Beginner’s Mind

“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”

That is how Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryu Suzuki begins. This is a book that I first read in college when I was, like many people my age in that time, exploring paths and philosophies. It may be the best known of all the American Zen books.

It is not a long book and that simple opening line is actually a good summary of what the book is about.

As I got deeper into and more serious about Zen Buddhism, I met people who considered “American Zen” to be a lazy path to true Zen. I was certainly a rather lazy American student of it. I was far less interested in learning about postures and breathing than I was supposed to be. I had a lot of trouble staying focused in zazen meditation sessions. “You have monkey mind,” said the abbot at a monastery I attended. “Like a monkey hopping from branch to branch in a tree.” Yes. That’s also known as Attention Deficit Disorder.

I have returned to the book several times since that first encounter in an attempt to return to beginner’s mind – something that it is not easy to do.

Shoshin is the word in Zen Buddhism that translates to “beginner’s mind.” It means to have an attitude of openness to new things. It is that freshness, and eagerness we usually bring to something early on that interests us.

In a workshop I gave many years ago, I used many non-Buddhist examples, from a child with a new toy, to a person newly in love. Participants also came up with lots of examples, such as when you first begin a new hobby or sport, take up a musical instrument etc. In these situations, you truly have a beginner’s mind. What is much more difficult is to have that approach when you have progressed further – perhaps to the point of being an “expert.”

That attempt to once again be a beginner is why musicians go back to taking lessons. Any “back to basics” approach has a bit of that Zen approach in it. I had an art teacher who told me I should try painting with only one tube of paint. That was an attempt to get me to focus more on other aspects and forget about trying to get “the perfect flesh tone.” Why would a pro athlete or musician go back to doing beginner drills and exercises? Same thing.

I think of how Orson Welles approached his first film as a director, Citizen Kane. He had experience directing actors on stage and in radio plays, but film production was new. He came to it with a beginner’s mind free from preconceptions, even though some might have considered him at an advanced level in other ways. He wanted very deep focus shots with objects in the foreground and background all in focus. He wanted low angles that showed ceilings (something that wasn’t done at that time). He was told that those things just are not the films are made. He asked the kinds of questions that a child might ask. “Why can’t we do that?”

Welles and Toland
Welles and Toland set up below floor level for a low-angle shot

Luckily, Welles’ “teacher” was his cinematographer, Gregg Toland, who must have also had a beginner’s mind and was willing to approach something he was an expert at as if he was a beginner. They added ceilings and did those low angles. They figured out a way to do those long, deep focus shots.

The naturalist, Rachel Carson, wrote something that sounds like Zen.

“A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that for most of us that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct for what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life.”

Lately, I have been thinking more about having that kind of mind in my close relationships. I believe I am relying too much on assumptions. Things do not seem “fresh.” I need to try to consciously to drop some of my assumed views. This is difficult.

The poet, Rilke, wrote:

“For there are moments, when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”

Even Dead, They May Not Love Him

I finally saw Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind now that it has “debuted” on Netflix. After all these years – shooting on the film began in 1970 and was not finished when Welles died in 1985 – others have finished the editing.

The film is pretty messy. Right off, it is a film-within-a-film. There is the black and white documentary a crew is shooting about the director at the center of the movie. John Huston, a real director, plays Jake Hannaford, an aging director trying for one last successful film. And there is the color footage for the movie Hannaford is trying to finish, The Other Side of the Wind. 

Welles started the film after his return to Hollywood after 22 years of being an self-imposed ex-pat in Europe. Of course, Hannaford will be seen as Welles. (Welles said later he regretted not taking the part himself.) The film within the film is a satire of the avant-garde films of the New Hollywood of the 1970s. It reminds me of Zabriskie Point, a 1970 film directed by Michelangelo Antonioni. The Arizona house where Welles shot the party scenes looks like the house Antonioni blew up in his film.

The film often seems improvised, and Welles did like magical accidents that occur on a set. But it was scripted. That party has a bunch of directors (Paul Mazursky, Henry Jaglom, Curtis Harrington, Claude Chabrol and Dennis Hopper) appearing as themselves.

After many stops and starts, principal photography ended in 1976. Welles did some editing in the 1980s but all kinds of things stopped him from finishing, including, I suspect, some of his own confusion on how to shape it into a coherent film.

Now, 137 million Netflix subscribers in 190 countries can see the film. Would Welles be happy to have a shot at that mass audience? Probably, yes. But I doubt it will get that many viewers. It is most appealing to Welles fans like myself who are curious. There are a good number of us who check out sites like wellesnet.com. But I wouldn’t even ask my wife to watch it. Like many people, she would bail out after 15 minutes.

I watched the film and then I watched Morgan Neville’s the companion feature-length documentary by Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom, Won’t You Be My Neighbor) called They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead and then I watched Ryan Suffern’s 38-minute documentary short “A Final Cut for Orson: 40 Years in the Making.”

Oja Kodor was Welles’ lover and collaborator in the last part of his life. She is the actress in the film-within-the-film and she worked on the script. She said that in later years she thought the best thing to do with the footage was to make a documentary about it rather than try to complete the film Orson intended to make. She might have been correct. She also got the self-admitted prude Welles to add some nudity and sex into the film. (She is the nudity.)

 

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The movie is full of cameos and it was fun to try spotting them. For younger viewers, it would be a trivia challenge to identify most of them, such as vaudevillian George Jessel. He toasts Hannaford as “the Ernest Hemingway of the cinema, the Murnau of the American motion picture. Who Murnau is, I don’t remember.” (The film is supposed to take place on July 2, 1961, the day Hemingway committed suicide.)  Susan Strasberg plays a tough critic who is probably based on Pauline Kael. She says about Hannaford that “What he creates, he has to wreck, it’s a compulsion.”  Critic Kael’s wrote an article called “Raising Kane” in The New Yorker in 1971 which pissed Welles off bigtime. Lilli Palmer is an aging Marlene Dietrich type and Orson’s buddies Mercedes McCambridge and Paul Stewart pop in and out.

Director Peter Bogdanovich played a “cineaste” in the early shooting and then became a young director in later shoots. Of course, Peter was a young director in real life. His own very successful first film was The Last Picture Show in 1971.  Bogdanovich was also a friend of Welles for many years and wrote and made films about him.

Netflix doesn’t like theatrical releases, but it will appear in a dozen cinemas in eight states. Welles probably wouldn’t be into people watching his film on TV screens, tablets, laptops and smartphones. He would have been happy that before Netflix it played in about 20 cities worldwide at special screenings following its premiere at the Venice Film Festival in August.

The Other Side of the Wind

I wrote earlier about Orson Welles unfinished last film, The Other Side of the Wind, and attempts to finish it by others since his death.

Orson Welles has been gone for more than 30 years and his last feature film (F for Fake) was released 15 years before that. It has been a long time since we had a new Welles film.

I have had mixed feelings about this “new” film release since it was hot in bits and pieces over the years whenever Welles had some money to proceed. Now, it has been completed by others.

Orson probably would have loved streaming services like Netflix producing films – especially with their generally hands-off approach.

The Other Side of the Wind debuted at the Venice Film Festival in advance of its November 2nd release. Bruno Ghetti of Brazil’s Fohla de S.Paulo wrote, “It’s a film with clearly a beginning, a middle and end. And given the complication of production, surprisingly it does not appear to have been completed by someone other than the one who started the assembly four decades ago. The Other Side of the Wind may even be a mess, but it’s a pretty consistent mess. And fascinating in its madness.”

The film was shot by Welles between 1970 and 1976. The making of the film is the subject of at least one book and a documentary, They’ll Love Me When I’m Dead (Netflix). The film went into a kind of editing limbo at one point because of the Iranian Revolution! (Some of its financing had come from the Shah’s brother-in-law.)

“The Other Side of the Wind” is also a film-within-the-film. That faux film is an artsy “New Hollywood” kind of movie that was in vogue while Welles was shooting which he seems to dismiss..

As the trailer shows in bits, the film has a documentary style shooting, quick cutting, and switches back and forth between color and black and white (probably as much for financial reasons as artistic ones.). I suspect the styles also vary based on when Welles was shooting and under what conditions. And we can’t ignore the impact of those who have completed the film without his involvement.

There are plenty of film references and appearances by other directors. The film’s star is John Huston and Welles’ good friend Peter Bogdanovich plays a filmmaker. Other filmmakers include Norman Foster, Claude Chabrol and Dennis Hopper. Those three directors span a lot of world cinema history.

Will I watch the film? Of course.  Welles told Huston when they were shooting: “It’s a film about a bastard director. It’s about us, John. It’s a film about us.”  (Orson Welles’s Last Movie: The Making of The Other Side of the Wind)

Get to Know Your Rabbit

rabbit

I had breakfast with my movie buddy Scott this morning. We were talking about odd films that we saw years ago and can’t seem to find on TV, DVD, streaming or some bargain bin. One that I thought of was Get to Know Your Rabbit.

I had read something about it around 1970 and wanted to see it, but it never appeared in theaters. It’s about a corporate executive, Donald, who decides to get off the rat race wheel.  He wants to become a traveling tap dancing magician. His mentor is Mr. Delasandro. (And early lesson is to “get to know your rabbit.”

get-to-know-your-rabbit-6His old boss, Mr. Turnbull, wants him back and so follows him on the road. Turnbull becomes intrigued by the adventure and the two of them end up forming “Tap Dancing Magicians.” It’s a course/workshop for business people who are feeling the pressure and need some escape.

As you might have guessed, their course becomes very popular and Donald ironically finds himself feeling the same way he did when he originally quit his job.
It is an odd one. It is cultish. I know of a few other people who have seen it and like it. Great film? No. Interesting film? Yes, especially if you consider the people involved in making the film.

Director: Brian De Palma, coming off his 1968 underground comedies, Greetings and Hi, Mom!.
Starring: Tom Smothers as Donald Beeman. Yes, the Smothers Brother Tom.
John Astin (best known then as Gomez Addams  in TV’s The Addams Family, as his boss, Paul Turnbull
Katharine Ross coming off my all-time favorite, The Graduate, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (two films in which she broke my teenaged heart) is wonderfully and accurately billed in the credits as the Terrific-Looking Girl.
And Orson Welles plays the magical Mr. Delasandro.

It seems Warner Brothers studio and Tommy Smothers weren’t happy with De Palma’s direction and he was fired “due to creative differences.”

It took two years for it to be released (1972) and without any marketing it disappeared from theaters without a whimper.

I caught it at college in 72 or 73 in the student center film series paired with Welles’ Touch of Evil. (You figure out the programmer’s thinking on that double bill.)

Brian De Palma soured on the studio system after this experience, but went on to make lots of films. He is probably best known for a string of 1980s films: Dressed to Kill, Blow Out, Scarface, Body Double, Wise Guys, The Untouchables and Casualties of War.

Welles continued to be Welles.

Ross made more films, but none as good as The Graduate or Butch. Tommy Smothers did not become a film star.

For years I looked for the film on TV or VHS or cable to no avail.  After today’s conversation, I did another search and was surprised to find that Get to Know Your Rabbit is on Amazon.com in all its glory AND that someone posted it in its entirety on YouTube. Better catch it before the copyright cops take it down. That’s my Friday Night at the Movies tonight. I hope it is close to what I remember from 1972.

movie card

Citizen Welles and The Other Side of the Wind

wind2

I recently watched this very good documentary on Orson Welles and Citizen Kane (see below) that includes interviews with Welles from BBC interviews in 1960 and 1982 and an interview with Pauline Kael discussing her controversial “Raising Kane” article.

Whenever I showed Kane in my film class, I was careful to introduce it with minimal information and careful to never say that it is considered by many to be the best film ever made. Francois Truffaut said that it is “probably the one that has started the largest number of filmmakers on their careers” although that probably isn’t true for the current graduating class of filmmakers.

More recently, there have been reports that Welle’s unfinished final film, The Other Side of the Wind, may finally be completed and shown by 2015. The New York Times reported that the production company Royal Road Entertainment made a deal for the rights to the movie and set as screening date of May 6, 2015, which would have been Welles’ 100th birthday.

Welles spent parts of the last 15 years of his life working on the movie. It stars John Huston and features Peter Bogdanovich, Susan Strasberg, Lilli Palmer and Dennis Hopper. Huston plays a veteran director who is trying to make a comeback.

The story has been floating around for many years that the genesis of the leading character was an encounter in 1937 between Ernest Hemingway and a young Welles. Hemingway, a bit drunk, mocked Welles as being an “effeminate boy of the theater.” Welles shot back something, Hemingway threw a chair, they scuffled and in true Hemingway-encounter form they settled things with a boozy toast and then had on-again, off-again friendship.

Plot summaries have been online for years and so are clips from the film. It was shot on and off as Welles had money and he used certain props and motifs to tie together the disparate parts. The film’s structure centers on the 70th birthday party of the movie director Jake Hannaford (Huston), but opens with his death just after the party.

Welles included film-within-a-film portions of Hannaford’s film, The Other Side of the Wind.

It is set in the 1970s and mocks the Hollywood that is post-studio system, and the experimental New Hollywood and some European directors.

Partially as a style and partially due to varying budgets, Welles shot in color, black-and-white, used still photography, 8mm, 16mm and 35mm film. He was getting money by doing television roles and by getting individual investors.

Welles left a rough 45-minute edited work print that he had to smuggle out of Paris in 1975 after an irate investor had taken control of the negatives.

Actor/critic turned director Peter Bogdanovich is one of those who have tried to finish the movie. Now, Frank Marshall, a line producer on The Other Side of the Wind, and Bogdanovich plan to put the film together using Welles’ notes.

Welles,
Huston, Welles and Bogdanovich

From the reports out there and the clips that have leaked out over the years, the film sounds like a fragmented series of sections that would be difficult to patch together. But Welles fans, and I count myself in the group, are hopeful that it can be edited it into a coherent last effort from Orson Welles.


Oja Kodar presents Orson Welles’ unseen footage for unreleased projects including The Other Side of the Wind

 


The Complete Citizen Kane – a documentary

Halloween, Martians and Radio Terrorists

On Halloween back in 1938, Martians invaded the United States.

They did it in the form of a radio play. Orson Welles was behind this invasion and he used H.G. Well’s classic story, The War of the Worlds, as the blueprint.

I have written before about when the Martians landed in New Jersey that Halloween (October 30, 1938). So, why return to it now? It is because I listened to another great episode of Radiolab that told me more about not only the events of that day, but about the similar events that have occurred since.

The 1938 broadcast fooled over a million people when it originally aired. That includes regular folks listening to their radios, particularly in the area around Grover’s Mill, New Jersey where the Martians supposedly landed, but also the military, police and government officials.

The amazing thing I learned is that the broadcast was imitated a number of times since in places like Santiago, Chile, Buffalo, New York and in a quite tragic fashion in Quito, Ecuador.

WellesIn this age of heightened security and alerts, it is strange to learn that when Orson Welles played his little Halloween stunt he was labeled by the FCC as a “radio terrorist.”

As I wrote earlier, the audience reaction of panic and mass hysteria was more than Welles’ had expected, and it certainly had something to do with the pre-WWII atmosphere of that time. Radiolab said that some reports in New Jersey that night became that Nazis had invaded.

In the broadcast, Welles plays the role of an astronomer and Princeton professor who is called on as an expert.

I would assume that a 2013 audience listening to the original broadcast would not be fooled by its corniness. It mixes “real” radio music and talk with the radioplay and that was why listeners were taken in by it. The news breaks – which were a fairly new radio thing – get more frequent until they become all that we hear.

Of course, anyone in 1938 could have turned to another station and discovered that no one else was reporting news of an invasion by Martians. But most people didn’t change the channel.

Some people after the broadcast suggested that it was all planned by Welles, but that is like planning a viral video. It just doesn’t work that way. If you are a conspiracy theory fan, you’ll like this Wikipedia report:

It has been suggested War of the Worlds was a psychological warfare experiment. In the 1999 documentary, Masters of the Universe: The Secret Birth of the Federal Reserve, writer Daniel Hopsicker claims the Rockefeller Foundation funded the broadcast, studied the panic, and compiled a report available to a few. A variation has the Radio Project and the Rockefeller Foundation as conspirators. In a theatrical trailer for his film F For Fake, Welles joked about such theories, jesting that the broadcast indeed “had secret sponsors”.

monument
The Martian “landing site” now has a monument in Van Nest Park in West Windsor Township, New Jersey.

I actually drove to the  the “Martian landing site” near Princeton. I didn’t expect to see Martians, but I was hoping for a few UFO conspiracy people to have a conversation with – but it was deserted.

Go ahead and listen to the War of the Worlds original radio broadcast and you will probably be amused and a bit bored. That is how I reacted to hearing it years ago. And that is why I was so interested in the Radiolab show that took it further.

Could it happen again? Could more modern audiences be fooled?

Listen to that program, but in brief, when in 1949 Radio Quito did the play in a version for their Equadorian listeners, it was taken quite seriously and resulted in a riot that burned down the radio station and killed at least 7 people.

Okay, but that’s a long time ago. Well, then you also need to listen to the tale of when it was again redone in the 1960s in Buffalo, New York.

I think the story of how people reacted to news of a “cylindrical meteorite” landing in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey is a fascinating study in psychology. When that meteorite unscrews and a tentacled Martian comes out and blasts the crowd with a heat-ray, all hell breaks loose.

Why Martians? Well, the early news reports were of explosions on the Mars surface. We know that Martians were the stuff of science-fiction in the 1940s and 50s too.

Police, firefighters and the NJ state militia gets involved, Martial law is declared in Jersey. The Martians get out their tripod machines and soldiers, citizens, power stations, transportation and buildings fall before them.

The “Secretary of the Interior” advises the nation and there are reports of cylinders falling all across the country. Tripods cross the Hudson River and attack New York City. A reporter atop the CBS building in NYC is knocked out by some strange gas. Then we hear a ham radio operator (How did he get on the CBS bandwidth?) calling, “2X2L calling CQ. Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there anyone on the air? Isn’t there…. anyone?”

After a station identification, the announcer reminded listeners that this was all a story. But by then people must have been packing and heading outside. My parents, who lived through it and listened to it live, told me that people in our hometown of Irvington, NJ headed for the South Orange Mountains. People reported smelling poison gas. There were reports of flashes of light – ray guns – in the distance.

If you hung in there for the end of the show, you got the same ending as in H.G Wells’ original The War of the Worlds novel – the Martians were defeated not by our weapons, but by our own “alien” germs and bacteria that killed them off. Orson Welles told listeners after the play for a third time that the show was just a Halloween story, but the damage (or fun) was already done.

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