Sunday, July 7, 2013

Stories and The End: Dharma teachings from Canada (and Hollywood)

Sarah Polley
Seth Rogen
Over the last two days, I've seen two very different movies.  "Stories We Tell" is more or less a documentary, made by the Canadian actor and director Sarah Polley, about her discovery of the identity of her biological father.  Seth Rogen, also a Canadian actor and director, brings us "This is the End."   Rogen's film is more or less not a documentary, and follows the story of real, well-known actors, playing versions of themselves, as they face the Apocalypse.

Both movies were made by young artists who use the conventions of story-telling in wildly playful ways.  Any expectations we may be holding about reality, narrative, behavior and morality are all turned around, again and again.  The narrative structure of Polley's movie moves in spirals, as she interviews family and friends about the events of her late mother's life.  Three times at least, the movie takes some sharp turns as the reality she has presented to us is shown to be partial and, in some cases, incorrect.

In "This is the End" the narrative is more straight-forward, but also endlessly surprising.  In both films, we think we understand the personalities and behaviors of various characters, and then our understanding shifts.  In "Stories We Tell" I actually gasped at one point, and laughed a little at other points.   In Rogen's movie,  I laughed a lot.

I was impressed and moved by Polley's movie, but I didn't really enjoy it.  When I left the theater, I felt mentally and emotionally disoriented and a little bit nauseated.  And in the days that have followed, images of the people and events continue to play in my mind.  Her attempt to show us how we construct narrative and meaning is very similar to my understanding of the true nature of  memory -- endlessly re-creating itself.  It was a full meal, and I'm still digesting it.  In many ways, it's a great piece of art, skillfully put together, beautiful at times and disturbing in important ways.

I throughly enjoyed Rogen's movie, but it's not a great movie in the same way that Polley's is.   Even in its gory, shocking and violent moments, I was never disturbed.  I felt safe and delighted.   And, although "This is the End" does raise some questions about the nature of redemption, love and ethical behavior, any time spent in being philosophical is time wasted -- a distraction from the main point: simple entertainment.

Both directors manipulate us, one to make us question reality, the other to be unquestioningly amused.  I appreciate both intentions, and recognize these two styles as ways of teaching the Dharma -- disorientation and playfulness are tools in my own teaching repertoire.   My preference is some mixture of both styles, set on a base of compassion for all of us who tell stories, make memories and try to figure out the meaning of life.

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