Did you hear the one about the schizophrenic Buddhist filmmaker who thought he was at two with himself? Buddha-bing, Buddha-bang.
OK, director/screenwriter Harold Ramis's new film, Year One, may pander to a lower common denominator, with bathroom humor, physical comedy and sight jokes targeted at young male teens.
OK, lowest. We expect nothing less from a movie produced by Judd Apatow (Superbad, Knocked Up) and starring Jack Black (Nacho Libre, Shallow Hal) and Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno). But Ramis himself drew inspiration from a much higher source. And I am not alluding here to his recent references in the press to The Two-Thousand-Year-Old Man and Life of Brian.
After interviewing him for a profile that appears in the current issue of the Buddhist journal Shambhala Sun, I can say with questionable authority that Ramis is a bit of a theological schizo himself, paying obeisance to two gods (if not more).
Though raised in a Jewish household, "Comedy will always be my God," he told me. Yet, he also is well versed in Buddhist literature and personally ascribes to an ideology that draws directly from the Buddha, namely compassion for others. As you will notice, Ramis's humor is never at the expense of another sentient being, but rather makes fun of our futile attachment to thinking we can avoid suffering (we all eventually suffer the indignities of aging and death).
In the Sun profile, Wes Nisker, who I dubbed "the world's first Buddhist stand-up" in The New York Times, says: "Harold Ramis should be considered a revered lineage holder in the crazy wisdom tradition of the Tibetans. Ramis is always trying to shatter our ordinary take on reality, to reveal hidden dimensions. He is trying to create what Buddhists would call 'beginner's mind.'"
Indeed, who would have thunk it, but a look back at Ramis' earliest work shows distinct Buddhistic tendencies. In Caddyshack, his directorial debut and a film roundly panned by high-brow critics but later named to the American Film Institute's 100 Funniest American Movies list, Ramis slips in several Buddhist references. (Luckily, the young filmmaker followed the Buddha's advice -- "Be vigilant; guard your mind against negative thoughts.")
Remember Bill Murray as the demented groundskeeper who riffs about once caddying for His Holiness the Dalai Lama? Ramis claims it's the first American film that mentions His Hisness.
Or Chevy Chase's golf whiz who lectures Zen-like to his protege: "Be the ball." He even finds a way to namedrop the Zen haiku poet, Basho - to zero laughter.
And then, of course, there was Groundhog Day, which developed a near cult following among some Buddhists who repeat a line from Bill Murray's weatherman Phil Connors as though it came right out of Sanskrit scriptures: "What would you do if you were stuck in one place and every day was exactly the same and nothing really mattered?" To which his drinking buddy responds: "That about sums it up for me."
Now comes Year One, and a whole new opportunity for Harold Ramis to do what he does so well: under the guise of slapstick guffaws, subversively preach goodness over badness, self reliance over lemming-like obedience to any authority figure, and LOL at both the absurdity and the wonderment of Life.
Months before the film came out, I asked Ramis if the title Year One might be a subliminal reference to the Buddhist idea that each new day can be experienced as Day One, or as a "new beginning," as the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh puts it. Or with "the beginner's mind," in the words of the late Zen master Shunryu Suzuki. Ramis sat back, ruminated, then (more or less) profoundly intoned: "Hmmm" - which sounded oddly like "Ommm" to me. This was the closest he would commit to chanting or meditating.
What I'd love to see is his irreverent but reverent filmatic take on Buddhism, completing the holy trilogy that began with Groundhog Day and continues with Year One. Picture, if you really can, Jack Black with shaved head, saffron robe and an omniscient shit-eating grin on his face. Well, those who have seen "Year One" will not have to imagine the last.
Hold that image, without laughing or going into a state of nirvana, while I finish adapting my book into a Harold Ramis film: Ghostbusters meets Bruce Almighty meets Seven Years in Tibet.
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