Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Under Western Eyes

By Donna Bowman and Ron Wynn

OCTOBER 20, 1997:  There are worse ways to develop an appreciation for the beleaguered culture and religion of Tibet than by watching a movie starring Brad Pitt. Seven Years in Tibet is based on the memoirs of Heinrich Harrar, an Austrian mountaineer who lived in the forbidden holy city of Llasa and became an intimate of the young Dalai Lama. As we follow Heinrich's photogenic adventures, we inevitably absorb some of the history behind the tragic occupation of Tibet by Chinese communist forces.

But there are better ways for American audiences to discover Tibet and its leader in exile than through a movie that, although entertaining, cannot deliver on its isolated moments of insight. Even at a running time of over two hours, too many complex issues of nationality, tradition, and belief are raised by this story for one fictionalized depiction to explore. The result is a beautiful picture that shows flashes of brilliance but lacks overall depth.

It takes more than an hour of screen time to get Heinrich to Tibet. First he must coldly leave his pregnant wife at a Vienna train station and travel to the Himalayas, where a German team led by Peter Aufschnaiter (David Thewlis) assaults the lofty peak of Nanga Parbat for the glory of National Socialism. The failed attempt ends when the British government of India declares war on Germany, and the Axis-allied mountain climbers are placed in a P.O.W. camp. Escape throws colorless Peter and supercilious Heinrich together in a flight to Tibet and then (in disguise) into Llasa, where they live for several years under the protection of a court official before the teenage Dalai Lama summons Heinrich to his presence. The young ruler is eager to open his mind to the technology and learning of the outside world. But that same world, in the form of the Chinese army, is about to overwhelm his own.

Pitt's Austrian accent is almost a parody--he swallows every third word. When he's not speaking, however, his mannerisms reveal Heinrich's smug sense of superiority over his mountaineering teammates, the Tibetans, even the Indian laborer he impersonates during his escape attempt. He thinks that by mocking those he doesn't understand, he can dominate them. Flashing his charismatic smile, he reveals the inadequacy and danger of the Western, individualistic model of leadership: It treats followers as means to a leader's ends and respects only the strong. In contrast, the Dalai Lama has power because of his people's belief in him as a protector of all life, down to the lowly worms that are lovingly relocated when Heinrich builds a movie theater. When the Chinese appear, we have a brief glimpse of a third model: the leveling, intolerant, cocksure attitude of fanatics who are convinced they have the answer for the world. Caught between these forces, what chance do the Tibetans have?

The problem with telling this tale through Heinrich's European eyes is that the movie falls into the Occidental habit of stopping at the East's shimmering, alien surfaces. Although Harrar might have had a deeper understanding of Tibetan culture, it cannot be communicated to us in this brief entertainment, and so we root for the preservation of Tibet's color and spectacle simply because they are photogenic. Few of the beliefs or teachings of Tibetan Buddhism emerge from the clouds of mysticism and the inscrutable foreign protocol. It's hard to blame screenwriter Becky Johnston or director Jean-Jacques Annaud for lingering over these multicultural delicacies, because Western audiences have an insatiable appetite for images of the exotic and mysterious East.

In a strange land
David Thewlis, Lhakpa Tsamchoe, and Brad Pitt look eastward in Seven Years in Tibet Photo by David Appleby.

Precious little history or religion puts the pretty pictures in context, however, leaving us with an impressively photographed travelogue--actually, it's not even that, considering that Argentina and Canada stand in for Tibet. In the final analysis, the differences in worldview between the Dalai Lama and ourselves are reduced to quotations from the Buddha. It seems to be enough for Heinrich and the filmmakers that the Tibetans are somehow different. And since the Europeans and the Communists have proven morally bankrupt, the mere fact of difference suffices as an antidote--it's easier to dramatize than the diverse ideas and values themselves.

Perhaps Seven Years in Tibet is best seen as a light appetizer for Martin Scorsese's Kundun, which is likely to be more challenging, since it features no Western stars. Another alternative, Paul Wagner's upcoming Windhorse, has the advantage of being secretly filmed inside Tibet and Nepal. The filter of Western sensibilities will still be in place in these upcoming features because of their American filmmakers. But through their passionate political advocacy of the Tibetan cause, Scorsese and Wagner may educate and agitate more than entertain. After the thin broth of Seven Years in Tibet, the American audience ought to be ready for a substantial main course.--Donna Bowman

Related to what?

If Gang Related didn't mark the final screen appearance of controversial rapper/actor Tupac Shakur, it probably wouldn't even get a nod from film cognoscenti and pop-culture mavens. Shakur was always an overrated musical figure but an underrated cinematic one; most of his raps, which relied heavily on production muscle and beat savvy, came burdened with macho posturing and an unrelenting, unvaried verbal approach. By comparison, he proved a surprisingly effective film actor. He demonstrated some emotional nuance in vehicles like Juice or Poetic Justice, where viewers could glimpse vulnerability and hurt underneath his snarls and epithets.

Yet Shakur is the least compelling player in Gang Related, writer/director Jim Kouf's tale of deception, betrayal, twists, and counter-twists. The movie is dominated by James Belushi, who plays a crooked cop masterminding a profitable scam. Belushi and his partner, Shakur, make a living ripping off drug dealers and pocketing their funds; they then kill the dealers and make the hits look like gang-related homicides. The comfortable situation changes, however, when Belushi unknowingly kills an undercover agent. To quote Nigerian author Chinua Achebe, things fall apart.

Shakur spends roughly half his screen time looking dazed, expressing guilt and anguish, or asking Belushi, "What the hell are we going to do now?" Meanwhile, the duo's attempt at evidence manipulation unravels at top speed, as does Kouf's script, which plants plenty of contrived details, such as Shakur's gambling habit, for convenient later use. The team's relationship unfolds, evolves, then disintegrates. Belushi becomes steadily more despicable, while Shakur earns some sympathy as the "good cop" unable to save his friend--or himself.

While Gang Related is eons superior to Kouf's horrendous script for Stakeout, the plotting is more convoluted than clever. The legal machinations (including James Earl Jones as a sort of African American F. Lee Bailey in his prime) provide entertaining diversions, but the movie never makes up its mind whether it's satirizing the criminal-justice system, criticizing police corruption, or dismissing the entire apparatus as unsalvageable. There are also some elements that just don't work, particularly a running bit in which the duo steals similar guns from various homicides, then attempts to return them to the right crimes.

Lela Rochon's role as Belushi's girlfriend is equally skewed; she lurches from unwilling coconspirator to reluctant witness to the heroine who helps justice (such as it is) prevail. The decision to pair her romantically with Belushi rather than Shakur might have been provocative if Kouf had opted to explore cultural or political differences, or even to generate some reasons for their union beyond simple financial compensation. Instead, this is color-blind casting at its worst; both Rochon's and Shakur's roles are written in a bland, generic manner that enables anyone of any color or ethnicity to be equally murky.

Gang Related earns points, though, for not being completely predictable or tidy; an occasional surprise is always preferable to a total bore. And even if Tupac Shakur and James Belushi aren't exactly Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte--or even Danny Glover and Mel Gibson--the movie does show that Shakur had the ability to play something other than gangstas or macho men, and that he wasn't afraid to be seen as a weak character. In Gang Related Shakur is convincing as a man looking for a way out of a life that has him trapped. Perhaps the role hit him a little close to home.--Ron Wynn

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