STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE Is Still A Miss 20 Years Later

This piece is two years old; I wrote it in February 2017 and posted it on Facebook. Today is the 20th anniversary of the release of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace, and I wanted to commemorate it but didn’t have the forethought to sit down and watch the movie again. But this piece, which represents my latest revisit of the film, feels pretty spot-on to me still two years later. I’ve gone back to the Prequels again and again, hoping each time the changes in me have changed the way I see the movies. This has not been the case. In fact, this post came after I bought the Prequels on Blu as an attempt to revisit them in full in a spiritual/Buddhist light. I never made it past Attack of the Clones.

Note: I have made minor edits to this for clarity and grammar, but not for content. This piece is maybe more jargon-y than I would write today, but maybe that’s a problem with me today. I reference a thing I wrote about Yoda’s fear/anger/hate/suffering bit that I have not published on this site; maybe I will at some point. Finally, this was written before The Last Jedi, which I think has a top tier John Williams score.

I just finished the book The Dharma of Star Wars, which finds parallels and examples of Buddhist teachings in the Force and the Jedi, and it really impressed me. Much of the book’s content related to events from the Prequel Trilogy, and it made me wonder if these films – which I had maligned for so long – were actually brilliant Trojan horses smuggling dharma into the minds of impressionable Western children. The book’s pretty good in general – out of all the Buddhist stuff I’ve read/listened to in the last few months it’s the work that moved my understanding of ‘no self’ furthest. So I decided to give the Prequels another shot, with a Buddhist perspective. 

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Your Worst Day Is Your Best Day: The Wisdom Of James Gunn

James Gunn is a good writer. You can tell from his movies, and his novel, but you can really tell from the interview he did with Deadline this week, the first interview he has given since being fired from and then re-hired for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 3. The interview seems to be an email one (there are too many well-placed semi-colons for this to have actually been transcribed by someone at the site, imo), and in that medium Gunn gets to really write his responses in a way that lets them sing. If he’s not writing these I’m even more impressed – this is some great speaking, and I say that as someone who has met James Gunn a bunch and know he’s a great off-the-cuff speaker.

Anyway, there’s a section in the interview where he talks about the day that he got fired. He leads in saying that, like many of us, he got into the arts because he wanted to be loved, to be adored, to be seen.

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You Will Probably Have A Bad Experience While Meditating

When I went on my first silent meditation retreat I had to fill out a form. It included questions about whether I had ever been suicidal, if I was on any medication for mental health issues, and asked for the phone number of my psychiatrist, if I had one, or for the phone number of a mental health crisis contact.

I thought it was funny at first, but after about 36 hours in the desert I got it. This was one of the big breakthroughs in my meditation practice – it’s not always going to be pleasant. And it’s not supposed to be.

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I Met The Wrong Saint

So there’s this woman, Amma the Hugging Saint. A Hindu guru from India, she travels the world hugging people as part of her teachings. This is no dude standing in the Comic-Con lobby with a “Free Hugs” sign; Amma plays to stadiums. You show up and get a number and wait HOURS to get shuffled through and hugged. They’re all-day/all-night events. The hugs are supposed to be amazing and healing – not in the ‘laying on the hands’ sense, but in the emotional/spiritual sense.

And get this: last year my friend Travis saw her, and when she hugged him he felt this intense, overwhelming love… and my face popped into his head. He texted me with excitement after the hug, and I thought the whole thing was strange and beautiful. Even setting aside any possible cosmic/supernatural stuff going on in this energy transfer moment, it was really sweet that he thought of me when he was experiencing a moment of pure love.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, and Facebook serves me up an ad for Amma’s return to Los Angeles. This story has been in my mind, and for the past few months I’ve felt like my spiritual practice had plateaued; with the disgrace of my teacher Noah Levine and the dissolution of my main spiritual community, I had turned into a guy whose entire practice was solitary and book-oriented. I had not been on retreat in a year, I had not sat with a group in six months, I had not listened to wise teachers anyplace outside of my earphones while driving to work. I wanted a shot of something stronger in my spiritual practice – I wanted to meet a holy person.

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Global Warming Is Over! (If You Want It)

In 1968 John Lennon and Yoko Ono embarked on a multipronged peace protest, one that included their infamous bed-in and Give Peace A Chance. The centerpiece of the protest was a series of simple, text-only, black and white billboards that they put up in 12 cities around the world. The text read:

War Is Over! (If You Want It)
Merry Christmas From John And Yoko

Every Christmas/New Year Yoko Ono still takes out a full page ad with the “War Is Over! (If You Want It)” slogan. Every year people look at it and roll their eyes, not quite getting the profundity of the simple message:

It has to start with you.

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Zen Mind, Film Critic’s Mind

People say being a movie critic is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in a dark movie theater and watch a movie, or to go home and write your opinions about that movie. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our criticism pure in its fundamental sense. Film criticism developed in many ways after the advent of the internet, but at the same time, it became more and more impure. But I do not want to talk about Rotten Tomatoes or the blurbing of random Twitter handles. I am interested in helping you keep your criticism from becoming impure.

Okay, I could keep going, rephrasing the first chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the Buddhist masterpiece by Shunryu Suzuki, to fit into a discussion of film criticism, but I don’t think anybody would get it. I will however keep lifting concepts and ideas from this seminal work, which is mostly about zazen – Zen meditation – but that is also about how to live and create with a beautiful clarity and fluidity by getting back to a beginner’s mind.

Which brings me to the films of John Carpenter.

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Lying Liars And The Lies They Tell

I know a guy who lies. All the time. About really big stuff, about his past and his job and his schooling and the famous actress who hit on him last night. He’s egregious about it, spinning the kinds of yarns that almost dare you to look him in the eye and say “You’re full of shit.”

This article in the New Yorker about suspense writer Dan Mallory reminded me of this dude I know. Mallory tells the same kinds of lies that this guy tells, the big sweeping kind. About cancer and dead parents, about personal heroism and personal sacrifice. Liars like these are destabilizing, because they call into question everything you know about them. I would sit across from this guy at lunch and he would tell me about things that were happening in his life and I wouldn’t know if he was shoveling shit or not. Some people can deal with that – I have to imagine that by now everybody he knows is aware he’s a liar on a pathological level – but I can’t. It’s too disorienting, and that was before he told some whoppers about me.

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My Dog Vs The Street Sweeper

I have a little dog. He’s a barrel-chested, bow-legged little white weirdo with an Orc-like underbite and a wonderful, friendly demeanor. He’s a rescue; he was found on the streets of the San Gabriel Valley wandering alone, and I adopted him from the good and kind people at Good Dog-Dog Talk. I named him Oliver Reed because he sort of looks like the Werewolf of London, and also because he drinks a lot and gets into these unstoppable humping fits.

Oliver is a good guy, and he’s my best friend. He’s the sweetest dog you could hope to meet; I stopped taking him to the dog park because rather than run with the other pups he would cuddle up with the other owners to get and give love. I was taking him there for exercise, not to two-time me! Oliver just wants to get pet and to cuddle up with you. He loves everybody.

But there are some things he just hates. He flips out over certain things – he flips out over bigger dogs, for instance. He loses his mind when motorcycles ride by. And this morning he went fucking berserk on his morning walk when the big street sweeping Zamboni came down my block. He was barking and jumping in the air, almost flipping over as he hit the tension point on the leash. Here’s this little dog (he’s 16 pounds but should be like 12. I know, I’m a bad dad) trying to KILL this one ton metal monstrosity going down the street.

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Nathan Phillips Teaches Us Bravery In The Face Of Hate

This week we all saw the sorry spectacle of a group of MAGAt teen bullies surrounding a Native American elder as he was doing a ritual chant at the Indigenous Peoples March in Washington DC. The kids, decked out their red hats of hate, were surrounding and harassing the man, and the video is a shocking and disturbing look at the worst that is happening to our society today.

It’s worth noting that the story remains in flux, and as I am writing this there is a longer video that shows a group of Black Israelites may have actually riled everybody up in advance. As a New Yorker I am very familiar with how Black Israelites – a religion whose more public, fringe members tend to be anti-Semitic black supremacists – will yell offensive stuff at people as they walk by; this doesn’t let the MAGAts off the hook by any means, but I do think it’s worth noting that the situation was complex and fluid and the result of the collision of a number of forms of hate, in the middle of which Nathan Phillips found himself trying to de-escalate things.

But I’m less interested in talking about what happened before the start of the video we’ve all seen on our feeds non-stop these past few days and more interested in how we reacted to it. This, I think, is where the really instructive stuff happens. After all, we cannot control how other people behave, as much as we wish we could (we’ve all had that thought, “If I ruled the world for just a day things would be much better!”). We can only control how we react to things – or rather how we respond to them. In turn how we respond has a ripple effect that plays out across our social networks, through our families, through the people we encounter every day.

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“Pain Don’t Hurt.”

When Patrick Swayze’s Dalton shows up at the hospital with a gaping knife wound in his side (in a spot similar to where Christ was speared by the Roman soldier. HMMMM…), Kelly Lynch’s Doctor Clay prepares to stitch him up. She asks if he would like a local anesthetic and he turns it down.

“You like pain?” she asks him.

“Pain don’t hurt,” he replies.

At first blush this sounds like lunkheaded macho bullshit, like a lot of what you find in the movie Road House in general, but it’s actually profound. And it’s deeply wise. It’s just some of the wisdom that Dalton displays (“Nobody ever wins a fight,” said in the same scene, is pretty great as well, if undercut by the whole entire motion picture).

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