In On The Laugh

David O. Russell shows us just how funny Buddhism really is in his new film I HEART Huckabees

Robert Coe

“Right.” He’s smiling broadly now. “Not to be pious and sit and listen to a sermon, but to open your mouth and rawww. Which in a way means you’re in on the joke... I remember Eido Roshi used to say”—and here Russell assumes a politically incorrect Asian accent—“There are people who walk, eat, sit—are not alive.’” He laughs in amazement. “I mean, I don’t want to go to church and just listen to some guy talking. I feel like people are missing out who don’t get to sit there on a Zen cushion and just do it: Who are you? What is this? What is your soul? Let’s put on our astronaut suits right now and spend an hour, like in Fantastic Voyage, where Raquel Welch goes inside the human body as an explorer. I mean, let’s check it out right now!”

At some point we drift into the kitchen and stand by the counter, drinking coffee and wolfing down bowls of blueberries and cereal. Russell’s ten-year-old son walks in. “Hey, buddy,” Dad says, and the two of them press foreheads together. Russell’s enthusiasm is infectious, his conversation mercurial—full of loops and leaps, psychic field trips, and antic digressions about the subtle distinctions between acceptance and detachment, physics and Buddhism, the role of genetics in the evolution of consciousness, and Zen drunkenness. When I mention Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s remark that the roof could collapse on our heads, and isn’t it merry, isn’t it grand, he tells me he’s read all of Trungpa’s books and hadn’t heard this before. He inspects me curiously, as if stowing my observation away for future reference.

I tell him that I found Huckabees both esoteric and goofy (which makes him laugh) and at heart a comic duel between doctrinal Buddhist worldviews.

“The Jaffes describe everything as being 'under the blanket,’” I say, “with Mecca poking out on one side and the Empire State Building poking out over here. Everything is interconnected, which means it makes sense that human beings aspire to a Buddha-consciousness free from the assumption that the individuality of oneself and other things is real, okay? An open, embracing feeling. And then Caterine shows up saying everything is chaos, intensity—emptiness, shunyata. In the end Albert reconciles these oppositions, which is how we know his case is closed, if not solved.’ But what I found curious was that it’s Caterine, the nihilist, who delivers 'meaning’ by cracking the code of the puzzling coincidences with a Freudian interpretation involving Albert’s parents—”

“Yes, Caterine takes that extra step,” Russell jumps in. “She contradicts herself, in a way. She’s like one of those really harsh Zen teachers who say, 'Don’t start talking to me about any pie in the sky, talk to me about what it is right now.’” I recall the scene where Caterine instructs Albert and Tommy to sit on Albert’s special rock (“you rock, rock”) and whack each other in the face, loudly and repeatedly, with a sizeable rubber balloon, then discuss it as a form of meditation. It’s both disturbing and hilarious—a classic Russellian moment.

“We sweetened it a little with sound effects,” Russell laughs. “Yes, that’s a state of pure being they’re tasting—whacking themselves is a legitimate way of stopping their minds. The Zen-nihilistic philosopher Caterine and the Jaffes, they’re opposite sides of the same coin, see. Albert puts it together when he says, 'You’re too dark, and you’re not dark enough.’ I really don’t pick one over the other. I really am into both of them. And I don’t think anybody really has the God’s-eye view, quite honestly. I just think you have to make your own cocktail. But the thing that Caterine carries around is what you don’t hear people talk a lot about, which is the shit of life. I mean, let’s face it—a lot of this world sucks. A lot of religions that want to sell you a bill of goods have to advertise and say, 'Here’s your answer.’ What I’m saying is, let’s talk about all the stuff that disappoints and sucks, and find the path in that, you know?”

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