Sunday, April 29, 2012

The Greatest Film Ever Made

There are several different lists of the greatest films ever made (the American Film Institute's is the best known), and most of these lists consistently rank films like Citizen Kane, The Godfather, or Casablanca as the best film of all time. While I have absolutely no problem with any of these films, their selection is just a bit too predictable and safe for my liking. If I was asked to pick the great work of celluloid, I would have to go with something a bit more eclectic and interesting. For many years my own list included such questionable films as They Shoot Horses, Don't They?, Lovers and Other Strangers, and The Apartment. Now I found a film that I think rightly deserves to be called THE GREATEST FILM OF ALL TIME.

What is this cinematic masterpiece, you may be wondering? It's actually a film that didn't do very well when it first came out in 1998. In fact, many critics at the time panned it and most movie goers didn't even notice it. The film turned out to be a money loser for a pair of brothers whose previous films were often hailed as cinematic masterpieces. The general consensus was that the film was lightweight - fun, but lacking any sort of real depth.

Turns out that everyone at the time was completely wrong about this film. In fact, the first time I saw this movie, I didn't think very much of it at all. Sure I laughed at a few of the more obvious jokes, but the film left virtually no discernible impression on me. I barely thought about it at all until just recently when I was looking for something mindlessly diverting to watch and decided to rent it on Netflix. I was probably in a more expansive state of mind at the time, because the second time I watched this film I was absolutely enraptured by it. Every line was poetry to me, every performance in the film flawless, the cinematography breath-taking, the direction sublime.

So what is this film, you are probably itching to know by now? It's The Big Lebowski, written and directed by Joel and Ethan Cohen, the creators of such outstanding films as Fargo, O Brother Where Art Thou?, and Raising Arizona. Fargo, released in 1996, was such a quirky, original film that it is hardly surprising that The Big Lebowski, which was made only two years later, would seem almost trivial in comparison. That is indeed unfortunate, because, while Fargo was brilliant in its portrayal of the banality of evil, The Big Lebowski is actually the ultimate existential film.

The premise of the movie is actually quite simple: Jeffrey Lebowski (aka "The Dude") is a total slacker, concerned only with bowling and getting stoned. His life is turned upside down when he is mistaken for another wealthy Lebowski (the "Big Lebowski" of the title), whose wife owes money to a local pornographer, Jackie Treehorn. Treehorn's thugs commit the ultimate act of desecration when they urinate on the Dude's favorite rug - a rug which "really tied the whole room together." Egged on by his moronic friend, Walter Sobchak, the Dude attempts to get the Big Lebowski to make restitution for his soiled rug. The rest of the film involves the Dude getting increasingly intertwined in the mystery concerning the possible kidnapping of Lebowski's trophy wife, Bunny, and the delivery of ransom money to the kidnappers.

The plot in this film is almost irrelevant, because the Cohen brothers' whole point is to capture the fundamental absurdity of the human condition. The Dude just wants to get through life as comfortably as possible, but life keeps throwing stumbling stones in his path. I believe that he represents the ultimate ideal of Buddhist enlightenment: the man who refuses to get caught up in vain, worldly desires and therefore is impervious to the effects of karma. The Dude is the Bodhisattva of ultimate wisdom and compassion.

The Dude can be contrasted with Donny, who is "out of his fucking element" (i.e., unconcerned with the Dharma) and, even more so with Walter, whose experiences in Vietnam cause him to mistakenly believe that he can control reality. The Dude is willing to follow Walter's advice, but every time he does so, he winds up making his own life much more difficult. At the end of the movie, we come to realize that there was no kidnapping of Lebowski's wife (i.e., life is fundamentally absurd), Donny is dead, the carpet is still soiled (the reality of human suffering), but "the Dude abides" anyway (he returns to his normal state of samadhi).


Alright, maybe I'm pushing it just a bit with my labored Buddhist interpretation of the film, but if nothing else, The Big Lebowski is a damn funny film, as the following bits of dialogue clearly demonstrate:

The Dude: Look, let me explain something to you. I'm not Mr. Lebowski. You're Mr. Lebowski. I'm the Dude. So that's what you call me. That or His Dudeness... Duder... or El Duderino, if, you know, you're not into the whole brevity thing.

Maude Lebowski: What do you do for recreation?
The Dude: Oh, the usual. I bowl. Drive around. The occasional acid flashback.

The Big Lebowski: What makes a man, Mr. Lebowski?
The Dude: Dude.
The Big Lebowski: Huh?
The Dude: Uhh... I don't know sir.
The Big Lebowski: Is it being prepared to do the right thing, whatever the cost? Isn't that what makes a man?
The Dude: Hmmm... Sure, that and a pair of testicles.

The Dude: Walter, what is the point? Look, we all know who is at fault here, what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: Huh? No, what the fuck are you... I'm not... We're talking about unchecked aggression here, dude.
Donny: What the fuck is he talking about?
The Dude: My rug.
Walter Sobchak: Forget it, Donny, you're out of your element!
The Dude: Walter, the chinaman who peed on my rug, I can't go give him a bill, so what the fuck are you talking about?
Walter Sobchak: What the fuck are you talking about? The chinaman is not the issue here, Dude. I'm talking about drawing a line in the sand, Dude. Across this line, you DO NOT... Also, Dude, chinaman is not the preferred nomenclature. Asian-American, please.

The Dude: Walter, this isn't a guy who built the railroads here. This is a guy...
Walter Sobchak: What the fuck are you...?
The Dude: Walter, he peed on my rug!
Donny: He peed on the Dude's rug.
Walter Sobchak: Donny you're out of your element! Dude, the Chinaman is not the issue here!

Who but the Cohen Brothers could possibly come up with dialogue as nutty and absurd as this? Every minute of the film is punctuated by incredible dialogue like this, delivered perfectly by phenomenal actors like Jeff Bridges, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, and especially, John Turturro, who I believe deserved an Academy Award for his portrayal of The Jesus. Three or four minutes of screen time in total and Turturro creates one of the most memorable characters in film since Scarlett O'Hara. If that kind of performance doesn't merit an Academy Award, then I can't imagine what does!
You can keep all those trite, predictable films that typically are considered "masterpieces of cinema." When I want to watch a damn flawless piece of movie magic, it is going to be The Big Lebowski or nothing. The Dude abides, man.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Ostia Dialogue #7 (397 AD)

The following is a dialogue of the ancient Roman philosopher, Lucius Scatullus.  As you may recall, Lucius converted from paganism to Christianity around 397 AD at the urging of his saintly mother, Ramona.  After his conversion he left Rome, where he was serving as a teacher of rhetoric, in order to return to his native city of Carthage.  He was accompanied on this arduous trek by his mother and several young associates who saw in him the sort of brilliant luminary who could lead them to “out of the darkness of this life and into the celestial realms of pure ideas” (1.2).

In November 397, Lucius and his companions stopped at the port city of Ostia for several weeks to await the boat that would take them back to North Africa.  While they were in Ostia, Lucius began to instruct them in the discipline of philosophy, so that they might be prepared for their own entry into the “great mysteries of the sacred truth” (2.7). 

The following selection comes from the “Ostia Dialogues of Lucius Scatullus” (New York: Academica Press, 2012) and has been faithfully translated by the noted Latin scholar, Alcibiades J. Grunthaler.

Dialogue #7: On the Ontological Status of Beasts

When all were assembled in the lecture hall, I began the disputation.

“Is it preferable,” I asked, “to be a man or a beast?”

“A man,” they all responded in one voice.

“And why, pray, do you think that it is preferable to be a man?” I asked.

“Because man has been given the gift of reason by the Almighty, and therefore has dominion over all creation and over all the beasts of the land, sea, and sky,” said Confutatus, with great devotion. 

I could not help but be impressed by the depth of wisdom in one so young and the confidence in which he assented to the lofty propositions contained in Sacred Scripture. 

“And if man has dominion over creation, and over all the beasts contained therein,” I went on, “should he not be able to do as he wishes with these beasts provided that his actions do not violate the precepts of Sacred Scripture?”

“Without doubt,” they all assented.

“And so it follows that we may hunt the beast and eat the beast and use the beast to make our human lives more pleasant and comfortable, doesn’t it?  And that nothing man does to the beast of the land, sea, or sky can be considered sin, because God has given the beast to us to lord over and to dominate according to the dictates of our own reason?”

“That is true,” said my mother who most assuredly was a mother to all of us in her maternal wisdom.  “But man must behave towards the beast with propriety and decorum, as befits our status as the superior species, created by the Lord in his own image.”

All nodded their heads in approval at the perspicacity of one of her sex.

“But might man then also use parts of the beast to make jellied preserves and mocca lattes?” asked Maledictus.  “For it would seem that this too would be in keeping with the dictates of Sacred Scripture.”

“That would seem self-evidently true,” I replied. “For there is nothing in Sacred Scripture to indicate that God has any objection to tasty sweet preserves and frothy caffeinated beverages … provided of course that they are consumed at the right times, in the right quantities, and with a spirit of mind that resists the sensuous pleasures that such delights can give rise to in the human mind.”

“One must not consume such delights during Lent either,” rejoined mother, “for that sort of lascivious behavior is clearly forbidden on days of the Lord.”

“Your words are like balm to our aching minds, my mother,” I said. 

Then Licentius hesitatingly entered the discussion:  “But what if one wished to invite some beast of the field to May Fesitival as one’s guest, because the girl that one has been dating—unfaithful slut!—has seen fit to leave him for another?  Might one extend an offer of invitation to this beast of the field, so that he might have a dancing partner for such an event?”

The question posed was a truly perplexing one and would require all my skills as a teacher of rhetoric to resolve.  “What sort of beast did you have in mind to invite as a dance partner, Licentius?  For, as you are well aware, God has endowed certain beasts with greater potential for social intercourse than others.  The serpent, for instance, would make a particularly poor dance partner, for his feet have been constrained by God as a punishment for the sins his ancestor committed in Paradise.  The mongoose is a much better dancer, but God in his wisdom has seen fit to make him low to the ground, thus producing extreme lower back pains in anyone who would choose him for a dance partner.”

“I was thinking more along the lines of a goat,” he replied.

“A goat?”

“Yes, a goat,” he said.  “For you see, I’ve always felt that God has created goats for more than just the occasional feast at Easter time or for yummy goat cheese to spread on crusty bread.  They are quite handsome creatures, are they not?  With that little tuft of hair under their chins and those wicked eyes…..Oh yes, how could one not find a goat appealing!”

“Even though the goat has the hoofs of Mephistopheles and the eyes of Beelzebub?”  I asked.  “In what way can that creature possibly be attractive to mortal man?”

“Oh, I wasn’t thinking of any long-term commitments,” he replied.  “Goats are just fun to be around that’s all, especially when they’ve had too much to drink.”

“I’m dating a raccoon named Daphne,” Maledictus blurted out, not wanting to seem uninformed about the topic under discussion.   “She’s sweet, but at times she pressures me into doing things that I’m sure are not sanctioned in Sacred Scripture.”

“What sort of things,” I asked, knowing full well that I really didn’t want to hear the answer.

“She’s into biting and scratching.”  He said.  “I don’t know why she can’t just cuddle like every other raccoon I know!  I’m beginning to dread going over to her hole, because I know how painful it is going to be.”

“Perhaps we are digressing somewhat from the topic of our disputation,” I said, the alarm in my voice evident for all to hear.  “I believe that these sorts of subjects are best left for the confessional.”

But just when I thought I had gotten the conversation back on track, my mother felt compelled to reveal her own personal forays into the realm of bestial familiarity, much to my dismay.   

“Before I married your father, Pompidorus,” she confessed with tears welling up in her aged eyes, “I was engaged to a spinney toed gecko named Morty.  Oh the wonderful times we had together.  Talk about a dancer! He could work me around the dance floor like no one else I’ve ever met.”

“Mother, please!” I pleaded, beginning to feel as though our philosophical discussion was once again getting far off track.

“And what a kisser!” she added.  “With a tongue like that, you could only imagine the possibilities for romantic encounters.   Oh, I loved him so dearly.  Why he even offered me his paw in the bonds of holy matrimony, but I like a fool turned him down.  Just imagine what I could be doing right now instead of listening to a bunch of philosophers prattle on endlessly about totally inconsequential topics!  Oh those steamy nights we had in MIlan!  Him in his new leathery skin and me in the exotic little negligee that he bought at some pagan shop in Rome. “

“Mother, I beg you!”

“Of course, then I wouldn’t have you for a son…but I might have had some daughters instead…little gecko girls to help me with the wash and catch flies for the dinner table.  And after a long day of laboring in the kitchen, I’d have those wanton nights to look forward to with Morty and his sticky tongue.   Oh, that amazing tongue…”

“I think that our discussion has progressed about as far as it can go for today,” I interjected, “for some topics are clearly beyond the rational abilities of man.” 

I closed my bible hastily and gathered up my scattered lecture notes.  “Tomorrow we’ll discuss the tripartite division of the soul according the teachings of the Platonists.”

And, as I walked as quickly as my legs could carry me towards the chapel, I heard my mother speaking in a whisper-like voice to my young colleagues.  “Platonists,” she said.  “I could tell you some things about the Platonists that would make your hair stand on end.   They pretend that they’re only interested in the world of the forms, but I can assure you that those dirty little buggers have other sorts of forms on their minds…”


Thursday, April 26, 2012

Into the Abyss

the slide
into oblivion
with a
single step—
and you are

it's true, man; it's totally and absolutely true.
look it up in the king james bible,
and you'll find out for yourself.

o -
bliv -
i -
on -

it's closer than you can possibly imagine
in that kooky, krazy, screwed-up mind of yours.

o -
bliv -
i -
on -

that's the premium ticket,
that's the real deal,
that's the reality from which you sprang, baby,
and the place where you are destined to return.

o -
bliv -
i -
on -

try to deny it if you choose,
but there just no escaping it....

oblivion is your destiny.

Friday, April 6, 2012

The State of Our Health

Click on map to enlarge

This week the Supreme Court weighed in on the constitutionality of President Obama's historic healthcare overall.  You can probably guess where I stand on this issue, but I've decided not to argue my position.  Instead, I'll just present a simple fact about the world in which we live that I think should speak for itself:

Countries in the World With Universal Health Coverage

Costa Rica
The Netherlands
New Zealand
Saudi Arabia
Spain, Sweden
South Korea
Sri Lanka
United Kingdom

* Health coverage provided courtesy of the American taxpayer.

Countries in the World Without Universal Health Coverage (Partial List)


...and The United States of America.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

10 Hours To Bliss

A friend, says Marcus Tullius Cicero, is like a mirror for your soul. Your mother may not understand you, your wife may not understand you, your children may not understand you...but a friend always will.

The following video was submitted for my viewing pleasure by my dear friend, Zeno Ragman (real names changed to protect the innocent). When I first saw it, I gasped with delight, so perfectly did this video reflect the human condition in all it's majesty and glory. The only thing that could possibly have made it better was if it was 20 hours long instead of only ten!

If you seek to unravel the mysteries of life and death, then watch this video in its entirety. Let it's profound message wash over you and cleanse you of all your iniquities.

Thank you, Zeno Ragman, for your most generous offering!