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Memphis Flyer Coming Back for More

By Hadley Hury

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  It has become customary to expect the unexpected from director Martin Scorsese. Some moviegoers may still most readily identify him with his operatically violent portrayals of urban angst (Mean Streets), mental dysfunction (Taxi Driver), or Mafia mayhem (Goodfellas, Casino). Those who have followed the development of his career more closely, however, cannot help but have observed that the rich diversity of his work in recent years is not a departure but a characteristic. It is indicative of Scorsese’s range, in both subject matter and style, that he made Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore in 1975, just after Mean Streets and just before Taxi Driver; that between the eerie black humor of The King of Comedy (1983) and the entertaining surrealism of After Hours (1985), he began what would become a four-year preparation of The Last Temptation of Christ. And then, of course, there are the incisive, somewhat O’Neillian character studies of anti-heroes, Raging Bull (1980) and The Color of Money (1986); the highly regarded prototype of rock documentaries, The Last Waltz (1978); a big-band era musical, New York, New York (1977), and a finely detailed treatment of Edith Wharton’s 1870s’ New York society, The Age of Innocence (1993).

Probably more than that of any American filmmaker at work today, Scorsese’s canon has grown and advanced through risk-taking, circling on its strengths but at the same time always widening its sphere of intellectual curiosity and stylistic investigation. The director has never played it safe, and among his career are the masterworks, near-misses, and partial failures to prove it.

Now we have Kundun – which is not, perhaps, a masterwork, but is something much more than a failure – which most certainly will not be one of Scorsese’s more popular films. The story follows the boyhood, education, and enthronement of the 14th Dalai Lama – the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, who for centuries practiced their nonviolent Buddhism amid war-torn Asia – up to the brutal overthrow of Tibet by Mao’s Chinese government in the late 1950s and the beginning of the Dalai Lama’s self-imposed exile in India. Kundun makes unaccustomed demands of the viewer; later, one may have that sense of an only half-remembered dream which, as soon as one awakes, seems mystifyingly important.

Scorsese has taken co-producer Melissa Mathison’s rather prosaic script and, with cinematographer Roger Deakins, his longtime editing muse Thelma Schoonmaker, and composer Philip Glass, he has created magic. Scorsese’s reverential treatment of the story is deceptively simple and straightforward: Kundun is quietly spectacular, gently rhapsodic. The director’s approach to his subject is clearly informed by the subject; the form of the film follows its function – to try to evince the idea, almost inconceivable for Western audiences, that, until 40 years ago, there had actually existed, for hundreds of years, a nation whose philosophy of living and practicalities of politics were predicated on peace, nonviolence, a denial of war. Western nations dismissed the Dalai Lama’s urgent request for help during the Chinese invasion. Tucked away in the Himalayas, Tibet seemed remote, not only geographically, but in terms of what no doubt seemed to world powers a rather quaint idealism. In recent years, however, there has been a mounting interest in the plight of Tibet, this ravishment of a rare role-model, our distracted disregard for something we say we believe in, a desire to recapture, at least as much as we can, a spiritual courage that we have disowned as naive and impractical. Maybe what worked for Tibet for centuries cannot, realistically, work for modern nations. But a growing number of people around the world – writers, statesmen, filmmakers, celebrities of various sorts, spiritual leaders, and average folk – have trained their gaze on the Dalai Lama, or Kundun (the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion), still alive and, in his mid-sixties, in good health, and on the geopolitical entity of which he is still considered the spiritual leader. In a number of ways, Tibet has become the Paradise Lost of the 20th century. The cry of “Free Tibet!” now seems less the voice of some eccentric politics du jour and more a mounting call to put the atomic genie back in the bottle.

Scorsese’s tone in Kundun echoes the serenity of the reincarnation of the Buddha of Compassion, of the Tibetan worldview and its self-governance. Just as Buddhist thought seeks to direct human endeavor toward peacefulness and to free the spirit through an acceptance of one’s place in the larger scheme of things and a sense that all eternity is now, Scorsese seeks to let this story appear as if it were telling itself. His direction is self-effacing; what flourishes there are (and there are some beautiful ones) are unobtrusive, even gracious; the rich variety of Scorsese’s visual vocabulary is so artful, so discreetly deployed, that it seems indigenous to the unfolding story itself. In fact, Kundun manifests some of the most brilliant technique of Scorsese’s art to date, and a unity between substance and technique that is thrilling. His use of mandalas, intricate sand paintings, as a central metaphor, and his frequent use of slow motion, collapsing freeze-frames, and dissolves, give the film a rippling effect; it’s like looking into a limpid pool. It’s placid, yet somehow breathlessly quicksilverish. There are no Hollywood film stars, no especially pyrotechnical effects. As one of the young Dalai Lama’s teachers might advise: Do not be distracted; patience is required. Many moviegoers – even those who may find themselves impatient with the film’s pace – are likely, later, to find Kundun returning to them, coalescing, reforming. How fitting that such a rarefied, dream-like reality of human history should be conveyed on film, with the subtle, but lingeringly powerful, reality of a dream.

One can almost hear the cocktail-party carping, the sure-to-be jokes, about Scorsese’s venture. (A: “I felt like I’d become a Buddhist.” B: “I wish I were – then I could’ve meditated my way through it.” C: “I think the altitude got to Marty. What was he smoking – pulverized yak hair?) D: “Take a lunch.” E: “Take a nap.”)

For many of us, however, Kundun proves again what we’ve known all along and asks only something which, in today’s movie market, we are all too happy to give. Every year or two, Scorsese wants two, maybe two-and-a-half, hours, to show me something that interests him and to show it to me in the way that he considers appropriate.

I’m there.

Desperate Measures, starring Andy Garcia as a good-guy San Francisco cop and Michael Keaton as an escaped killer whose bone marrow is the only possible match that can save the life of Garcia’s young son, on the other hand, demands absolutely nothing of us.

An empty-suit, Hollywood concept, this improbable and unpleasant would-be thriller has all of director Barbet Schroeder’s characteristic jaded sophistication with none of his redeeming dark humor. In his Reversal of Fortune, which had both, his sensibility provided the perfect context for the the fine performances of Jeremy Irons and Glenn Close as Claus and Sunny von Bulow. Since that nastily elegant feast in 1990, however, Schroeder has seen seven years of famine – the edgy but turgid Single White Female, the forgettable Kiss of Death. Desperate Measures has only scattered moments that remind us of the wicked sparks this director can strike with the right screenplay. David Klass didn’t provide him one, here: Measures doesn’t just strain credibility, it yanks it like a slingshot and pops it in the viewer’s face.

All the film does have going for it is the acting power of Garcia, although even his talent seems stifled by all the silly exertions of Desperate Measures, and the personality power of Keaton, who seems dangerously seduced by the nonsense and who, if he doesn’t watch it, may find his career trapped in typecasting hell as our perennial goofy psychotic.

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