Lessons For Life
Much has been written on the subject of movies as todays moral compass1. So I will not bore you with my thoughts on the matter other than to say I agree.
As such, film is the medium by which many people learn life lessons.
Do you remember the scene from Apocalypto where the Mayan tribe gather around a camp-fire to listen to stories by an elder. The tribes people are having fun while listening—all the while learning about life. In a similar way, todays silver screen is yesterdays camp-fire! As such movies are todays fables. Film is therefore the medium through which we tell how to live a good life.
This is so for virtues such as courage, honesty, generosity can be found in movies. The benefits of being patient, of not taking yourself too seriously…yes, them too. Of love, friendship and loyalty. The stupidity of violence and so on, all of the things that go into the making of a good life are venerated in movies.
As an aside: this if true of film even more than Tv as often with TV we are not fully engaged. We go to the movies even if we watch them from the comfort of home. TV on the other hand can be something used to simply rest from a long day at work. Moreover, ad breaks, break the continuity of the narrative and as such distract the story-teller from his or her job. But this point is off-topic and so I will not expand on this idea here. I’m, sure you get my point though.
What I am trying to convince you of is the power of film as a rudder for life. Well maybe not the rudder but certainly some part of a ship that helps people navigate life. I like the idea of the rudder though because to some extent it is hidden. So just as a rudder helps guide the boat or ship without the captain being directly aware of it, movies have the potential to tell stories that guide people through life without us fully appreciating their function.
Overstating the Situation?
Now, someone might say, “what about the movie Transformers 3? What virtue is this movie teaching?” As I have not seen it I will withhold my opinion for now. But there’s no doubt, there are films made that have no redeeming qualities whatsoever. In fact, certain genres only serve to increase dysfunctional narrative or worse (but this reinforces my overall point, which I will come to shortly).
However, as an example of the positive impact a movie can have on people let us turn to a movie I just got done watching, Good Will Hunting. While, I am sure most of you have seen this wonderful movie, if you have not, do yourself a favour and go see it. It is a beautiful story! For those that think this was a simple love story perhaps you should go back for a second look!
While there is the love story embedded in the narrative that is not the real story. The real story is human potential. But the movie does not stand up and shout this, it shows us in an engaging and entertaining way.
There are other lessons in there too. For instance, GWH is also about not allowing yourself to become a victim of circumstances, and we have all being victims of life at times. Yes?!
Moreover, it is a film that shows us the potential of overcoming problems by simply being honest with ourselves, looking within for a solution, and then putting the solution into practice. This is only hinted at in the movie, but it is there.
The relationship between Sean (Robin Williams) and Will (Matt Damon) is gold. This relationship shows the importance of friends. Of being there for people regardless of our own situation.
All beings want happiness and do not want suffering—even Hollywood agrees with us.
So now we have the claim: films can be containers of life lessons, and we have an example of such a film.
However there are some who believe that movies are not the best place to present stories of inner conflict. Robert McKee is one such person (although I am sure there are many more who feel the same).
So while it seems that everyone likes to rag on Robert McKee almost like a sport. I guess he is an easy target because he seems so sure of himself, and in fact appears to enjoy the position. So, even though there is some truth to be found in his theories there are certain McKee tenets that I believe are just plain false.
For instance, in his screenwriting “how-to” book Story and in his many seminars (you can see an example of his style in an hour long interview here) Mr. McKee stated that there are basically three kinds of mediums for story—screenplays (movies), play writing (theater) and prose (books). I will let him explain:
And the principal differences between the three of them is the level of conflict that interests the writer of each of them. And so, you have stories—they all tell a story—but stories involve characters in conflict with their social or physical world, in personal relationships with friends, family, lovers, and an inner conflict within their own natures between themselves, their subconscious mind, their body, their emotions, and so forth. The novelist tends to be interested in inner conflicts; characters in conflict with their own contradictory natures, their own contradictory desires, their emotions. Playwrights tend to be more interested in personal relationships, of family, friends, lovers—because the theater is a form for dialogue, primarily. And talk is the way in which people in personal relationships work those relationships out for better or worse, right? And so the power and the beauty of the theater is personal conflicts.
The power and beauty in film is the extra personal conflicts of characters in conflict with their physical world and their social world. And so while all three media can tell complex stories because you can work with inner conflict, certainly, in a film, you can work with personal conflict naturally in a film, and in a novel, you can do all three, in a play you can do all three. But the strength of each of them tends to be at one of those three levels. And so, if you’re trying to make a career choice as to what kind of writer should I be, you really need to ask another question; which level of conflict in life really interests me the most? And then you would presumably move into that medium. But I know a lot of writers whose real interest is not at the level of conflict that the medium in which they are writing is strongest in. And so a lot of independent filmmakers, for example, are really interested in inner conflict. And so they should be writing novels and not trying to make films of people staring into space, coming to big decisions in their lives, or whatever, it would bore people.
Movies of people staring into space are boring. I agree. And it is true that some art films are more about the people in art than the art in people. But it is an oversimplification to claim that because films must have a social-physical locus in order for them to be presented on screen this somehow rules out of possibility the sub-text focusing on an internal conflict. Was Good Will hunting boring? Yet the story is all about Will overcoming his fear of abandonment so that he can get on with the rest of his life. Was GWH an example of people staring into space? I think not. It was engaging, dare I say it entertaining, and yet educational.
McKee reminds me of certain academics I have met that believe what they do because they have thought about a given topic a little (and sometimes not even that much!). Or how science claims to have found a “truth” in their latest research. Besides the fact that science as a arbitrator of truth goes against the very nature of the scientific method—the falsifiability principal—such claims are often politically and economically motivated and for this reason should be seen within that context. This approach allows for scientific theories to do good in the world without us getting all hung up on them being “truths” at all. Much better for all concerned, don’t you think?
So it should be with story telling. That is, McKee’s general claims about filmmaking notwithstanding, it is true, for a film to engage it must play out in a physical and social environment. People do not live in vacuums and so we must see internal conflict, somehow! Staring into space does not cut it. But that does not discount internal conflict from being the story of the story. Good Will hunting is an example of such a film. Don’t you think?
McKee is no dummy so I’m not sure why he believes that those interested in writing about inner conflict should stick to writing novels. It does not make sense to me.
Narrative Film From a Buddhist POV
Anyway…to the point of this article: given the degree to which films hold our imagination, not to mention their place in Western culture, it seems to be important to tell stories from a dharma point of view. Now, what I do not mean is to make movies that simply champion Buddhism. That, in my opinion, would potentially drive people away! Or at least drive away those that need it the most.
I think this is true because some people will not listen to the message of a film if it is wrapped in Buddhist culture. Some will think it religion. Some not there religion. And because of this it could not possibly have anything valid to say. Even the word meditation, for some, evokes feelings of austere lifestyles where fun equals sin. It’s true, people do think such things…sadly, some of these people are even Buddhists. Silly, right!
However, making films about ordinary people, doing ordinary things and trying to make a fist of life by overcoming obstacles (something we all suffer from…me included) is a worthwhile project to my mind.
What I am talking about here are films with solutions to life that draw on Buddhist ideas and thinkers. Buddhism has always had something to say about human suffering so why not in the movies? I mean, there is an audience sitting there waiting to be entertained so why not give em something they can use in their daily life’s as well. Why not?!
Of course, there will always be films about Buddhism—both narrative and documentary. That’s great. But do not be mistaken, the people who go to see such films are already open enough to do so. While this is fantastic what about people who are not interested in such things? Why can’t they share in Buddhist wisdom? All we would need to do is be less attached to the outer appearance of Buddhism and present it in a manner that speaks to them, not at them! This can be done. No doubt.
I hope you see the distinction I wish to draw—films about Buddhism vs. films about personal, inter-personal and social conflict addressed from the point of view of Buddhist ideas and thinkers.
To make it even clearer, rather than a film about a young man who goes off to become a Buddhist, or a film about Buddhist monks playing soccer, just imagine Morgan Freeman quoting freely from Shantideva to explain the importance of self-confidence to a young man with personal issues.
EXT. CENTRAL PARK -- DAY
Casually walking through central park, MORGAN a seventy-something ex-fireman and WILL a twenty-something wannabe are passed by morning joggers.
You are your own protector. Who else will be that protector!
MORGAN turns to SAM.
But you, SAM, are also you own worst enemy.
How bout them apples!
Truth is, films about Buddhism are already being made. There are even film festivals dedicated to films about Buddhism. However, and perhaps I am wrong about this but, in my opinion (and this is always subject to change) many of these movies reinforce the wrong conception that Buddhism is something “people from over there” believe in. Or that you have to be born into a certain culture to have any chance of gaining realizations. This way of thinking is utter nonsense.
More pointedly, other than a good story what purpose does a movie about a Western tulku not wishing to follow in his Tibetan fathers lineage serve? It is an interesting story no doubt, and I’m sure it was fun for the filmmakers, but other than this, how does it help ordinary people realize their own potential? To my mind it does not.
Films about Buddhism are often really films about culture or tradition, not Buddhism.
Am I being too harsh? Perhaps!
But I do believe it is because of this, because Buddhism is often presented in cultural wrappings, that many Westerners are still confused about how to integrate these ideas into their lives. Some reject it because its too Tibetan, or too Asian, or too religious, or too whatever. While others embrace it thinking that to be Buddhist is to wear some special piece of clothing or chant stuff in a foreign language. I ask you: what do clothes, hair styles, or singing stuff you do not understand have anything to do with transforming your mind?
To be fair, there was no other way to present Buddhism at first. But this is no longer the case. It is therefore up to us to carefully explicate Buddhist ideas and present them to a western audience in a manner that they can relate to without having to adopt someone else’s culture. This is not a new idea. And it is certainly not mine. Lama Yeshe, an extraordinary Tibetan teacher said as early as the mid 1970’s, Tibetan culture is not Buddhism. Buddhism is embedded in its culture, no doubt, and it has wonderful things that we Westerners could do with, but it is not Buddhism. Because of this fact it is absolutely possible to take the seeds of Buddhist thought and plant them in Western soil.
This is a delicate point to be sure—the meaning and function of culture, tradition, Buddhism, and how they interact is not an easy subject to grasp. It is perhaps a topic for another article.
In the tradition of placing an idea out into the world and seeing if it grows organically, here are some thoughts:
Actually before I do let me add some prefatory remarks: Yes, movies are difficult things to have made. Yet it is not totally impossible. And if you are like me and think that helping others see their own potential is important then why not make movies about this? After all, there are movies made about all kinds of useless rubbish. So why not make movies that help people rather than grind against the idea?
Moreover, if you believe something is possible, have the right people around you and necessary support, even big ideas such as these can happen.
One idea would be to form some kind of network group (writers, directors, producers, actors, etc.) to help produce mainstream films that are down to earth solutions to human problems from a Buddhist POV.
These movies would be focused on solutions to real-world human problems of ordinary people—not the promotion of a particular lifestyle. And this can be, nay, should be done without thinking we are somehow special. The Bodhisattvas of the past and the ones out in the world today do not think they are special. They just go about helping people overcome problems in various ways. Helping those in front of them by whatever means they can find to do so.
Using film as a platform to help others therefore appears useful, highly effective, possible, and worth working your butt off for. Don’t you think?
How do we make this happen? I have no clue! But perhaps someone, somewhere, does.
- By “morals” I do not mean right and wrong from a legal point of view…that would be the domain of ethics. Rather, I am talking about the do’s and dont’s that lead oneself and others to or away from genuine flourishing. [↩]