Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sat Mar 08, 2003 3:20 pm 
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National Geographic search for enlighenment is a step down from 'Chappaqua'

This is much smoother but less interesting than Conrad Rooks' other earlier and more cultish film, his drug autobiography 'Chappaqua' (1966), which has cameos by Allen Ginzburg, William Burroughs, and jazzman Ornette Coleman in it. The trouble is 'Siddhartha,' beautiful as it is, is a simplification of a simplification, and a spiritual quest isn't something you necessarily understand better through lush visuals, though unquestionably some of Sven Nykvist's watery landscapes with trees are unforgettable, the color is deep and rich, the music is pleasing, and the principals are awfully good looking people. Not surprisingly the high point cinematically is the sequence showing erotic encounters between the handsome lapsed sadhu, Siddhartha (Shashi Kapoor), and the lovely courtesan, Kamala. Simi Garewal, who plays Kamala, is a gorgeous creature whose lovely eyes, long aristocratic nose, and pouty lips remind one of the all-time arch teaser and sexy sophisticate of English films, Joan Greenwood. But Ms. Greenwood never was got up in the kind of exquisite gilded see-through gear Simi wears in her scenes with Shashi Kapoor. She's something to look at.

When his buddy Govinda decides earlier to follow the Buddha, Siddhartha leaves Govinda bereft by deciding to go off on his own lone search, without a guru. It seems that the point is you must pursue your quest on your own. But Siddhartha's splitting with Govinda seems somewhat meaningless since at the end of the movie, Siddhartha has joined up with the peaceful boatman he met years earlier toward the end of his sadhu period, and he winds up spouting the boatman's words of wisdom: live in the present, stop seeking, don't worry, be happy, and watch the river. The Buddha apparently hasn't helped Govinda all that much either, since he meets Siddhartha again and also needs to be taught the boatman's simple doctrines. One can't help thinking they'd both have done better staying with the Buddha, who did, after all, found one of the world's great religions.

It's rather amusing that during the two men's youthful sadhu period, when they're on the road with a group of penniless holy men, 'meditation' is represented as singing rhythmically and passing a bong. My picture of this activity was different, but 'Chappaqua' shows how obsessed with and involved in drugs Conrad Rooks was.

This is a lovely, but empty and ultimately not very cinematic film. Sven Nykvist's photography is at the service of a vision so generalized (Siddhartha is a universal type, not an individual), that too often the images look like something out of 'National Geographic' with mise-en-scène by Bollywood. The scenes are not as exotic as those Pasolini created for his 'Arabian Nights' (1974), nor are Rooks' depictions of Indian rural life ever remotely as real as Satyajit Ray's in the 'Apu Trilogy.' For a trippier film version of Hermann Hesse, see Fred Haines' 'Steppenwolf,' which came two years after 'Siddhartha,' in 1974. For a more original film depiction of a spiritual quest, see the story of G.I. Gurdjieff as done by Peter Brooks in 'Meetings with Remarkable men' (1979).

July 26, 2002

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