Words of My Perfect Teacher, opening today at the Elmwood Theater, begins with a dose of comedy, a sequence of close-ups of two men, both seemingly deep in thought. We are meant to interpret this as some sort of Buddhist exercise, the teacher perhaps leading the student in a form of meditation. But then the camera pulls back, the soundtrack kicks in, and we see instead that the two men are engrossed in a televised soccer match.
It is a great opening, perfectly setting the tone and premise for the story that follows, a portrait of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, one of the world’s most preeminent and iconoclastic Buddhist lamas. If only the film were able to maintain the ironic distance and awareness of this opening scene. But unfortunately director Lesley Ann Patten has neither the skill nor apparently the sophistication to create a film with the insight and depth warranted by her subject.
There are few things more nauseating than self-satisfied white westerners opining on the virtues of eastern religions and philosophies. Too often the opiner has been disproportionately impressed by a dollar-book summary of a major religion’s tenets and has taken that grain of truth and blown it up into a mountain of simplistic misinterpretations. Words of My Perfect Teacher suffers greatly from this malaise.
The film follows Khyentse Norbu during the course of a year which includes the Sept. 11 attacks and the 2002 World Cup. We see the guru on the streets of London, in New York, at a soccer game in Germany, and in Bhutan. In western cities, Khyentse Norbu is an unassuming presence, a modest man sometimes in robes, sometimes in jeans and sweatshirt. He is seen as a kind but enigmatic teacher, a man who embodies the east in a demeanor that fits in perfectly in the west. But it is in the east that we see Khyentse Norbu truly in his element, performing ceremonies in Bhutan, a nation where his religion is practiced and embraced and his station understood. Here he is able to administer his teachings at a high level, while in the west it as though he is simply playing a role, a sort of dog-and-pony show, babysitting the privileged white folks who have neither the depth nor the dedication to truly master the techniques and teachings he has to offer.
One of the first and seemingly most obvious of his teachings is the danger of idolatry, of looking upon a teacher as an infallible and unfailingly wise creature who can bestow wisdom upon his disciples like a gift. Perhaps we’re seeing these students at too early a stage in their studies, but this is one lesson they seem to have trouble learning. Throughout the film they persist in this indulgence, viewing Khyentse Norbu as an all-knowing, all-seeing master of their fates. Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes a glance from Khyentse Norbu is just a glance, and sometimes a guru who appears lost in an airport is truly just a man lost in an airport. No matter, Khyentse Norbu’s disciples prefer to treat him like a human Rorschach test, taking his every glance and gesture as a great lesson to be learned and every all-too-human error as a mysterious and profound teaching moment—though they can never quite convey to us precisely what they have learned.
Patten’s press materials for Words of My Perfect Teacher enthusiastically cite the film as Patten’s first on-screen appearance in one of her own works, an admission that Patten indeed falls short of her Buddhist aspirations. It is clearly an error of ego for her to believe that her presence and narration shed any light on the subject, and the film would have benefited greatly from a collaborator’s intervention. Instead we get inane voiceovers and absurd reaction shots in which Patten’s face emotes nothing; she is so intensely conscious of the camera that her appearances have the feel of a dreadful TV reality show in which participants awkwardly ape mannerisms they perceive as natural.
What saves the film is Khyentse Norbu himself, for his charisma and enigmatic appeal are indeed very real and palpable. And human. The guru acknowledges the problems of the teacher-student relationship, is forthcoming about its inherent shortcomings and potential hypocrisies, and even admits that he too falls prey to these problems. His everyman persona is natural and naturally complex, and while some may see his silly hats or obsessions with soccer and cinema as eccentric for a Buddhist lama, his simple message of humanity and humility and fallibility apparently goes unheeded by the film’s participants.
A more satisfying tale of adults in search of enlightenment comes in the form of Soap, a Danish import opening this week at San Francisco’s Lumiere Theater.
The contrasts are simple: Charlotte is an easy-going, sensual woman, natural and earthy in appearance, with no makeup and no apologies. She has left her boyfriend and moved into a bright and sparse apartment to start her life as a single, sexually liberated woman. In the dark, cluttered apartment downstairs lives Veronica, a transsexual waiting anxiously for a surgery appointment that will finally make her a woman.
The film uses the device of Veronica’s obsession with an American soap opera to both frame and gently mock the melodrama of its own story, a technique that can be perceived as either endearingly quirky or as a shameless crutch. Or maybe both. Early on the plot and characters seem too trite and simplistic to be taken seriously, making the soap opera device seem like a poor attempt to mask the film’s weakness as irony. However, the film only gets better and the characters more sympathetic, eventually casting the framing device as a playful chorus offering comment on the simple story line.
The contrasts between the two characters are emphasized at every turn. Veronica’s shabby apartment looks as though it has been lived in for centuries, while Charlotte’s stark white walls and packing boxes reveal her as a woman in transition, afraid to become attached to anything or anyone. Her charm and sensuality mask a personality turned cold and withdrawn while Veronica’s humble, worn environment shields the fragile existence of a man trying desperately through awkward wigs and makeup to feel natural as a woman. Of course the two come in contact with one another, and of course they clash, and of course they gradually come to like one another, though the relationship is always fraught with tension and uncertainty. But the contrivance of it softens over time as the two women get to know each other, together adding up to something resembling a complete human being, the two imperfect halves coming to form a happier if still imperfect whole.
The film’s best moments are in the simple details of the performances. Trine Dyrholm effectively conveys the spiritual isolation of a woman who has been treated by her brutish man as all sex and neediness and has now run as far with the identity as she can, distorting her sexuality into a promiscuous, vapid existence where she is finally incapable of even expressing polite interest in the lives of those she beds. A particularly poignant moment comes when Charlotte stands before her bedroom window, looking longingly and in vain for the peeping tom she has previously castigated. But there is no one out there to pay attention to her, and she simply stands there, flashing her breasts to the city like an S.O.S.
And David Dencik, as Veronica, takes the cliché of the suicidal transsexual and imbues his performance with the undercurrents of agony spawned by the rejection of the father and the lack of understanding of the mother, as well as the failing life force of a woman who has ceased to believe in her own worth.
Sure, there are plenty of hackneyed devices at work here, from the depressing depravity of Veronica’s johns to the ball-busting coldness of Charlotte, the woman scorned. And yes, it’s a soap opera, and not even that—it’s just one small subplot of a soap opera, a narrative that would be resolved and discarded in just a week’s worth of daily broadcasts. But director Pernille Fischer Christensen manages to take Soap beyond the trite contrivances of its framework, casting light on the humanity and depth that lies beneath the melodrama.
Photograph: Words of My Perfect Teacher is a portrait of Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, a preeminent and iconoclastic Buddhist lama.
WORDS OF MY
Directed by Lesley Ann Patten and featuring Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Norbu Rinpoche, Bernardo Bertolucci, Steven Seagal. 103 minutes. Playing at the Elmwood Theater in Berkeley.
Directed by Pernille fischer Christensen. Starring Trine Dyrholm and David Dencik. Playing at the Lumiere Theater in San Francisco. 104 minutes.