SAN FRANCISCO FILM SOCIETY and indieWIRE:
Review by Robert Avila
From one angle, the impact of Eastern philosophy on Western society might be gleaned from a contemporary billboard advertising Zen MP3 players. Zen, in one form or another, is part of the cultural vocabulary and scene. And yet much of the interest in the subject over the last half-century or more, MP3 players aside, has much to do with the career and talents of one man, Daisetsu Teitaro Suzuki. The Japanese-born and globetrotting Buddhist author and translator whose life spanned nearly an entire, historically fraught century from 1870 to 1966, acted as a highly influential bridge between Eastern and Western philosophical traditions in the aftermath of World War II's unprecedented catastrophe and the ominous birth of the Cold War and atomic age. Impressing leading Western thinkers and artists as varied as Alan Watts, Martin Heidegger, Alan Ginsberg, Carl Jung, Thomas Merton, Erich Fromm, and John Cage, Suzuki's public talks, lectures, and writings (including his classic An Introduction to Zen Buddhism) ensured Buddhism "burst like a bomb on America" (in religious scholar Huston Smith's somewhat unfortunate, if apt, phrase) and left a decided impact on art, philosophy, psychoanalysis, Christianity, and the shape of the culture at large (not the least via the dissident subculture of the Beats).
And so, for all its slightly stodgy, public-TV flavor, Michael Goldberg's new documentary opening this week at the Roxie -- the first on the life and influence of DTB Suzuki (as he's best known in the West) -- is timely and, indeed, overdue. True, "A Zen Life" is far from the sexiest doc out there, looking and sounding (especially in the intermittent voiceover narration) not unlike a typical BBC documentary. Stylistically, it's pretty much at the opposite extreme from filmmaker Philip Groning's experiential and deeply artistic (though otherwise thematically complementary) exploration of a Carthusian monastery, "Into Great Silence." But Goldberg, a veteran video artist and TV producer who has spent many years in Japan and made several documentaries on various aspects of Japanese society, approaches his subject with sensitivity and insight, which he backs with solid research, excellent and rare archival footage, and an array of impressive interviews.
Among the latter are generous excerpts from a wide-ranging talk with Gary Snyder (of all the Beats, probably the most rigorously engaged with Easter ideas and practice), Suzuki's personal secretary Mihoko Okamura, Christian-Buddhist author Frederick Franck, American Zen master Robert Aitken, and American psychoanalyst Albert Stunkard. Suzuki himself appears or is heard in several rare recordings, as he expounds on the meaning of Zen Buddhism's response to its central insight, that "Reality as we perceive it is an illusion [and] so is the concept of our self." Limning Suzuki's fascinating life serves ultimately as vehicle for conveying the sense and trajectory through Western culture of Zen's key concepts such as Satori or "enlightenment." One of Goldberg's achievements here is the clear and concise way "A Zen Life" traces these lines, while affectingly elucidating ideas inherently subtle and elusive. Anyone interested in the impact of Zen Buddhism in the West, or the life of one of its most distinguished representatives, will be intrigued and affected by the film's alluring intersection of biography, history, and transformative ideas.
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