Fourth Way Perspectives

Film Reviews
On the Road Again
Sideways, The Motorcycle Diaries,
Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela

Sideways, Paul Giamatti, Sandra Oh, Gurdjieff, Fourth Way

Think of Easy Rider, Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, Thelma and Louise, etc.—the buddy road trip, the great adventure, the timeless coming-of-age initiation. It's a Hollywood staple that often gives a good reflection of the times. So it is with Sideways, The Motorcycle Diaries and Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela.

Sideways, directed by Alexander Payne, stars Paul Giamatti (remember American Splendor) as Miles, and Thomas Haden Church (George of the Jungle) as Jack, two college buddies, now edging into middle age and denying the angst of what Bertrand Russell called "the great moral resignation," that we are who we are. Rather than accepting the truth of the mediocrity of their lives and entering into real questions of identity and purpose, each hopes to outfox his fate. For Miles, the moon-faced, morose junior high school teacher, it is betting everything that the latest of his unpublished novels will be published. For Jack, the ruggedly handsome B-list actor, now reduced to voice-over commercials, its marrying Christine, an Armenian beauty with a well-to-do father who will take him into the family business.

Wine, Women & Golf

Before the impending Sunday marriage, Miles, Jack's best man, takes his buddy on a six-day road trip to the vineyards above Santa Barbara to taste the grapes, play some golf and search out some willing ladies, though the latter is more Jack's idea than Miles, who can't let go of his recent divorce. Where Jack is all instinctive-sexual center stud, constantly on the prowl, Miles is all neurotic emotion and formatory mind, eating himself alive with self-referential commentary. Jack, the quintessential party animal, and Miles, the quintessential head case, are a comic pair of alternating despair and winsome fantasy typical of the Peter Pan male, puer aeternus, that so drives women crazy. (Another not so funny side of all this is shown in Neil LaBute's In the Company of Men.)

As Jack beds his women (any skirt will do) to sustain the illusion of his identity, Miles savors his wine—color, smell, texture, rim versus core, and the ineluctable mysteries of his favorite grape, the hard-to-bottle pinot noir. As the two tour from one winery's tasting room to another, Miles' elucidation on the subtleties of wine soon has Jack—seeing its value as a way to impress the ladies—speaking authoritatively about a wine's "structure." (There's so much wine talk and label presentation the film begins to sound like a shameless infomercial with great product placement.) Meanwhile, lest the plot be forgotten, the ladies are found, Jack now is in his element and Miles, as ever, out to lunch.

Their road adventure nearing its end, Jack with a broken nose, the parting gift of Stephanie (Sandra Oh), the slinky Asian wine pourer he has robustly bedded with promises of marriage, and Miles' novel summarily rejected, the two buddies sit forlornly by the ocean on a piece of driftwood. Miles, despite his neurosis more in touch with reality than Jack, solemnly accepts his sense of abject failure, likening himself to a piece of excrement on a tissue in a heap of sewage surging out to sea. "That's great!" exudes Jack, always looking for the next upper, only to be told by Miles that it's a line from the underground writer Charles Bukowski.

Head or Groin?

Having purposely driven his friend's car into a tree so as to account for his nose, at the traditional Armenian wedding Jack is handsomely tuxed and tanned, albeit with bandaged beak. With the priest passing a bejeweled and golden cross over his and the bride's head, Jack gives a sly look sideways to his best man which conveys that despite all, Jack thinks his past is ending, his dream is coming true. But Jack is Jack, so the mystery of how this will turn out is only for him to learn. For Miles, who still has retained a measure of honesty (though he financed their junket by stealing money out his mother's Ajax container buried underneath her nighties in her bedroom), the future may be somewhat different, but whatever good fortune may befall him, how will he free himself from his "Miles"? Jack, living only from the groin, Miles from the head, their route through life is sadly determined.

Director Alexander Payne's Sideways, comic and brilliantly paced and acted, is an even deeper dive into the Great American Dream than his last film, About Schmidt which was insightful in itself. Sideways is a modern cautionary tale, a more penetrating depiction of the rootless and banal self-love, vanity and greed propped up by a cornucopia of abundance that so empties life of any essential meaning and drives its womenfolk up solitary trees or into the arms of each other.

New Agers Redux

Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela, Gurdjieff, Fourth Way

Shortcut to Nirvana: Kumbh Mela is another sort of cautionary tale. Every 12 years for the last two millenia, tens of millions of devotees come from all over India to hold a religious festival to celebrate their devotion to God. The film documents this pilgrimage. What might have been a valuable documentary is lost by focusing on Swami Krishnanand, a likeable but rather naive young man, who gives a sort of guided tour to a young blue-eyed, bottle-blond nurse from New York City and a young American pilgrim as he speaks with various gurus, would-be gurus and yogis. There is, of course, the fellow sitting on a bed of nails, another holding his right arm on high, a yogi who wraps his penis around a bamboo stick, a Japanese disciple of the Pilot Guru (a former airline pilot) who is buried for three days, a guru who breaks into chant and enraptures a Hindu woman who dances madly and finally falls at his feet. There are four moments of interest. One, when the young swami asks a guru a long rambling question about the injustice in the world and is advised not to soil his mind with such rubbish. A second, when the swami speaks with an intelligent African whose lower lip for some unspecified reason is stretched out like a bread plate. A third, when the Dalai Lama appears and, speaking to his Indian audience, tells them that as Buddhism originated in India, they are the teachers and the Tibetans the students, and saying that "the Self is your business, and the Sunyata ours." And the fourth, when the ever-smiling Swami Krishnanand, who has had a mounting crush on the blonde nurse from New York, succumbs to her charms and, grinning ear to ear with delight, exclaims, "I am no longer a swami.... I don't know what I am." What might have followed on from the documentary Sunseed of the late 1960s simply peters away in a puff of smoke, as has the New Age.

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