In On The Laugh

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

Robert Coe

Nearing the end of three hours of conversation, we sit now in his office around a large worktable and computer where he cowrote Huckabees with Jeff Baena, his personal assistant. The computer screensaver is a sitting Buddha. We discuss Soldiers Pay, a documentary he will begin filming shortly, intended to accompany the theatrical rerelease of Three Kings a week before the November elections.

“We’re going to be filming Iraqis who were in the original movie and who live in Phoenix now and have been back to Iraq as political consultants. We’re also going to talk to veterans who’ve come back, many of them very messed up and facing reduced veterans’ services—one of the ironies of the Bush administration, which touts itself as the military’s best friend. We [as Americans] don’t really talk enough to soldiers about what they feel when they kill people or see people getting blown up. There’s some kind of weird disconnect there that comes back to bite us on the ass. I love being able to work on things like this that really interest me. I have a kind of autonomy. I work at home a lot of the time, and I get to participate in sort of a national culture.” (On September 1 Warner Brothers elected not to distribute the documentary, deeming it “totally inappropriate” to do so in a political season. While the re-release of Three Kings has been shelved indefinitely, Soldiers Pay was eventually picked up for theatrical distribution by Cinema Libre Studio and shown in conjunction with fellow anti-war documentary, Uncovered: The War in Iraq.)

Since Russell’s opposition to American military action in the Middle East is well known, I mention the Dalai Lama’s statements from the fall of 2003 that the U.S.—led war in Afghanistan may have been justified to win a larger peace. (The New York Times quote was later contested by Nawang Rabgyal, Representative of His Holiness to the Americas, who reinforced the essential message that nonviolence is vastly superior in the long run; nevertheless, it does appear that the Dalai Lama has said that some wars “protect the rest of civilization, democracy.”) I ask Russell what he thinks of all this.

“I remember in college once asking Bob [Thurman], 'Is there no scenario where a Buddhist avenger would go in and kick some ass?’ And he told me about some hero who blows everybody away with a Dirty Harry action which was only justified because it saved millions of lives by killing one guy.” (This is Russell’s bowdlerized Hollywood version of the Mahayana Jataka tale of a pirate who is killed by an earlier incarnation of the Buddha in order to save the hundreds of lives the pirate menaced.) “Personally, I buy into what Gandhi said: 'If you [fight back], you become like them.’ I mean, what’s more radical than to just sit there while Hitler kicks in the door? It’s a challenging notion, isn’t it? I’ve also always dug the story about some soldiers who raid a Zen temple in China or Japan hundreds of years ago, and a soldier confronts the teacher as he is sitting and the teacher just shouts 'kaaaaaaaa!’ And the soldier cuts his head off. But you know”–Russell is chuckling again–“I can also dig the monks who just beat it up the hill, rather than get their heads chopped off.”

Here in Russell’s pacifism, his Buddhism and leftism merge. Earlier, he told me that he has always been drawn to intense things–and certainly the characters in his movies go for broke and act in uncompromising, passionate ways. Russell’s point of view is similarly passionate and uncompromising, politically and spiritually: the vision of an inquisitive Buddhist extremist who wants to cut through preconceptions and just do it–with a lion’s roar, or a belly laugh.

“Can you imagine writing something that wasn’t funny?” I ask him at one point.

“Sometimes I wonder and want to try, but I can’t resist. I do find everything kind of funny. Even horrible things. There’s always something ridiculous or funny to me about horrible things.”

“Horrible things happen in all your movies, don’t they.”

“Yes, they do.” This time David laughs so hard he has to dab his eyes.

“Well,” he continues, “the ceiling can come falling down, right? Which is not so funny to the people who are actually there–the humor is more apparent to those of us who are just watching. Movies are totally voyeuristic in that way. Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t some kind of sick practice, this voyeurism–although on a human, behavioral level there’s something totally natural about wanting to watch and study something. Maybe [some movies] are just a pure voyeuristic high that in the end leave you thinking that the real stuff is elsewhere, you know? Then there are other kinds of movies that make you think, that change your pattern of thinking, so that the voyeuristic studying of someone becomes ancillary to the experience of the film.”

Watching movies—depraved action, or the natural grace of human curiosity? It’s clear what Russell is shooting for: movies that will open minds and let us in on the laugh. Leaning back in his chair with his fingers laced behind his head, he says, “Either way, you’re getting one version of the world or another. There it is, in that box, or on screen—and you’re lucky if you get a peek at it.”
Robert Coe is a screenwriter and journalist currently working on a memoir: “Artists-in-Residence: An Autobiography of Lower Manhattan, 1974—1989.”

Image 1: © Claudette Barius, Courtesy of Fox
Image 2:© Claudette Barius, Courtesy of Fox

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