Saturday, November 8, 2008

Zen Noir: Jazz, Buddhism, & the Hard Boiled Detective


A second piece of Buddhist cinema showed up today in its bright red Netflix jacket. Zen Noir, directed by Marc Rosenbush, and staring Duane Sharp (who looks disturbingly like Will Farrow) as the detective. It's a clever piece of film making, and one of the best film presentations of the Dharma that I have seen. Interested readers should be warned that the movie is done in a mildly surrealist style (more about that in a moment) which means that it is temporally disjointed, with a context somewhere between waking and dreaming. I have a very low tolerance for that sort of thing, but I found it largely working here.

Zennoir It's a clever idea: a blend of film noir clich├ęs with the story of the teacher/student relationship right out of classic Zen literature. It opens on the unnamed detective, hat on head in a tank top undershirt, gazing at himself in the mirror. "The morning fog clings to the city like the scent of desperation to an aging drag queen." Not quite trusting the humor yet, the detective says: "why do I talk like that?"

The detective gets a call warning of a murder in a temple. The caller sounds vaguely Chinese, but doesn't give his name or the temple. "Three synagogues later it occurred to me that there aren't many Chinese Jews."

Once he gets to the temple, he finds that his rational methods of investigation don't work there. When he asks one student where he was at the time of the murder. "What do you mean by time?" When questioned, the master will only show him an orange.

It helps to know a little bit about Zen. The orange is common metaphor for the here and now reality. If you can eat an orange, really tasting its color, fragrance, and flavor, that is enlightenment. Most of us can't. We are always drifting away from reality into daydreams, or worse, building screens against reality. A few of the jokes won't work on you if you don't have some familiarity with the Zendo.

The reason we build screens is to escape the truth about death. The detective, it turns out, is still mourning his late wife, and that is what he has really come to the temple for.

I find the surrealist devices cheap. Bouncing back and forth between the detective context (hat, trench coat, gun) and the Zen context (shaved heads and robes) is frequently jarring. But they do serve well enough to bind the two genres, film noir and Zen story, together. Almost all the action takes place in two or three rooms, and the cast is limited to six characters (all but two of whom die or are already dead). It is respectable meditation on death and mindfulness, at least by Hollywood standards.

Finally, there is some beautiful cinematography. The orange is frequently shown burning in reverse, with the flames falling rather than rising, which is makes for a gorgeous image. Also, the soundtrack on the DVD is excellent, alternating between a Miles Davis like Noir jazz line and a lot of Eastern bamboo flute and percussion. There is a brief sex scene involving the detective and a shaven headed nun (cross legged with spines erect, if that is possible) and the high pitched flute thingy does a pretty good job of registering the climax.

It's a clever movie, with more than a little weirdness. It's one way to find out what the Dharma is about. I recommend it.

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