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Two Movies

by Bill Meacham on March 8th, 2011

Two movies, one released independently and one a commercial release from a major studio, reveal two quite different ways of understanding how the supernatural interfaces with and inflects the natural. The first is Sita Sings The Blues; the second, The Adjustment Bureau.

SitaSita Sings The Blues can’t be found in movie theatres, but is available for free online at It is a one-woman production by cartoonist Nina Paley, who created the whole thing on her computer using Flash animation. The film is a contemporary retelling of an ancient Hindu epic, the Ramayana, interspersed with a modern-day parallel tale, autobiographical, of the artist’s relationship with her husband, and set to the music of the 1920s jazz vocals of Annette Hanshaw. And it includes four distinct styles of animation, each of which is a visual treat. That brief description does not begin to do justice to this inventive, lively treasure of a film.

The plot is the Ramayana, the story of noble prince Rama’s love for his wife, Sita, and the trials and tribulations he goes through in order to win her back from captivity by a terrible demon king. Rama has the virtue of perfect adherence to duty despite harsh tests of life and time. He is pictured as the ideal man and the perfect human. Sita is absolutely devoted to to her husband’s love, and maintains perfect chastity despite being the demon king’s captive. She is the ideal woman. The Ramayana is, in part, a rousing tale of the triumph of true devotion. But then there is life after the glorious conquest, which forms the latter part of the movie, and that story gives the film its special poignancy. Told from the point of view of Sita, this tale of heartbreak and woe with a 20s jazz sound track transcends time and culture.

The Adjustment Bureau The Adjustment Bureau is in theaters as I write and no doubt will be available in the usual movie rental places thereafter. Starring Matt Damon and Emily Blunt, it is both a thriller and a love story with a twist. As in the Ramayana, true love is thwarted, but not by a demon king. Instead interference comes from mysterious men in Brooks Brothers suits and natty hats who conspire to keep the lovers apart. These are the agents of the Adjustment Bureau, whose job it is to alter the course of events to make sure everything goes according to plan. Whose plan? That of the Chairman, whom we never actually see in the film. And who is this Chairman? I do not want to reveal the plot, but we naturally assume it must be God or the Devil. The character played by Matt Damon strives mightily against the forces of the Adjustment Bureau to win back the woman he loves, and there are plenty of chase scenes and fantastic teleportations through magic doors along the way.

Both of the films depict the supernatural, but in quite different ways. In Hindu mythology, both Rama and Sita are incarnations – the technical term is avatar – of divinity. The aspect of divinity known as Vishnu descends to earth and is born as Rama, a prince of a noble family. The aspect of divinity known as Lakshmi, Vishnu’s consort, becomes Sita. Neither seems to quite realize who they really are, and only a few wise sages know the truth. (This part is not in the movie.) But even though the characters do not know who they are, the reader does, and that is why the Ramayana is regarded as a sacred text, much like the Christian Bible. In the Hindu cosmology, the divine is embedded in nature, not something entirely apart. The world contains plenty of magical, fantastical things – flying monkeys, demons with twelve heads, and the like – but they are all within the world, not apart from it.

The Adjustment Bureau, by contrast, is quite western. The Chairman, a being who acts through his fashionable agents, is someone who intervenes in the course of events from outside them. This is the classical view of God and the Devil. They are beings, a bit like other beings in the world, but much more powerful. They have plans for what they want to take place, and have to meddle in events to make their plans come to fruition.

We in the secular west look around at our world and find no God, no Devil. Modern science explains the movement of matter, and we have no need for the hypothesis that some supernatural entity butts in from time to time to make things happen. Or, we adhere to conventional religion and see the world as a battleground between the forces of good and evil, a duality in which our duty is allegiance to Good and to faith that one day Good will finally triumph. In either case, the world has no significance in itself; it is merely a stage.

If we were in the the east we would look around at our world and find divinity in everything. Instead of a duality of good and evil, we would find unity in multiplicity. The Hindu epic narrates in exquisite detail all the fantastic things that are found in the world, which shine and sparkle with the luminous radiance of the divine. The divine (it is misleading to use the term “God,” fraught as it is with western connotations) is not an author of events who makes them happen from outside them. Instead the divine lives within each one of us, and indeed within every being in the world, and makes things happen through an organic will, a life force that animates all. Just as Rama and Sita forget who they really are, so too have we forgotten.

In the west, the religious quest is to align yourself with the forces of Good in the cosmic epic of the battle of Good versus Evil.

In the east, the religious quest is to find realization of the truth of who you really, already, are: an incarnation, an expression of the same divinity that enlivens the entire world.

Just as it is up to us to decide which movie we like better, it is up to each one of us to decide which orientation to ultimate reality resonates better with our own being. We get to decide whether and in what form to orient ourselves to that which gives ultimate significance to our life.

From → Philosophy

One Comment
  1. adam permalink

    Most enjoyable. I like the manner in which you use the films to discuss the differing viewpoints of God, the divine, and our choices.



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