Friday, November 29, 2013

Director Spotlight #15.17: Martin Scorsese's Kundun

Director Spotlight takes a look at an auteur, shines some light on the director’s body of work, points out what makes them an artist, and shows why some of their films work and some don’t. This edition’s director is the eternally enthusiastic Martin Scorsese.

NOTE: Because I try to go in-depth in these entries, there’s likely to be spoilers in this thing. If it’s going to bother you, I’d highly suggest not reading ahead until you’ve seen the film in question.

Grade: 60/B-

“Kundun! I liked it!” That line in the first season of The Sopranos is still what most Scorsese fans know of Kundun, Martin Scorsese’s 1997 Dalai Lama biopic. It’s pretty much all I knew before I recently caught up with it. The film has its ardent admirers (the great Jonathan Rosenbaum among them), but it’s so far removed from Scorsese’s usual wheelhouse that it’s not surprising that most regard it with a giant question mark. Kundun is not ultimately one of Scorsese’s great pictures, but it is a fascinating departure nonetheless, and one of the last true experiments in his filmography.

Lhamo Dondrub is born in a small Tibetan province near the Chinese border. When a lama (or Tibetan teacher of the Dharma) arrives one day and sees something in him, he brings back other lamas to prove that Lhamo is the reincarnation Dalai Lama. The boy (now known as Tenzin Gyatso) is brought to Lhasa, where he begins his studies to become the 14th Dalai Lama, but he grows up in a time of turmoil as the Chinese Communists try to bring Tibet back into Imperial China. The new Dalai Lama begins to clash with Mao Zedong, and when his life is in danger, he must flee his home to live in exile for the rest of his life.

The first thing most Kundun fans focus on is the film’s form, and with reason. Shot by Roger Deakins, this is one of the best-looking films in Scorsese’s oeuvre, and it’s particularly breathtaking in the first and final half hour, where narrative falls by the wayside to pure cinematic expression. Following some introductory credits, Scorsese begins with gorgeous imagery of a mountain, of snow blowing, an introduction to the pillar and beauty that is Tibet as Philip Glass’s exquisite score brings it even closer to transcendence. Scorsese and Thelma Schoonmaker make heavy use of dissolves, tying everything together as if time no longer mattered while Deakins’s imagery fluidly pans and dollies and captures sunlight as if it’s a look to the heavens, as if we’re in constant movement to a new kingdom.

There are a couple of particularly impressive juxtapositions: in one, Scorsese follows a funeral for a friend of the Dalai Lama’s, in which the deliberateness of the ritual also plays as a tribute to Tibet’s freedom, about to disappear with the coming of China. In another, as China’s threat becomes more concrete, we see pure cinematic expression as blood pours into a lake over a school of fish. Scorsese cuts to the Dalai Lama, and as the camera cranes above his head, we see countless dead monks around him. It’s dream imagery as a way to express the oncoming terror in the country, and it’s among Scorsese’s most spiritual, most emotional filmmaking.

So why isn’t Kundun widely regarded as one of Scorsese’s best films? With Kundun, Scorsese seems to veer more towards the kind of material that Godfrey Reggio might do, both in imagery and sound (see: Philip Glass score). The problem is that Scorsese is at his best as a narrative filmmaker – even his biggest departures in the past (New York, New York, The King of Comedy, After Hours, The Last Temptation of Christ, The Age of Innocence) have a stronger narrative spine than Kundun, which is largely shapeless in its middle section. Scorsese introduces the Dalai Lama as an awe-inspiring, almost magical figure as a boy, his typical childish selfishness notwithstanding. Scorsese occasionally engages the loneliness that comes with the Dalai Lama’s spiritual vocation, but the intense emotions that usually come with his characters don’t register.

It’s not helped with by the beatific performance Tenzin Thutthob Tsarong gives as the adult Dalai Lama, which is every bit the holy cipher that Scorsese avoided making Jesus in The Last Temptation of Christ. The film’s middle section largely becomes a angel vs. devil story/biopic in which Mao Zedong comes off as a cardboard tyrant to the cardboard saint hero, with a simplistic politics vs. religion bent to boot. It’s clear that Scorsese and screenwriter Melissa Mathison have the utmost respect for the Dalai Lama, but they don’t seem to know what makes him tick, and they don’t present anything that might make us critical of him, like the question of whether he and the lamas ruled as kings over poor people (note to Dalai Lama admirers: I am agnostic on this issue).

The film picks up in the third act as Scorsese turns the man’s escape from Tibet into an abstract journey. But even as Scorsese and Deakins go to a beautiful final shot of the Dalai Lama looking through a telescope at the same Tibetan mountain, as if he’s looking through the mountain, I’m more moved by the imagery and the place than I am by the man. It’s hard to feel for him when we don’t understand him.

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