I am driving an Oldsmobile Alero rental up sun-drenched Mandeville Canyon, minutes away from my early-morning interview with the screenwriter-director David O. Russell, channel-surfing through his trio of features. First, Spanking the Monkey (1994), Russell’s notorious screen debut, which surfaced from nowhere with the tale of a high-strung MIT student, forced to spend a summer nursing his depressed, overmedicated mother through a leg injury, whose frequent bouts of bathroom masturbation are invariably interrupted by the family dog. Everything and nothing leads to incest, but Russell ruthlessly refuses to let us cast blame, or even settle on a victim: The protagonist’s own sexual abuse of a neighborhood girl helps send him off the deep end, literally, with a symbolic suicide leap into a watery quarry. Russell himself once described Spanking as “vile,” but it’s as honest as a backhoe, and contagiously funny in ways no synopsis can capture.
Flirting With Disaster (1996) is more obviously comedic, even if the subject is again family dysfunction: Mel (Ben Stiller) is convinced he can’t name his four-month-old son until he discovers the identity of his own birth parents, and so he embarks on a wacky bicoastal search with his nursing wife (Patricia Arquette) and a gorgeous neurotic from his parents’ adoption agency (Tea Leoni). Their hunt turns up two false parents before lighting on the “real” ones—a couple of New Age convicted felons living in the desert and manufacturing LSD (Lily Tomlin and Alan Alda). Flirting is overreaching at times, but beneath its constant play for laughter lurk serious inquiries: What does it mean to be from somewhere, and part of something? Is birth itself the ultimate flirtation with disaster? And lastly, Russell’s 1999 release, Three Kings, starring George Clooney, Mark Wahlberg, and Ice Cube, is a heist picture set in the first Gulf War, a political action comedy turning around some fundamental ethical questions: What does it mean to kill and be killed, and when is it ever worth it?
The Westchester County born-and-raised son of a Simon and Schuster executive, and himself a poli sci and lit major at Amherst, Russell was a labor organizer in Maine and a Sandinista cultural worker in Nicaragua before launching a film career from nowhere that made him an avatar of the indie movement of the nineties. With his lefty-underground pedigree, he surprised a few people when, after the success of Flirting, he moved to L.A. to write for Warner Brothers, arguably the most conservative major studio. In Three Kings he delivered, however, a rare Hollywood product with a bottom-line leftist political agenda, then directed it with a kinetic brilliance that seemed to want to reinvent the action genre. Widely recognized as one of the best American films of the nineties, Three Kings is an anti-war war flick whose reviews and grosses (over sixty million dollars domestically) bumped its writer-director up to a new empyrean. Bill Clinton pronounced it one of the best movies of the year after a White House screening in ’99. (That same year, Russell ran into a Republican presidential candidate at a fund-raiser and told him that he had just made a film critical of his father’s Gulf War legacy. Bush the younger replied: “Then I guess I’m going to have to go finish the job, aren’t I?”)
Poised to become an industry player, the dark and twisted former indie auteurist decided that making another mega-action flick with a forty-eight-million-dollar budget was a feat he would not rush to duplicate. Five years later, still living with his wife and son in one of the funkier high-end canyons above Brentwood, still navigating his way through an era when small, offbeat pictures are typically elbowed out, he is opening a wildly offbeat new picture: I HEART Huckabees, an eighteen-million-dollar “existential comedy” about a young environmental activist who is plagued by a series of bizarre coincidences. Albert Markovski (Jason Schwartzman) decides to give his case over to a husband-and-wife pair of “existential detectives,” the Jaffes (Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin), who employ close observation and guided meditation to “disassemble” Albert’s and various other people’s egos—sometimes with the aid of digitized special effects, and always to hilarious effect. Forced to examine his life, Albert focuses on his relationships and his conflict with Brad Stand (Jude Law), a slick executive moving up the corporate ladder at Huckabees, a popular chain of retail superstores. Brad ends up hiring the same detectives, who begin to dig deep into his seemingly perfect life and his relationship with his spokesmodel girlfriend, the voice of Huckabees, Dawn Campbell (Naomi Watts). At the same time the Jaffes pair Albert up with another client, Tommy Corn (Mark Wahlberg), a samurai firefighter and antipetroleum nutcase. Albert and Tommy eventually take investigative matters into their own hands under the guidance of the Jaffes’ nemesis, the fiery French radical Caterine Vauban (Isabelle Huppert).
A surrealistic, genre-busting motion picture, equal parts Zen one-liners, Pynchon-esque paranoia, and Marx Brothers anarchy, Huckabees is a laugh-out-loud comedy that insists in every frame (and sometimes in so many words) that form is emptiness, emptiness form, and that human enlightenment can only flower from the manure of human calamity. If Three Kings was Russell’s political coming-out, then Huckabees is his Buddhist revelation: a crypto-Buddhist fable and a hugely entertaining triumph of popular esoterics.
Near the top of Mandeville Canyon I veer up a steep driveway to a one-story home surrounded by flowering plants and low-hanging trees. I drive slowly, with my car door open to grab two copies of the L.A. Timesfrom the asphalt, then park the Alero next to a Volvo V70XC with “John Kerry for President,” “Recall Bush,” and “War Is Not the Answer” bumper stickers.
David answers the doorbell with bedhead. He’s wearing a pair of blue-checked pajamas. I have the strongest feeling I’ve met him before.
“At the Zendo in New York? No? Maybe in a previous lifetime.” Maybe he’s playing with the journalist from the Buddhist magazine, or maybe he’s not. He talks over his shoulder as he leads me through the house: “You need some coffee? Have you had any breakfast?”
Eventually we settle at a child’s half-size table in his backyard, a sun-splashed Eden with thick lawns hemmed by shrubbery, a steep dirt hillside, and a homemade pool with waterfall. He’s wearing shorts, T-shirt, and sandals now, tall and handsome in ways you don’t get from his photographs, where his angular, even features seem more generic. Russell is hospitable, playful, scandalous, earthy, garrulous, and eager to “out” himself as a Buddhist.
“My first exposure was reading J. D. Salinger as a kid,” he tells me, once I assure him I really want to know. “I was always a little in the closet about spiritual stuff because I grew up in a typical home that was aggressively agnostic, dogmatically so… Then at Amherst I had this teacher, Robert Thurman, and took three or four courses with him.” Russell remembers the current professor of Buddhist studies at Columbia as “one of the most unpretentious teachers I’d ever met. Bob could talk to anybody about these mind-blowing ideas, in ways that didn’t mystify them.” Russell later went on to study and practice for four years at the New York Zendo with Eido Roshi, and took numerous short and longer retreats upstate. “It’s still a pretty big part of my life. We sit here [in L.A.] with a bunch of friends, but there’s not a place I go to now. Charlotte Joko Beck seems real interesting to me, but she’s in San Diego, so that’s a bit of a schlep… One of my heroes is Nyogen Senzaki, this Zen roshi who took the teachings at their word where they say you don’t need to have a temple—he came to L.A. and lived anonymously as a waiter downtown and taught a few people in his apartment. He has this skinny little book, Buddhism and Zen, which I just love.”
Russell has maintained his East Coast contacts, including Clark Strand, former Buddhist monk, author, andTricycle contributing editor, and Bob Thurman, with whom he began a personal friendship ten years ago. “A lot of Bob’s ideas, and Clark’s ideas, fueled Huckabees, and Bob and I plan to write a screenplay together based on an idea of his about consciousness traveling through the time-space continuum. It’s a little sci-fi-ish.”
I ask this fundamentally comedic filmmaker if he’s seen the highest-grossing religious film of all time, The Passion of the Christ: $609 million internationally, and the meter’s still running. Russell’s animated face turns sour.
“I was turned off by where [Mel Gibson] went with that. I mean, Mark Wahlberg is a devout Catholic, and I respect that there is some spiritual experience in the middle of that movie for some people. But beating up on the Jews”—he shudders. “I feel if you’re telling the Christ story, you should do something to explode that prejudice… I want to shatter preconceptions. I don’t walk around saying, ‘I’m a Buddhist, here’s what I think.’ I just want to talk to people about what I think and experience, and if we’re going to share it, well, we’ll share it—and if not, okay.”
I can’t help being reminded of when I was first getting involved in Buddhism. “A friend of mine once said,” I tell Russell, “that the cool thing about Buddhism is that it’s the only religion that teaches you how to laugh.”
“Right.” He’s smiling broadly now. “Not to be pious and sit and listen to a sermon, but to open your mouth and rawww. Which in a way means you’re in on the joke… I remember Eido Roshi used to say”—and here Russell assumes a politically incorrect Asian accent—“There are people who walk, eat, sit—are not alive.’” He laughs in amazement. “I mean, I don’t want to go to church and just listen to some guy talking. I feel like people are missing out who don’t get to sit there on a Zen cushion and just do it: Who are you? What is this? What is your soul? Let’s put on our astronaut suits right now and spend an hour, like in Fantastic Voyage, where Raquel Welch goes inside the human body as an explorer. I mean, let’s check it out right now!”
At some point we drift into the kitchen and stand by the counter, drinking coffee and wolfing down bowls of blueberries and cereal. Russell’s ten-year-old son walks in. “Hey, buddy,” Dad says, and the two of them press foreheads together. Russell’s enthusiasm is infectious, his conversation mercurial—full of loops and leaps, psychic field trips, and antic digressions about the subtle distinctions between acceptance and detachment, physics and Buddhism, the role of genetics in the evolution of consciousness, and Zen drunkenness. When I mention Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s remark that the roof could collapse on our heads, and isn’t it merry, isn’t it grand, he tells me he’s read all of Trungpa’s books and hadn’t heard this before. He inspects me curiously, as if stowing my observation away for future reference.
I tell him that I found Huckabees both esoteric and goofy (which makes him laugh) and at heart a comic duel between doctrinal Buddhist worldviews.
“The Jaffes describe everything as being ‘under the blanket,’” I say, “with Mecca poking out on one side and the Empire State Building poking out over here. Everything is interconnected, which means it makes sense that human beings aspire to a Buddha-consciousness free from the assumption that the individuality of oneself and other things is real, okay? An open, embracing feeling. And then Caterine shows up saying everything is chaos, intensity—emptiness, shunyata. In the end Albert reconciles these oppositions, which is how we know his case is closed, if not solved.’ But what I found curious was that it’s Caterine, the nihilist, who delivers ‘meaning’ by cracking the code of the puzzling coincidences with a Freudian interpretation involving Albert’s parents—”
“Yes, Caterine takes that extra step,” Russell jumps in. “She contradicts herself, in a way. She’s like one of those really harsh Zen teachers who say, ‘Don’t start talking to me about any pie in the sky, talk to me about what it is right now.’” I recall the scene where Caterine instructs Albert and Tommy to sit on Albert’s special rock (“you rock, rock”) and whack each other in the face, loudly and repeatedly, with a sizeable rubber balloon, then discuss it as a form of meditation. It’s both disturbing and hilarious—a classic Russellian moment.
“We sweetened it a little with sound effects,” Russell laughs. “Yes, that’s a state of pure being they’re tasting—whacking themselves is a legitimate way of stopping their minds. The Zen-nihilistic philosopher Caterine and the Jaffes, they’re opposite sides of the same coin, see. Albert puts it together when he says, ‘You’re too dark, and you’re not dark enough.’ I really don’t pick one over the other. I really am into both of them. And I don’t think anybody really has the God’s-eye view, quite honestly. I just think you have to make your own cocktail. But the thing that Caterine carries around is what you don’t hear people talk a lot about, which is the shit of life. I mean, let’s face it—a lot of this world sucks. A lot of religions that want to sell you a bill of goods have to advertise and say, ‘Here’s your answer.’ What I’m saying is, let’s talk about all the stuff that disappoints and sucks, and find the path in that, you know?”
Nearing the end of three hours of conversation, we sit now in his office around a large worktable and computer where he cowrote Huckabees with Jeff Baena, his personal assistant. The computer screensaver is a sitting Buddha. We discuss Soldiers Pay, a documentary he will begin filming shortly, intended to accompany the theatrical rerelease of Three Kings a week before the November elections.
“We’re going to be filming Iraqis who were in the original movie and who live in Phoenix now and have been back to Iraq as political consultants. We’re also going to talk to veterans who’ve come back, many of them very messed up and facing reduced veterans’ services—one of the ironies of the Bush administration, which touts itself as the military’s best friend. We [as Americans] don’t really talk enough to soldiers about what they feel when they kill people or see people getting blown up. There’s some kind of weird disconnect there that comes back to bite us on the ass. I love being able to work on things like this that really interest me. I have a kind of autonomy. I work at home a lot of the time, and I get to participate in sort of a national culture.” (On September 1 Warner Brothers elected not to distribute the documentary, deeming it “totally inappropriate” to do so in a political season. While the re-release of Three Kings has been shelved indefinitely, Soldiers Pay was eventually picked up for theatrical distribution by Cinema Libre Studio and shown in conjunction with fellow anti-war documentary, Uncovered: The War in Iraq.)
Since Russell’s opposition to American military action in the Middle East is well known, I mention the Dalai Lama’s statements from the fall of 2003 that the U.S.—led war in Afghanistan may have been justified to win a larger peace. (The New York Times quote was later contested by Nawang Rabgyal, Representative of His Holiness to the Americas, who reinforced the essential message that nonviolence is vastly superior in the long run; nevertheless, it does appear that the Dalai Lama has said that some wars “protect the rest of civilization, democracy.”) I ask Russell what he thinks of all this.
“I remember in college once asking Bob [Thurman], ‘Is there no scenario where a Buddhist avenger would go in and kick some ass?’ And he told me about some hero who blows everybody away with a Dirty Harry action which was only justified because it saved millions of lives by killing one guy.” (This is Russell’s bowdlerized Hollywood version of the Mahayana Jataka tale of a pirate who is killed by an earlier incarnation of the Buddha in order to save the hundreds of lives the pirate menaced.) “Personally, I buy into what Gandhi said: ‘If you [fight back], you become like them.’ I mean, what’s more radical than to just sit there while Hitler kicks in the door? It’s a challenging notion, isn’t it? I’ve also always dug the story about some soldiers who raid a Zen temple in China or Japan hundreds of years ago, and a soldier confronts the teacher as he is sitting and the teacher just shouts ‘kaaaaaaaa!’ And the soldier cuts his head off. But you know”–Russell is chuckling again–“I can also dig the monks who just beat it up the hill, rather than get their heads chopped off.”
Here in Russell’s pacifism, his Buddhism and leftism merge. Earlier, he told me that he has always been drawn to intense things–and certainly the characters in his movies go for broke and act in uncompromising, passionate ways. Russell’s point of view is similarly passionate and uncompromising, politically and spiritually: the vision of an inquisitive Buddhist extremist who wants to cut through preconceptions and just do it–with a lion’s roar, or a belly laugh.
“Can you imagine writing something that wasn’t funny?” I ask him at one point.
“Sometimes I wonder and want to try, but I can’t resist. I do find everything kind of funny. Even horriblethings. There’s always something ridiculous or funny to me about horrible things.”
“Horrible things happen in all your movies, don’t they.”
“Yes, they do.” This time David laughs so hard he has to dab his eyes.
“Well,” he continues, “the ceiling can come falling down, right? Which is not so funny to the people who are actually there–the humor is more apparent to those of us who are just watching. Movies are totallyvoyeuristic in that way. Sometimes I wonder if this isn’t some kind of sick practice, this voyeurism–although on a human, behavioral level there’s something totally natural about wanting to watch and study something. Maybe [some movies] are just a pure voyeuristic high that in the end leave you thinking that the real stuff is elsewhere, you know? Then there are other kinds of movies that make you think, that change your pattern of thinking, so that the voyeuristic studying of someone becomes ancillary to the experience of the film.”
Watching movies—depraved action, or the natural grace of human curiosity? It’s clear what Russell is shooting for: movies that will open minds and let us in on the laugh. Leaning back in his chair with his fingers laced behind his head, he says, “Either way, you’re getting one version of the world or another. There it is, in that box, or on screen—and you’re lucky if you get a peek at it.”
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