are deployed in a one-on-one in which the auditor seeks to uncover a patient's points of psychological stress.

Trying to find meaning



Hardeep admits to a strained relationship with a brother. After talking about it with the auditor, he feels lightheaded, relieved, like a weight has been lifted. Here he seems to have uncovered the appeal of Scientology, at least at the level practiced among initiates, a technique to enable the practitioner to be honest about his fear and pain. It is in the simplest sense an alternative form of therapy. Hardeep doesn't quite see this, preferring a more general (and perhaps incomplete) conclusion accepting Scientology's claims to improve lives.

Still, this is one of the more interesting documentaries on the group for providing an initiate's ground eye view, one that works both for and against Scientology. Hardeep's attempts to come to terms with the master's philosophy substantiates the initial impression you get that Hubbard in fact has none, that it is nothing but a bewildering arrangement of mirrors suggesting some kind of discernible pattern (if only you keep looking). But by sharing his own training experience he demonstrates what it is that draws people to the group, what motivates them to come back (only to find themselves later dangling like a fish at the end of a line).

If you ever wondered what it might be like to walk into a Scientology center and explore, watch this film before you go.

The 48 minute film is currently available for viewing at Google Video. Discussion of the film can be found in threads (here and here and here) at Operation Clambake, a website monitoring Scientology activities.