Angela Zito, co-director of the Center for Religion and Media at New York University, affirms that Phil Conners’ reiterating visitations to the same day of the calendar year is an undeniable allusion to the cyclical Buddhist notion of rebirth into samsara. The plots primary resemblance to Buddhist doctrine is the protagonist, Phil’s, continuous helpless transmigrations in cyclic existence. Buddhism scholar John Powers mentioned in one of his books that each community that adopted Buddhism, modified the image of Buddha in ways that reflect its own assumptions, doctrines, and practices, with the result that the Buddha is represented quite differently in different parts of the world. With little stretch of the imagination we see the character development of Phil fitting into the paradigmic mould of the historical Sakyamuni with his constantly improving and enlightening previous births, or Jatakas, towards enlightenment. Buddhism is a philosophy and it is possible to interpret any narrative in light of a certain philosophy. I will carry out a Buddhist treatment of Groundhog Day to show its resemblance to and influence from Buddhist history, myth and doctrine as understood from the insights of Khyentse Norbu, Ajahn Sumedho and John Powers into the discourses (sutras) and scholastic philosophies (abhidharmas) of the Buddha.

The protagonist is a self-centered and egocentric jerk with no signs of a buddhanature. He is in the scientific profession of predicting the unpredictable. Though meteorology is no exact science, Phil is dogmatic about his command over the weather as a celebrated weatherman. He is the anti-thesis of an enlightened being. One of the finer points about the plot is that Phil recognizes that he is revisiting Groundhog Day but, for the success of the narrative, the others around him see each cycle as a new day. They do not remember the events of the previous cycle. This shows the existence of a human being without the audience of others. So Phil gets no outside recognition of his self. This, in effect, makes his personhood a conception of his own mind and something void of inherent existence – an idea at the cornerstone of Buddhist thought and practice, says Powers.

While Buddhists are seeking the ultimate truth and enlightenment, Phil is not interested in either. Instead of these Buddhist attainments, Phil at first seeks escape from his samsara and ultimately Rita’s reciprocation to his love. In this respect the film is not very Buddhist. But his state of mind, his actions and the character developments Phil proceeds through has a Buddhist tinge to them. Therefore it may be helpful to see his expression of true love for Rita as a proxy for enlightenment and the attainment of this as a road to free him from his cyclic existence.

Powers states that the first requirement for enlightenment is the development of dissatisfaction with cyclic existence – a development that follows Phil’s initial emotions of frustration and disbelief about his predicament. So he attempts to rid himself of all unwanted emotions and indulges in pure hedonism. He takes advantage of the situation without fear of long-term consequences and enjoys learning secrets from the town’s residents, seducing women, stealing money, and driving drunk. Most accounts of Siddharta’s life refer to a similar stage of extreme indulgence. This indulgence in pleasure is experiencing of two type of desires, i.e. the desire for sensual pleasures and the desire to become something. When Phil attempts a theatrical suicide, we see an example of the third type of desire, i.e. the desire to get rid of something. In Buddhism, the self’s desires create suffering and Phil is evidently afflicted.

Powers also notes that one must develop a profound revulsion towards cyclical existence and vow to break the cycle by any means necessary to achieve buddhanature. Once this feeling settles into Phil, he stops trying to treat the day as a mental glitch and starts disrupting the day’s normal progression. For the sake of argument, by this time Phil shows a certain understanding of the Four Noble Truths. First, he realizes that no matter how extravagant his pleasure pursuit, he is still suffering. This is existential anguish or dukkha. By this time in the plotline, Phil is trying hard to bed Rita – another perceived source of pleasure but a real source of suffering – by conniving one way or other and collecting information about her to his advantage. He fails in achieving his goal. This is because he is ignorant of what he really wants. In the process he realizes that this suffering is a rising condition and has a basis. Buddha identified this basis as desire motivated by ignorance. Khyentse (Author of What Makes You Not A Buddhist) notes that nirvana is peace, but seeking peace actively, in this world or the next, will be a hindrance to enlightenment. To humor Phil’s situation, this intricacy in Buddhism is analogous to his goal. In his case, love incorporates sex, but seeking a sexual adventure will come in the way of love. So Phil understands the basis of his suffering and halts such fruitless pursuits. This leads him to the third noble truth: it is possible to bring suffering to an end by overcoming afflicted desire, and he stops his manipulative efforts of winning Rita over.

(Again Powers says,) One must develop the positive moral qualities that the Buddha cultivated in order to reach nirvana. Upon realization of the first three noble truths, Phil becomes a do-gooder and steps in the direction of the eight-fold path. He possesses the correct view, correct intentions, correct speech, correct actions and correct livelihood. His philanthropy is unmeasured and he shows non-attachment in his actions. Furthermore, he demonstrates correct effort, correct mindfulness and correct meditative absorption by redirecting his time and effort from conniving ways of getting hold of Rita to improving himself in a way that Rita will truly appreciate, i.e. by converting his talents to actual skills and becoming an adroit pianist, ice-sculptor and a likeable person.

To end, the plot of Groundhog Day resonates with resemblances to notions of the Buddhist path to enlightenment and the four noble truths but connections to the four seals are wanting. The four seals are meant to be understood literally – stated in plain English by Khyentse. In this Khyentsian sense Groundhog Day fails to capture the essence of Buddhism and Buddha’s teachings. But does well in every other way and is a good film to watch if you are an idiot trying to understand Buddhism.


Review of District 9

November 2, 2009

This review is…


TAKE 1: Wow this is really sensitizing me to aliens. So, this is how the E.T. generation felt!

Near perfect CGI juxtaposed with shaky, embedded-reporter-style camerawork makes District 9 (lovingly: D-9) a cinematographic hallmark with the alien presence looking and feeling real. I heard whimpers from the crowd when the lead actor Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) was insensitively killing infantile aliens to collect souvenirs.

On my way to Broadview station on the 87A I saw a streetcar crossover and go downhill with the “Non-humans banned” D-9 advertisement flat across its belly – the red-white color combination of the billboard matching the Toronto streetcar seamlessly. This epitomizes the charisma of D-9! District 9 is an event; it is not a film alone.

D-9 sets the notion of the other (aliens) in perfect harmony with the notion of the known (humans) by creating a distance from the conventional alien movie setting (using Jo’burg as opposed to NYC or Chicago). Moreover, the introduction of a sensitized third party – aliens – makes the political statement on the other stand out vividly.

Possibly a classic of our times, District 9, will stay in the memories of moviegoers, critics, filmmakers. artists and social thoughtspeople for a long time coming. As a genre film it is the new benchmark in science fiction. D-9 with its simple plot appeals to the widest and most universal audience and might make life very difficult for B-rated sci-fi makers. The weakest point of the script is the pivot of the storyline, when Wikus mutates and gets an alien arm.  This having said, many sub-plots and sub-themes texture the film tastefully. Wikus’ character development is thorough with ups-and-downs and ranges from thoughtful and warm to cold and self-centered. The projection of his character also varies from farcical to intense and back.

TAKE 2:  What is Borat doing in a serious, thought provoking alien film with territorial allegories, which everyone is talking about?

Debutant director Neil Blomkamp makes the important choice to give the lead actor Wikus Van De Merwe (Sharlto Copley) a comical, thick Afrikaans accent to match his borderline comical Afrikaans name. The accent is a relief considering Wikus’ dialog-driven role. But Sharlto Copley does give away his Sacha Baron Cohen influence at times.

More importantly, Neil Blomkamp leaves well-known faces out of the film as that would have definitely spoiled the imaginative process and challenged the film’s hallmark status.

TAKE 3: This is a brilliant platform for the next big first-person-kill-em-all video game.

This production is not a film alone. It’s advertising, branding, promotional website altogether makes it a complete entertainment product. I suggest you check out to get a taste of D-9’s holistic play on reality.


Original post:

Snatching Private Ryan

November 2, 2009

A Review of Inglourious Basterds

The first scene is a beautiful set up scene. We already know that Christoph Waltz will do a great job playing the most developed character of the story – Col. Hans Landa. The switch from German to English was abrupt. What? A Black Forest farmer/ logger can speak English? What? This language switch was blunt, unnecessary and very “Hollywood”.

“Aurevoir Shoshanna!” Brilliant haunting dialogue, echoes throughout the following scenes and the whole film. The dialogue in the film, in general, is very rich, tailored and Tarantioesque.

Brad Pitt as Lt. Aldo Raine? Who is the casting director?This was a terrible choice. To add to the agony, weak acting on Brad’s part. Furthermore, he is an unlikely choice considering the kind of stars Tarantino usually casts. Pitt’s acting was terrible, and the character sticks out like a swore thumb. You can expect that if a band of Nazi-scalping American Jews is headed by a blonde haired Jew – poor casting decision.

Similarly, casting Mike Myers seemed outlandish as well, but showed the Tarantino Power as a people’s choice director, a cult director  and an auteur. Myers popping up on screen in this movie is an inside joke shared between Tarantino and the audience/ his followers. It was a joke about taking cinema too seriously. It closes the gap between the screen and the audience and makes the film interact with the audience in a very informal manner –reminiscent of the fire-farting puppets in Ancient Roman puppet theatres.

The action scene shots are a few milliseconds too short. Tarantino’s Japanese influence definitely shows through the edit. Nonetheless, the slow-build-up-split-second action is intriguing and keeps viewers off the popcorn. Contrary to Tarantino’s trend on minimal on-screen violence, Inglourious Basterds revels in blood and on-screen skin-peeling. Yet, there are many beautiful elements to the film as well. Such as: Shoshanna; Shoshanna running; Shoshanna in red; Shoshanna being shot with the rose petals blowing in the air (Magnificent!); the pie Landa gives Shoshanna (looked delicious when Landa ate it like a sexual predator); finally the name: Shoshanna!  The centrality of a small neighbourhood cinema also adds a beauty to the film that the SAW-like, on-screen Nazi scalping takes away.

The screenplay feels like an adaptation of a graphic novel: Simple, yet trying to come off as complicated; unreal, yet forcing real-worldliness. The complication is brought about by thick, verbose dialogues superimposed on a fairly simple dual revenge plot. By the way revenge is a regular theme in Tarantino flicks. Whereas, the real-worldliness is brought about by Col. Hans Landa’s post-war negotiations. That was an awfully realistic and detailed scene considering what comes before and after.

Like butter and guns, a film is very much a consumer product as much as it is art. And the question must be asked, who is the film made for? Who is he trying to please with the story? Who is he trying to impress? Without conspiracy theorizing, it is safe to say he pretty much made  the movie for himself. We get to pay him for his efforts because we love him.

And since it is a political topic, a sensitive topic that Tarantino is dealing with the film seems a bit careless about social repercussions. Not that anyone should take the film seriously, or cite Inglourious Basterds in academic papers, but it does show Tarantino to be slightly irresponsible as a screenwriter. Doesn’t really matter. A filmmaker has the right to create any monster and surely Tarantino can defend himself. He can brush off such criticism.

To conclude, sadly, the movie proletarianizes Tarantino a bit. It does not fall in the same league with any of his other films. The title choice was horrible too. Maybe, it shows a bit too much that he was working on this for years, over thinking it a bit. Inglourious Basterds is flawed yet enjoyable. Entertaining throughout yet not worth watching again, unless if you want to breakdown the action cinematography of course.

Final Words: The film looked like a Guy Ritchie take on war films.