First He Found LSD, Then Buddha, Then God

I never bought into the chic spiritualism one heard and saw everywhere in the 60’s; I was always more in tune with George Orwell’s cultivated dislike of Buddhist monks in Burmese Days . Hence, I was not prepared to be as moved as I was by Mickey Lemle’s Ram Dass: Fierce Grace , a cinematic study of the various transitions in the life of a self-proclaimed mystic from the West engulfed by the seemingly simple certitudes of the East, and the victim, in February 1997, of a life-threatening disabling stroke at the age of 65.

He was born Richard Alpert in Boston in 1931. His father, George, a lawyer, helped found Brandeis University and was president of the New York, New Haven & Hartford Railroad. He studied psychology and received an M.A. from Wesleyan and a Ph.D. from Stanford. Then he taught at Stanford and the University of California, and from 1958 to 1963 he taught and conducted research in the Department of Social Relations and the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. In 1961, while at Harvard, Dr. Alpert’s interests led him to collaborate with Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, Aldous Huxley, Allen Ginsberg and others, and to pursue intensive research with psilocybin, LSD-25 and other chemicals. Professors Alpert and Leary were dismissed from Harvard in 1963 because of the controversy aroused by their experiments in LSD.

Dr. Alpert continued his research under the auspices of a private foundation until 1967. In that year he traveled to India, where he met his guru, the Maharajji Neem Karoli Baba, and was renamed Ram Dass. Over the years, Ram Dass expanded his studies on psychedelic research to include many political issues fostering an awareness of the natural and social environment. He wrote several books on his various obsessions; the most famous, Be Here Now , was published in 1971 and sold a million copies over 37 printings.

While Mr. Lemle touches on these background facts, his film is about the Ram Dass who, having abandoned the up-and-down extremes of psychedelia and the fatalistic philosophy of Buddhism, has begun a steady ritualized concentration on the endless horizons of one’s love of God. Among the very first images of Ram Dass in the film are of a 65-year-old stroke victim actively engaged in a program of speech and physical therapy. His wit is still intact as he confronts the enforced silences imposed upon him by “the stroke,” that now-inseparable part of his existence. In his near brush with death, Ram Dass has acquired a new humility about the limits of his spirituality. As he was being wheeled to the operating room, all he could focus on were the steel pipes above him. Mortality was a much more fearsome prospect than he’d ever imagined. But he doesn’t abandon his vocation out of being momentarily deficient in spirituality; he simply declares that he has a lot of work to do on his soul.

At this point, I found myself filled with admiration for a public figure I had previously chosen to dismiss in the years he was presuming to tell me how to live. Now he was demonstrating to me how to get old and how to face death, and his grace under pressure was truly and infinitely courageous.

Some critics have complained that Mr. Lemle’s film is too conventional in terms of the radical sensibility of its protagonist. For me, Mr. Lemle’s unassuming humanism is what I like most about his venture. It allows him to bring in other characters-particularly the subject’s father and brother-who give Ram Dass a loving family dimension. One comes close to tears when the hopelessly square father of Ram Dass looks with bemused acceptance at the strangely attired hippies paying tribute to his almost unrecognizable son.

This and other epiphanies come close to neutralizing the slightly rancid taste left by Ram Dass’ ostentatiously devoted followers, who display a totalitarian fervor worthy of a Nuremberg rally. At this stage of his spiritual existence, Ram Dass is more effective as a one-on-one grief counselor than as a public spectacle of survival for his morbidly curious former enthusiasts, nostalgically lamenting their own lost youth. This is to say that what Ram Dass stood for at the peak of his powers has always been alien to me, but now that I have seen the man metaphysically undressed, as it were, I feel that he is superior to his message-that, indeed, he transcends his message with his newfound lust for life and his ability (rare for professional love-givers) to accept the love of others with gratitude and a wondrous appreciation of the practical services rendered.

This film is by no means great cinema, and perhaps it’s just as well that it isn’t. An innovative greatness might actually have obscured the shining spiritual greatness of Ram Dass himself on his heroic voyage into the unknown.

Actress-in-Training Portrays Another Arnaud Desplechin’s Esther Kahn , from a screenplay by Mr. Desplechin and Emmanuel Bourdieu, based on a short story by Arthur Symons, is set in London at the end of the 19th century. Esther (Summer Phoenix) lives and works in the East End with her Jewish immigrant parents. We are told largely through an off-screen narration that Esther is cut off from her family and feels nothing for anybody. But once she discovers the theater, she comes alive with a new existence that takes her outside of herself. Much to her family’s amazement, she announces that she is going to become an actress. She is aided in learning her craft by a warm-hearted mentor named Nathan (Ian Holm). He advises her that she will never mature as an actress until she opens herself up to a lover, which she does with a critic named Philippe (Fabrice Desplechin).

Eventually, she is entrusted with the lead role in Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler , but by then she has been betrayed by Philippe, who takes his new mistress to Esther’s opening night. For a moment, Esther is unable to go on, and pleads with her colleagues to ask Philippe and his mistress to leave the theater before the curtain rises. In her distress, Esther swallows broken glass, but is quickly treated, and goes onstage consumed by grief, but gets through her performance. She realizes, at last, that she has become a human being with a full range of emotions.

There is one major problem with the film, and it is fatal. Ms. Phoenix is completely lacking in charm and charisma, and is unable to project either Esther’s initial anomie or her eventual awakening. Mr. Desplechin has done much better with his French-language films than he does here in his English-language debut. The narration is the tip-off that the character of Esther Kahn is not self-evident.

Special Delivery

Meng Ong’s Miss Wonton, from his own screenplay, examines the life and fantasies of Ah Na (Amy Ting), a young woman who has fled her small village in China to escape the beatings and bigotry of her neighbors after she’s mistakenly suspected of carrying the AIDS virus. She arrives in New York to work at Buddha’s Happiness, a low-grade Chinese take-out restaurant staffed with illegal immigrants. One day while making food deliveries on her bicycle, Ah Na, attracted by the architectural magnificence of the edifice, enters Grand Central Terminal, where in one of the tunnels she stumbles upon the Golden Palace, a meeting place for immigrant women in search of gossip, companionship and eligible males with suburban homes.

Ah Na believes strongly that her innate qualities will enable her to achieve the American Dream. When she meets a well-dressed American named Jack, she naïvely believes that he is the “ideal” American for whom she’s been searching. It never occurs to her that he might be married, and hence insincere in his courtship, which ends in the seduction of Ah Na in her suburban dream house while Jack’s wife is away.

When Ah Na’s mother visits her in New York, Ah Na takes her to Jack’s home. While Ah Na is working in the restaurant, her mother is surprised and humiliated by the arrival of Jack and his wife. Eventually, Ah Na realizes that there are no American men to fulfill her dreams, and that she must make her way by herself. Call it magic realism or surrealism, but Miss Wonton floats beyond reality with a certain degree of wit and dignity. The important thing is that Ah Na is never reduced to whimpering victimhood.

The Chinese Bicycle Thief

Wang Xioshuai’s Beijing Bicycle , from a screenplay by Mr. Wang, Tang Danian, Peggy Chiao and Hsu Hsiao-ming, is not exactly a remake of Vittorio De Sica’s neorealist classic The Bicycle Thief (1947), even though many of the plot’s premises are the same. A bicycle is stolen in both films from a worker who needs the vehicle for his job, and the victimized worker in both films spends almost the rest of the narrative in search of the stolen bicycle. But there the resemblances end.

The working man in the Italian original is a middle-aged married man trying to support his family. The working cyclist in the Chinese remake is a young man from the country named Guei (Cui Lin), and he’s just starting his career in Beijing. Unlike his counterpart in The Bicycle Thief , Guei eventually bonds with the young city boy Jian (Li Bin) who has stolen the bicycle.

The Bicycle Thief was conceived and executed as straight proletarian propaganda, with many satiric jabs at the complacent bourgeoisie, all the way to their uncaring genuflections in the Roman Catholic Church. The ideology at work in Beijing Bicycle is less explicit, though it seems that Wang’s sympathies are entirely with Guei.

Still, what’s most unusual about Beijing Bicycle in terms of recent Chinese history is that any form of class conflict is depicted at all. It was not so long ago, if you recall, that Chairman Mao drove many urban dwellers and the professional elite into the countryside for “re-education.” Now, with the onset of a degree of capitalism, the upper-class city folk seem to be on top-even if they are presented as less than admirable. It is to wonder.

First He Found LSD, Then Buddha, Then God