It’s that time of year when, sated with binge buying and partying, getting and spending, we New Yorkers have to get the religious equivalent of a flu shot-a spiritual fix provided in some guise that will allow us to keep our secular humanist credentials. That boils down to Christmas music, a children’s nativity pageant or, even better, the contemplation of a religion remote in time and place from our own, whose messiahs and martyrs allow us to weep over evil abusers and fashionably lost causes. Enter Hollywood, seized by big-budget religiosity and rushing to embrace the spiritual life as only those steeped in earthly rewards can do. In Amistad , after having gazed with Leni Riefenstahl-like rapture upon the gleaming bods of heroic blacks, Steven Spielberg turns his attention, like a good Christian missionary, to the saving of souls: Who can resist the moment when the illiterate black slave fingers the Bible lovingly and translates its pictures into his own language!
Martin Scorsese, our own angst-ridden wise guy, has abandoned the mean streets of New York for that Hollywood mirage, Shangri-La, as embodied in Tibetan Buddhism. Was it only four and a half years ago that poor prophet-without-honor Richard Gere was practically yanked off the stage of the Chandler Pavilion with a hook when he dared to break with his Teleprompter remarks to deliver a plea for the Dalai Lama? In the Hollywood tradition of moral grandstanding, there was the time that Marlon Brando dispatched Native American Sacheen Littlefeather to pick up his Oscar for The Godfather (never mind that Sacheen was actually a professional actress named Maria Cruz). Now the same people who tittered at Mr. Brando and hooted at Mr. Gere are speaking in hushed tones of Kundun , Mr. Scorsese’s gorgeously reverent biopic about the early years of the Dalai Lama. The director, who in The Last Temptation of Christ deconstructed Jesus with such riveting attention to his earthly and bodily life, now buys into the whole mystique of the wisdom of the East in a movie that is practically a promotional for the exiled Tibetan, a guru who travels the country with a show-biz-savvy retinue, giving interviews to anyone who might further the cause.
So scathing is its indictment of China that we can expect a titanic confrontation between the armies of our own starship enterprise, the Walt Disney Company, with the forces of Maoism on the bloody plains of international commerce.
Can we look forward to an Oscar ceremony accessorized with Eastern themes, as fearless champions of Disney and Tibet sport saffron robes instead of red ribbons as the symbol du jour ?
But my question is this: Why do we have to import a spiritual leader from outside, courtesy of Hollywood by way of Morocco, when we ought to be able to come up with an indigenous savior more attuned to our own sociopolitical landscape? There’s no reason why New York, as isolated in its monumental self-importance from the rest of the world as Tibet in its pre-industrial purity, can’t have its own pluto-theocracy, with an anointed leader and “moolahs,” and a child of our own elected as high holiness. But-you’ll object-in all of the New York region, including the remoter parts of Connecticut and New Jersey, there’s no infant humble enough to escape the general condition of our befouled-at-birth populace; but that’s where you’re wrong. He doesn’t have to be pure. The charming news, according to Kundun , is that the toddler who was chosen as the 14th spiritual ruler was no haloed angel but a brawling, grabby 2-year-old, claiming as his own every object in sight and demanding to sit at the head of the table. He ages 13 years during the film and is incarnated by four progressively more serene actors as he works his way up the ladder of enlightenment. But as a boy child, he is a world-class superbrat, and the roundfaced toddler who plays him is a look-at-me scene stealer just like our own … Andrew Giuliani!
Is it too much of a stretch to imagine that Hizzoner Jr., the kid who so memorably cut up in public a few years ago, has been whisked out of sight for indoctrination into the new math of corporate tax breaks as the logical candidate for the First Dollah-lama of New York … and for whose re-entry Mr. Giuliani, the self-sacrificing regent, is even now preparing? We can suppose that Andrew is under wraps at the moment, undergoing initiation rites at a humble prep school, but that in the fullness of time, a hand-chosen embassy of local Holy Men (entrepreneurial moolahs such as Donald Trump, Michael Eisner, a few chief executives) will find him and bring him back for his appointment with Mammon.
With these moolahs as his advisers and monks, he’ll form a cabinet in whose presence he’ll be sworn in at a fitting venue, say the Temple of Dendur, the renovated New Amsterdam Theater on 42nd Street, or some other sacred place whose religious traditions he’ll be sworn to preserve, such as the casino on Governors Island. There, like those brightly colored granules of sand that flow in endless Tibetan ritual, our gold and silver coins will ripple out of slot machines and cascade onto richly carpeted floors a little worn from the constant traffic of feverish pilgrims, with cassocked priests-security guards and bouncers-standing wreathed in the incense of cigars.
It is to be hoped that His Sereneness, no longer the intemperate child, will possess the light touch and wise humor of his father, but such charms are less important than a sense of his own power and place, reinforcable by fiat. After all, as George Orwell (whose life style was closer to Buddhism than any of its latter-day admirers) well understood, a theocracy maintains itself through absolute power, thought control, a taste for bullying and a heavenly sanctioned right to invade every citizen’s sovereign soul.
If our Dollah-lama’s anarchic populace refuses to sport posters of his face on buildings or offer group prayer in schoolrooms, he will keep up a steady stream of communiqués, Big Brother-style, via recorded transmissions on buses and in taxis, ordering passengers to leave their seat belts unfastened, the sooner to make the journey to the afterlife or, as they hurriedly evacuate the vehicle, to leave their worldly goods behind as part of the tithing of the citizenry.
As I see it, the major problem with moolahcracy, as with all male-invented and male-run utopias, is there’s usually a woman in the background doing the washing. Henry David Thoreau apparently didn’t scrub his dirty clothes in Walden Pond, but took them home to Momma Thoreau. I don’t imagine the holiness-mother, Donna Hanover, will take kindly to the role of meek, self-effacing laundress; nor will she willingly obey the order of the son to retire from the temple at nightfall unless she is given an alternate performance area of her own.
Who among us doesn’t have the fantasy of a pristine, untainted escape where never is heard a boom box, a siren, a car alarm, a raucous neighbor, where there are no pushy checkout lines, no cell phones, televisions, telemarketing, no stretch limos, no theme issues, no industrial emissions. But does our nostalgie de la Buddha extend to such Spartan denials as an absence of books, movies, museums, good wine and three-star restaurants? Does the policy of nonviolence extend to the movies? Aren’t the good and bad hopelessly intertwined in our “advanced” industrial state? In Kundun , Mr. Scorsese makes stunning use of digital technology to create an approximation from afar of the vast Tibetan landscape. Not to mention the rapturous music by Philip Glass, an electronically produced, minimalist score of throbbingly distilled intensity. Our own Dollah-lama, in or out of drag, can probably come up with a more appropriate and tuneful accompaniment to our maximalist hustle … Muzak of the Spheres?