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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Poets of Faith IV: Kierkegaard and Scorsese - The End of Morality


Kundun, Bringing Out the Dead, The Departed

Kundun (1997), a film detailing the early life of the Dali Lama, Tibet's spiritual leader and the embodiment of the Buddha of Compassion, seems an unlikely topic for a Catholic filmmaker like Scorsese, much less for a Scorsesean analysis associated with Kierkegaard, who believes the only way to spiritual salvation lies with faith in the Christian God. It remains a Western film directed by a Catholic filmmaker and oriented toward his own spiritual concerns. Though some conspicuous Western Buddhist names appear in the credits (screenwriter Melissa Matheson, and composer Philip Glass), Kundun is utterly Scorsesean, and may fit into this thesis combining the talents of the director with Kierkegaard and the Danish philosopher's own spiritual concerns.

The quest that Lhamo, who will become the Dali Lama, undergoes in the film, mirrors Kierkegaard's own development of the individual. In Works of Love, Kierkegaard looks at the child, who is focused on "I." "The mark of maturity and the dedication of the eternal is the will to understand that this I has no significance if it does not become the you, the thou, to whom the eternal incessantly speaks and says: 'You shall, you shall, you shall.' It is youthful to want to be the only I in the world. Maturity is to understand this you as addressed to oneself, even though it were not said to a single other person. You shall; you shall love your neighbor. O, my reader, it is not to you I speak. It is to me, to whom the eternal says: ‘You shall.’” Before God, there is eternal equality among men, and this is a tricky concept to understand in our lives. To not view the Other as an "It," and to view oneself as a "You" (just as the Other truly is), is hard to wrap one's heart around in practice. Kundun begins with three-year-old Llamo waking up, the first image being his eye (a visual pun). The child exerts his will on the world around him: demanding to be told stories, sitting at the head of the table, stopping copulation/aggression between insects, and, when some visiting monks come to his parents' farm, taking their trinkets and materials and claiming, "Mine! This is mine! Mine mine mine!" After being recognized as the 14th Dali Lama, Kundun (as he is now called) continues to willfully think of himself as an embodiment of Power. As he grows older, his teachers remind him that he exhibits "too much pride" in his answers to questions. He begins to understand that he has to "squeeze this brain."

During the film’s final sequence, Kundun is able to see beyond the "I." This is dramatically enacted along with the key exterior conflict of his young life: the imposition of a mechanical system (Mao's Chinese Communist Party) onto the people of Tibet, an invasion that invalidates Kundun’s rule. The wonderment is whether or not this character, like all of us, is able to individually affirm himself in the midst of a character-quashing (and quite Hegelian system of “progress”) force of "leveling" and then give himself over to the Eternal.

Kundun is not a patronizing motion picture. This theocracy is plagued by the same spiritual problems found in Kierkegaard's Christendom. Kundun is surprised to learn that there are monks with guns, and that there is a prison in the palace. The monks surrounding him are aligned with political factions, warring with each other in power struggles. The monk that discovered him, the regent Reting, apparently is taken up with the pleasures of his money and women. Kundun wants to reform his country, make changes to certain hypocrisies, and even do away with some religious formalities that can only distract other beings from their own spiritual development.

The world in this film is becoming increasingly technological and dehumanized. The end of the world is forecasted as Kundun watches films of nuclear destruction. The earth is tribally disconnected by the iron curtain, and Tibet finds itself at the mercy of Mao's China, offering a new kind of reform based on technological efficiency and the eradication of reactionary ideas, including religion. The Tibetan rituals and meditative silences are broken by broadcasted Chinese patriotic music and militaristic marches. Yet Kundun's own self is enabled to grow during this period. Encountered by proposals offered by a general, Kundun recounts, "I thought he would be some kind of monster. Even with horns growing out of his head. But he's a man – just an ordinary human being. Like myself." The Chinese, increasingly hostile to the Dali Lama's Tibet, are never yet identified by Kundun as an Other, unlike other monks, one of whom mentions, "They're worse than ghosts!"

The advanced communist system of reform and efficiency, however, signals a loss of morality and character in the world. The Chinese torture Kundun's brother, releasing him because they believe that he would assassinate Kundun for them. "They believe that?" Kundun asks, nonplussed. Lineage and meaningful relationships, to say nothing of love, are eradicated in a highly intellectualized world of reform. Meaning is completely an exteriorized element in the communist system. Mao tells Kundun, "Religion is poison," very condescendingly. During this scene, Kundun bows his head, crestfallen, as everything he represents and has been struggling for is eradicated by an age of progress. We see his point of view directed towards Mao's shiny shoes, the only object his tortured mind can focus upon.

Things get progressively worse as thousands of monks die and are tortured through humiliating techniques. "Nuns and monks are made to fornicate in the streets. Soldiers give guns to children and force them to shoot the parents." Nonetheless, Kundun realizes he must resist politics. One of his closest friends advises, "Don't let them tangle you in politics. Remember – you're a monk." The world of religion is separate from the world of men. And Kundun realizes that compromise is out of the question. This means that he cannot work with the Chinese on their mechanistic political level, nor adversely on their militaristic level. He will not order any violent retaliation.

General Tan complains to Kundun about the Tibetan palace, "This place is a tribute to the past!" Adding, "We are trying to liberate you! You need reform!" Kundun stops him. "No – Buddha is our physician, he will heal us. Wisdom and compassion will set us free. You cannot liberate me, General Tan. I can only liberate myself." The system is completely inadequate for the reforms that are truly needed to give life meaning (such as may be provided by the rituals of religion). In China, Kundun is anachronistically dressed in his regal clothes while everyone else is a clone in light blue uniforms. He is surrounded by steel and hyperreal environments, and has to endure lectures dealing with "isms" and "ities." The world of the spirit is lost to the will of the system. This particular section of the film recalls the "unending abstraction" at odds with "the reality of religion" described by Kierkegaard in The Present Age where he writes, "The generation has rid itself of the individual and of everything organic and concrete, and put in its place 'humanity' and the numerical equality of man and man."

Regardless of Tibet's fall to China, Kundun grows fully into himself, and is able to let himself go to the eternal. His flight to India in 1959 is a fascinating sequence of cross-cutting between the action narrative (trekking along mountains and evading the Chinese) and the Buddhist ritual of a sand-painting mandala, a symbol for the self. His voiceover notes, "My foes will become nothing. My friends will become nothing. I, too, will become nothing. Likewise, all will become nothing. Just like a dream experience, whatever things I enjoy will become a memory. Whatever is past, will not be seen again." Part of the sand ritual entails that the mandala be destroyed – which seems absurd given the scrupulous detail given to its construction. It is dashed away and collected into an urn, then poured into the river.

Just before reaching India, Kundun awakes. The angle on his face is the same one we saw of him sleeping as a little boy when the film began. When he opens his eyes he sees his parents' feet. He has returned to himself. He turns around and sees himself as a boy sleeping. He has fulfilled Kierkegaard's idea of development and maturity – fully developed, but able to perceive himself not so much as an "I" but as a "you." Upon entering India’s border post, he is asked who he is. "What you see before you is a man, a simple monk." "Are you the lord Buddha?" the border officer asks. "I think I am a reflection, like the moon on water. When you see me, and I try to be a good man, you see yourself." There is a kind of resignation here, visually symbolized by the sand painting ritual, where something beautifully crafted is ritually made nothing. "The exister must practice resignation," John Mullen writes on the stages of becoming a religious person. "He must admit his own complete dependence upon, and nothingness in the face of, the Eternal." Kundun has annihilated that which hindered him as a child (or which hinders all of us) from reaching the eternal – himself. Kierkegaard writes in Concluding Unscientific Postscript that it is the individual himself that is the hindrance in finding God.

We cannot say that Kierkegaard would approve fully of Kundun, given its eastern religious context. Scorsese's own position on the narrative is ambiguous: the spirituality and transformations within the picture are wholly subjective, different from the world of The Last Temptation of Christ, wherein Jesus is the messiah. Here we cannot say objectively that the Dali Lama is the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion. Even he has his doubts, asking, "Do you think Reting found the right boy?" But Kundun squarely addresses themes of spirituality and individual development, conflicted by systematic mechanizations and social mores. The world is disintegrating gradually in its man-made architecture of progress, becoming flat, but there is the rare individual existing above this "gradual" temporality.

One of Scorsese's most overlooked films would be his next one, Bringing Out the Dead (1999), his final collaboration with Paul Schrader, once again exploring the mean streets of Hell's Kitchen as seen through the eyes of a paramedic going through an existential crisis, Frank Pierce (Nicolas Cage). He hasn't been able to save anyone in months, caught in a slump with the neighborhood's victims – by drugs, guns, stabbings, suicides, or natural causes – dying on him. One of these victims, a homeless asthmatic teenager named Rose, haunts him the most as he incessantly sees her face projected onto countless figures haunting the New York streets.

Being pulpy material, Bringing Out the Dead would not stress itself as an overtly religious film, but from the beginning its aims are nothing if not religiously oriented. The opening titles begin with the Touchstone Pictures logo accompanied by the same Tibetan drums featured in Kundun, indicating something of a link between the two films. Both pictures subsequently take place in worlds that are becoming increasingly soulless and focus on protagonists who must wrestle with their pride and fulfill a sense of compassion.

Frank's world is saturated in religion. Catholicism is everywhere. His preferred hospital is Our Lady of Mercy (dubbed Misery), while crosses and almost eschatological warnings permeate the crass and amoral atmosphere of the streets, which are covered in the smoky hazes and hot-lights that Scorsese previously featured in the inferno of Casino (Bringing Out the Dead was also shot by Robert Richardson). Frank also has something of a God-complex, admitting that saving someone's life is akin to "God being You," the best drug in the world, a sense of amazing power where everything is "bathed in blinding light." Frank has also been told, apparently, that it is easy for people to open up to him because he "has a priest's face."

However, his sense of compassion is at odds with the parameters of his job. Our Lady of Mercy is a technological gadget-sphere dedicated to keeping patients alive who may be better off not alive. In this electrosphere of life-support "systems," human beings are vegetative cyborgs reliant on drugs and technologies to keep them stable and breathing. When a new “plant food” cardiac arrest patient is rushed in, the doctor shakes his head, "All this technology. What a waste!"

Frank realizes that he is a component in this machine, and that his job has less to do with saving lives than bearing witness. He is simply a "body" (his boss, in a humorous scene, promises Frank that he'll fire him "tomorrow," but tonight he "needs bodies out there!"). Unlike his coworkers, he is unable to disassociate himself from the existential problems of his role as a professional paramedic. Larry (John Goodman), has food and the promises of advancement in his career. Marcus (Ving Rhames) exudes ecclesiastical (though not inward-directed) Christianity. Tom (Tom Sizemore) relies on his cathartic aggression.

The outside world is haunted by "ghosts" and omens of religion. A character identified as Sister Fetus rants on a microphone, warning of God's impending judgment: "Put down that crack stem and drop your jug of sin! Your high-heeled skirts and your stock dividends – your patent-leather underwear, televised suicides, lap dances in leotards in delicatessans! And the Lord said, 'If you can find one that isn't a sinner – just one – then I will spare the city!" Sister Fetus is akin to Andre Gregory's characterization of John the Baptist in The Last Temptation of Christ, a voice in the wilderness "knocking on the door" of an absent minded den of vice. Frank leers at her from his window, taking introspective notice.

This links the air of Bringing Out the Dead to the infernos of Casino, a kind of Old Testament biblical epic, however more intimate this portrait may be. Though God is surrounding the world, He cannot penetrate it objectively. Frank, with his visions and haunts of seeing Rose and other people he has failed to "save," cannot help but grapple with the conflict. Marcus, the religious paramedic who notes that the outside world cannot be changed (one's soul can be changed only by Jesus), nevertheless has an extroverted nature. "You ever notice people who see shit are always crazy? Scientific fact," Marcus tells Frank after Frank's confession of seeing ghosts. Later on, Marcus "saves" a drug-overdose at a goth club, a staged prayer geared on converting decadent youths (as he prays with the young people surrounding the overdose victim, Frank quietly injects life-saving chemicals into the young man's veins). The faith of Marcus comes across as a fa├žade, not close to the hard Christianity of struggle seen in Frank or focused on by Kierkegaard.

Karen D. Hoffman writes about the similarities between The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead, seeing Frank as a man who considers himself to be a secular savior in a world where transcendence is sought, but only achieved through temporal, secular means (namely, drugs). Frank's last temptation comes at a drug den called the Oasis. "Agency is lost as the mind's subjectivity gives way to the body's objectivity," writes Hoffman of the scene. Frank takes one of the drug dealer's pills, but in the heat of a hallucination he rejects it, transcending the chemical comforts of the objective world, and storming out of the Oasis to continue his indeterminate spiritual mission. Frank must not relinquish the role of savior, despite his doubts and struggles. Like Christ, he is re-assuming his role on the cross.

At the conclusion of his journey, set over the course of three days (Thursday night to Sunday morning – much like Christ's crucifixion to resurrection), Frank is told by Rose's ghost, "No one asked you to suffer. That was your idea." His suffering has brought him illumination and peace on a Sunday morning. He falls asleep in the bed of one of his patient's daughters, Mary (Patricia Arquette), and the image glows, bathed in Richardson's hot lights.

Frank's journey is that of a religious individual who "has lost the relativity of the immediate, its diversions, its pastimes…The absolute consciousness of God consumes him like a burning heat of the summer sun when it will not go down," to quote Kierkegaard. Like Jesus, God is a pain in the neck for him, and he surrenders his pride to what he believes God is calling out to him (manifested in the act of allowing one of his patients to die, even against the ethics of his profession). His reflection (which for Kierkegaard "is and remains the hardest creditor in existence”) is a necessary gate to suffering, but it makes him unique in the cesspool of Hell's Kitchen, saved by the eternal’s grace. Like Kundun, Frank has transcended the circumscriptions of both his ego and the mechanizations of an imposed system, able to love his neighbor and enact mercy.


"The dying of despair transforms itself constantly into a living." Soren Kierkegaard, Sickness Unto Death

Speaking of The Departed, Scorsese has asked, "Could this really be the end of morality?" He was noting the present age after September 11, 2001, when it was becoming increasingly apparent that human beings are subject to surveillance and role reversals in order to adapt to a world that is becoming more globalized, with time and space compressed. Character and identity are smashed by systems of homogeny in the fulfillment of this brave new world of cyborgs: the modern age with its cold technology and cybernetic networks of governance is another step in a Hegelian "system" being imposed. John Mullen notes, "[Hegelianism] when applied in social and individual life has the effect, Kierkegaard will argue, of a mass lobotomy…It is a life chilled with compromises, where each time what is gained is a little bit of peace and what is lost is a little bit of integrity."

This is precisely what Scorsese is conveying in The Departed, wherein the departed of the title are not the mortally dead. What has departed is the Self, from the docile bodies in a vast system of signs and duties. The grittiness of crime noir is the framework of the piece, with undercover police officers and mole gangsters: human beings that must reassign their sense of lineage and identity, forsaking integrity for the fulfillment of immediate goals. Michael Ballhaus, costume designer Sandy Powell, and production designer Dante Ferretti create an atmosphere noted for its lack of conspicuousness, colors being beige, unsaturated blues, grays, and light brown. The world has been "leveled" and everyone is "just one of them." Given this space where everyone is "just one of" everyone else, the reality of sin is null and void. Where can contemplation of the Eternal reside?

Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) has some sense of a transcendent essential self, which places him at odds with his job as an undercover cop. He obsesses over photographs of his family, struggling to hold onto some firm sense of himself in a world decorated by Ikea paintings. These paintings happen to decorate the apartment of his unknown nemesis, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon), a criminal working covertly as a cop. Both characters exhibit despair, though in different ways. Sullivan is running away from his true self, evading reflection (and thus "the infinite") while Costigan obsessed over reflection.

Of interest is Sullivan's acquisition of immediate interests, and his way of presenting him appearance. "For the immediate man does not recognize his self, he recognizes himself only by his dress…he recognizes that he has a self only through externals," according to Kierkegaard, which explains Sullivan perfectly. Sullivan understands that his ranking on the police force is contingent on how he dresses (he criticizes a fellow cop for "dressing like you're going to invade Poland," understanding that to rise in this system you at least have to have a suit and tie). In conversation with another cop (Alec Baldwin), he is told that a wedding ring matters, being that it tells the world that a guy is tolerable, his cock works, and that he has a stable job. Sullivan surely may have a life of comfort with his advancements, but he is a stranger to himself. He is a metaphor that Scorsese is using for the average working man, and he exhibits the Kierkegaardian trait of people choosing not to see themselves: "[The self] will not humble itself in faith under its weakness in order to gain itself again; no, in its despair it will not hear of itself, so to speak, will not know anything about itself…for this self is too much a self." Sullivan projects both this high level of defiant despair and lower levels of despair in his petty bourgeois attitudes and maneuvers, but it also applies to Costigan, who is not allowed to humble himself and open up to others. And "he who cannot reveal himself cannot love, and he who cannot love is the most unhappy man of all."

Both Costigan and Sullivan are tuned in with their given "social duties" of the future-perfect technocracy, which is opposite to any realized individuality. Mullen describes this idea perfectly in his notes on Kierkegaard: "Kierkegaard saw a relation between this belief in universal human progress, in the inevitability of a conflict-free existence, and the middle class penchant for finding the path with the least resistance, the middle class search for the easy life, the easy money, the easy shared ideas, the easy Christianity." On completion of his duties, Costigan does not even care about getting paid. "I just want my identity back," he says. By contrast, Sullivan in his last scene seems relieved to have the burden of his despair removed by being killed. This man that cannot reveal himself is the most unhappy man. In this world life has no depth, and what is sought is only on the "surface of the everyday."


Conclusion: The Subjective Cinema

A trademark in both Kierkegaard and Scorsese has to do with "subjectivity." Christianity "protests every form of objectivity; it desires that the subject should be infinitely concerned about himself,” writes Kierkegaard. “It is subjectivity that Christianity is concerned with, and it is only in subjectivity that its truth exists, if it exists at all; objectively, Christianity has absolutely no existence." God does not exist objectively. God is only in the individual's internal subjective journey with the Eternal. Scorsese similarly puts the viewer into the head of his protagonists, applying visceral effects of color, composition, camera movement, editing, sound, and music selection to capture an experience that he wants to impose on the audience, marvelously handled most recently in Shutter Island. The dynamics of Scorsese's style aim to capture the spiritual dilemma of not only his characters, but of himself. While filming a hallucination, such as in Bringing Out the Dead, Scorsese "cannot be objective" but "must show what the characters see.”

By engaging themselves in the lives of their characters (whether Kierkegaard's ironic pseudonyms or Scorsese's protagonists), Kierkegaard and Scorsese have devoted themselves to the poetic creation of aesthetic work. Kierkegaard, at least, understands that the poet is not in the realm of the religious (after all, in Fear and Trembling we read how words are inadequate for describing Abraham and the knight of faith, so unfathomable is he). Long passages of Works of Love are dedicated to describing the poet, and how his creations are focused on a subjective, "preferential" love (different from the love of God or the holy command of, "You shall love your neighbor.") In one of his final works, the Attack Upon Christendom, Kierkegaard announces, however ironically, "I am only a poet." He is simply asking for the society around him to be honest with itself, and says that to call oneself a Christian is a headier and weightier task than any one dares to think.

Scorsese is similar, admitting that he is an inadequate Christian. Interviewed about Kundun in 1998, he admitted that filmmaking is his form of worship. "'I don't know how to say this without sounding silly, but in doing this, it's like an act of faith, or an act of worship…Well, you should have a family, you should be able to raise children. Yeah, to a certain extent – I tried that, I wasn't so great at it, and I continue to try to do it now. The whole picture 'is a religious act.' It's work equaling prayer." Both artists are conscious and despairing individuals between the worlds of the religious and the secular, gravitating one way or another, conscious of the ceaseless knocking of the eternal at their doors.

Separated by time and culture, Kierkegaard and Scorsese are unique in their similar concerns of religion and the inward process of development on the part of the subjective individual. This path they are exploring passionately and poetically is a lonely one, particularly in eras where God is present as a mere signifier in the objective world. Yet God's silence in the objective world of systems and efficiencies (such as is the focus of the novel Silence, by Japanese Catholic novelist Shasuko Endo, a film adaptation of which Scorsese dreams of making) gives rise to a passionate struggle in a being's quest for identity and true religion.


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