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Challenging Impossibility

Challenging Impossibility: Sri Chinmoy lifts car

Article first published as Movie Review: Challenging Impossibility on Blogcritics.

Sri Chinmoy's weightlifting defies belief. People just can not lift the weights that he did, let alone people past the age of retirement. Yet in a two-decade long weightlifting career which only lifted off at age 54, raise the impossible to comprehend Sri Chinmoy did, and furthermore, he said that we can do so too. This is the uplifting message of Challenging Impossibility, a documentary which premiered at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival. Spiritual master turned strongman Sri Chinmoy, who passed away in 2007, is shown lifting not just weights but aircraft, elephants, cars and a who’s who of 20th Century luminaries including Nelson Mandela and Sting. By doing so, the Indian-born poet born again as powerlifter challenged impossibility itself. When Sri Chinmoy lifts weights, “It’s like gravity stops” says former Olympic sprinter Carl Lewis, a personal friend of the weightlifting guru. And gravity indeed is denied when Sri Chinmoy lifts a 2000-pound car on film. How can such feats of strength be possible? The answer is “all in the mind”, according to five-time Canada’s Strongest Man and documentary cast-member Hugo Girard, who credits Sri Chinmoy with helping him to realise that powerlifting is first and foremost internal. “You get to the place where it doesn’t matter how much something weighs, it’s going to move. If you think how much it weighs, you’re going to fail.” All in the mind, and in the heart and soul as well, for as Sri Chinmoy explained, the capacity he drew upon to literally raise the impossible is deep within us all, able to be accessed through the powers of concentration and meditation. “Many, many things I have done which my physical mind cannot believe” he explained. “But then again, when I concentrate, I am not afraid of it. When I am one with it, I act like a hero.” “It's been very motivational for me,” three-time Mr Olympia Frank Zane commented on the documentary, himself a pro body-builder who has merged meditation with weight-training since the age of 14. “You know, there are times in your training when you don't feel like doing it, then you just look at what he's doing and you're in again.” Challenging Impossibility Co-director Sanjay Rawal, a student of the weightlifting meditation teacher for 16 years, said his ultimate wish in making the film was to share Sri Chinmoy’s personal example of challenging the impossible. “The one thing that I learned from him is to never give up. There's no such thing as an impossible dream.”

Challenging Impossibility Trailer

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Poetic Realism: the film genre a director died to make

More a tendency than a genre in its own right, Poetic Realism was a highly influential yet short-lived movement in French cinema of the 1930s, a brief outbreak of lyricism sandwiched between the bludgeoning horrors of two world wars. Unlike Soviet montage or French impressionism, poetic realism was never a unified movement or ideology, rather a loosely conceived feeling and evocation: poetic, otherworldly at times, yet committed to showing reality “as it was”—a cinema of life and of heart.

Despite the fact that he only lived to make four films, director Jean Vigo is credited with founding poetic realism, first with Zéro de conduite (1933), an unusually realistic evocation of an unhappy childhood that was banned by censors, and his masterpiece, L’Atalante (1934).

Namesake of a Greek Goddess, L’Atalante was originally a simplistic story assigned to the director by distributors Gaumont, but Vigo transformed it completely, employing the dreamlike cinematography of Russian-born Boris Kaufman—who would later work in Hollywood—and a surreal, poetic style never before seen in cinema.

On the surface a straightforward romantic tale—two newly weds on a river barge cruise who fight, separate and then are reunited—L’Atalante is a masterpiece, for as New Wave director François Truffaut describes, in filming prosaic words and acts, Vigo effortlessly achieved poetry.

Separated from his wife, the distraught husband imagines her reflected in the water. Simultaneously, departed wife encounters horror after horror on the streets of Depression-era Paris; beggars and thieves are everywhere, men make unwanted approaches and her handbag is stolen—persons and actions all evocative of a broken and unhappy inner state. In deep regret she forlornly but fruitlessly searches for husband and barge—shots of her longing for him in silence. By chance a crew member discovers her and the couple are reunited.

Although highly poetic, L’Atalante is also grounded in reality, the director alternating the bitter-sweet narrative of separation and reconciliation with unflinching images of the grit and ugliness of everyday life, a practise never before seen in contemporary cinema—usually located in the artificial and fantastic—and rare even today. The film is evocative of the Japanese conception of beauty, mono no aware (a sensitivity to things), in which beauty is said to exist even in its opposite; that which is ugly as reminder of beauty absent.

Critic Hal Hinson goes so far as to suggest Vigo’s poetic realism is other-world inspired:

“There’s such innocence and invention in Vigo's style here that the film seems less a consciously constructed work of art than an emanation.”

He continues: “The mood Vigo creates here is a kind of enchanted melancholy, and we feel submerged in it... The effect is almost narcotic. The picture seems to drift, and though almost nothing appears to be happening, our senses are set at a heightened level, as if we were asleep and fully awake at the same time. Vigo moves the story forward by poetic association; there's a logic to the way in which it's ordered, but the links are imperceptible. They're organised by feeling, not intellect.”

Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo

While making L’Atalante Vigo was so ill that he constantly risked collapse, and even directed some scenes from a stretcher. Remarking on the director's state of mind during this period, Truffaut suggests that “It is easy to conclude that he was in a kind of fever while he worked,” and when a friend advised Vigo to guard his health, the director replied that “he lacked the time and had to give everything right away.”

Due to the high degree of realism employed in his films—often to unflattering effect—Jean Vigo was accused of being unpatriotic, his work heavily censored by the French Government. L’Atalante has never been fully restored from the butchering it received from distributors, who attempted to increase its popularity by reducing the running time and changing the title to Le Chaland Qui Passe (The Passing Barge)—the name of a popular song inserted like an axe into the film. L'Atalante was advertised as “a film inspired by the celebrated sung so admirably song by Lys Gauty.”

Jean Vigo died of complications from tuberculosis in 1934 aged just 29, only a few days after the first disappointing cinematic run of L’Atalante. His beloved wife Lydou, lying beside him as he died, got up from the bed and ran down a long corridor to a room at the end. Friends caught her as she was about to jump out a window.

Vigo has been described as the epitome of the radical, passionate film-maker who fights every step of the way against lesser imagination and sensibility, and he is perhaps lucky not to have lived to see his masterpiece so barbarically hacked to pieces. History has viewed Vigo’s work more favourably, with L’Atalante being ranked as the 10th greatest film of all time in a 1962 Sight & Sound poll, rising to 6th best in 1992.

L’Atalante, together with similar works of poetic realism by contemporaries Jean Renoir and Marcel Carné, significantly changed the course of French and world cinema, leading directly to the Italian Neorealist movement of the late 1940s, and the French New Wave (la Nouvelle Vague) of the 1950s and 60s, which in turn inspired an increasing sense of realism in Hollywood cinema. Many of the Neorealist and Nouvelle Vague directors worked upon the sets of poetic realist films before beginning their own careers, and allusions to Jean Vigo and L'Atalante can be found in many of their works.

The Restoration of L'Atalante by Jean Vigo

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Beautiful Moments in Film #2: Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson's War: Story of the Zen master and the little boy

Charlie Wilson’s War (2007) by Mike Nichols

CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos (Philip Seymour Hoffman): Listen, not for nothing, but do you know the story about the Zen master and the little boy? Representative Charlie Wilson (Tom Hanks): Oh is this something from Nitsa the Greek witch of Aliquippa, Pennsylvania?1 Gust: Yeah as a matter of fact it is. There's a little boy. Now on his 14th birthday he gets a horse, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful the boy got a horse,” and the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Two years later the boy falls off the horse, breaks his leg, and everybody in the village says “How terrible,” and the Zen master says “We'll see.” Then a war breaks out and all the young men have to go off and fight, except the boy can’t cause his leg’s all messed up, and everybody in the village says “How wonderful”... Charlie: Now the Zen master says “We’ll see.” Gust: So you get it? Charlie: No. No, cause I’m stupid... Gust: You're not stupid, you’re just in Congress.
Shimura’s “Cherry Blossom Storm” (1953)Impermanence is at the heart of Japanese culture, and the Zen tradition with which it is intrinsically bound. In Japan, appreciation of art and life itself is informed with an implicit understanding of the true impermanence of reality, that we each are here today, gone tomorrow—we and everything else in this world. Such an appreciation of impermanence sees a half clouded moon as more beautiful than one full, fallen cherry blossoms upon the ground more so than spring’s first bloom. As symbols, the clouded moon and decaying cherry blossoms both capture the truth at reality’s heart, and truth is infinitely more beautiful in Zen—and spirituality in general for that matter—than illusion or untruth.
When old age shall this generation waste, Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say'st, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know. —John Keats, Ode on a Grecian Urn, 1819
John KeatsIt is a pre-modern take on the Law of Entropy informed by millennia of inward reflection, no less valid because empirically verified by the experience of heart and soul. We don’t need a particle reactor to know that everything in this universe comes to an end.
“All men think all men mortal, but themselves.” —Edward Young
In the context of Charlie Wilson’s War, this parable of the fleeting nature of reality is used to illustrate that today’s victory may be tomorrow’s loss, today’s loss tomorrow's victory. It is 1989, and real life congressman Charlie Wilson has just seen has seen himself vindicated, his policy of arming the Afghani Mudjahadeen paying off spectacularly in the defeat and withdrawal of the Soviet army, a pivotal turning point in the Cold War. Yes it is a victory says CIA Agent Gust Avrakotos, but where will today’s success take us tomorrow? Spirituality sees success and failure as obverse and reverse sides of the same coin, the coin of human experience which leads gradually, steadily and unerringly to the experience of true reality—the experience of truth with a capital ‘T’—the infinity, immortality and eternity of the human soul.
If I stoop Into a dark tremendous sea of cloud, It is but for a time; I press God's lamp Close to my breast; its splendor soon or late Will pierce the gloom; I shall emerge one day. —Robert Browning
Poet Robert BrowningFrom a spiritual point of view to live only for success is as mistaken as to avoid failure at all costs; both represent a fundamental misunderstanding of the true nature of reality. Understanding life from a deeper perspective, a perspective grounded upon truth requires a longer, broader point of view than the present moment alone, with its ups and downs, victories and losses, happiness and sadness, for success and failure all are equally valid, greater and lesser steps towards the self-same goal—realisation of the ultimate truth.
No Failure No failure, no failure. Failure is the shadow Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the changing body Of success. No failure, no failure. Failure is the fast approaching train Of the greatest success. —Sri Chinmoy, The Dance of Life, Part 13, Agni Press, 1973.
With parables by meditation teachers in film rarer than actual masters of meditation in real life, the quoting of a Zen koan in Charlie Wilson’s War alone makes it eligible as a “Beautiful Moment in Film”—whatever the quality (and it is by no means inconsequential) of the cinematography, acting or directing. How often are the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow? How often do we even make the distinction? All too frequently the sayings of celebrity, beauty and power are writ larger in this world than their words alone justify; not frequently enough the words of the wisest listened to as avidly as those of the shallow. One day the words of wise people may actually be worth more than the wisdom of ‘fools.’ I can’t wait to see the films made when that day arrives.
“Human life is limited, but I want to live for ever.” —Yukio Mishima, final written words.

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Footnote

  1. “After Gust Avrakotos’s outburst against the head of the Clandestine Services, he was unemployable in the CIA. Stung, Gust went home to Aliquippa and asked a family friend (the town witch) to create a curse against his boss Graver. Had any of the teams in the CIA found out about the curse, they would have sent Gust away for psychiatric evaluation, but the curse was a private affair.” Charlie Wilson’s War by George Crile.

Beautiful Moments in Film #1: Dedication

Dedication (2007) by Justin Theroux

Rudy: That's life Henry. Henry: Yep. Rudy: You know what life is? Henry: Life is a horrible little giggle in the midst of a forced death march towards hell. Rudy: No it isn't. Henry: An interminable wail of grief... Rudy: No! Life is a single skip for joy. Henry: (sigh) I know...
A realist, two feet planted firmly on the ground, looks down and pronounces that this, here and now, is life. A poet instead dreams of flight, and bravely leaps up into the air... If life is a skip for joy it requires one to enjoy, remember the time we spend in the air, rather than dwell upon that spent on the ground. Or in the ground for that matter. These are the Newtonian laws of happiness—the ipso facto necessity of optimism and hope instead of pessimism and doubt, for life is a cup both half-empty and half-full, poison-laced and nectar-brimmed, a meal we cook either satisfying or not by our very perceptions and attitudes. Dedication Movie PosterHenry Roth (Billy Crudup) is a character who sees nothing but the landing at the end of life, the death awaiting him when his skip—more leaden-footed stumble—touches the ground. Dedication begins with Henry as a realist, but his realism really an excuse for an all pervading, bleak without respite pessimism, a pessimism which, in an endless circle of causation, justifies his fear and perpetuates his misery. Henry ends the film taking a leap of faith, dares blindly to hope against “facts” or “proof,” chooses no to longer look down.

Pessimist, Optimist, Realist

A pessimist is he Who shuts his eyes To the rising sun. An optimist is he Who looks up and sees Through the teeming clouds. A realist is he Who faces the clouds And adores the sun. —Sri Chinmoy The Wings Of Light, Part 3

If a tree falls on Google Maps…

If  a tree falls on Google Maps and nobody sees it fall, did it fall in the real world? An interesting conundrum explored in this short video by low-end production team The Vacationeers, whereby fictional users of a virtual world, by the click of a mouse, cause change in this world, a post-modern, Web 2.0 allegory if you will to the ageless Indian philosophy of Advaita Non-Dualism, a system of belief and practice which resolves existence and non-existence, self and others, this world and the one beyond to a single, undifferentiated reality. It’s kind of like imagining the entire universe as never ending menu of pizza toppings, baked upon a single, infinitely sized pizza.
Ramana Maharshi“If a man considers that he is born, he cannot avoid the fear of death. Let him find out if he has been born or if the Self has any birth. He will discover that the Self always exists, that the body that is born resolves itself into thought and that the emergence of thought is the root of all mischief. Find from where thoughts emerge. Then you will be able to abide in the ever-present inmost Self and be free from the idea of birth or the fear of death.” “The world is illusory, Only Brahman is real, Brahman is the world.” “There is nothing wrong with God's creation. Mystery and Suffering only exist in the mind...” “That which is not present in deep dreamless state is not real.” —Quotes by Ramana Maharshi on Non-Dualism
Keanu Reeves in A Scanner DarklyHeady stuff, and hyper-intellectual mind-candy explored in better detail on film by The Matrix and A Scanner Darkly, which coincidentally both feature the exceedingly cosmic Keanu Reeves—although even this fan of serendipity defies drawing a bow long enough to find cosmic parallels in that. Yes, the idea that an action in Google Maps can cause change in the real world may be completely non-sensical, but like most science fiction you can not deny that it is hyper-fascinating. And, as in the philosophy of non-dualism, what could be more fascinating than the idea that thought alone can change reality...

Not fool of facts

Maria, a neglected poet from Moscow, a.k.a“Red Squirrel,” has tagged me to write eight random facts about myself. At this point I can almost see my collective readership heading towards to the little red button in the corner of their browser windows, long suffered already twenty-six facts about me, me, me (Thirteen Facts About Me as a Child and There’s a Sequel in this)—but hey, it’s an official invitation, and self-indulgence a near bottomless topic. Eight facts about me, possibly involving a Russian theme
  1. One of the courses I enjoyed the most at university was a first year paper entitled“Russian Civilisation,” taken purely by chance and desperation after failing my first semester. It is a mystery to me still why I took Philosophy, Psychology and German (verrückt!), and not entirely a mystery why I failed—passing, I later learnt, requires actual study—but one thousand years of Russian history was something of a hidden gem, and inspiration when such was very much lacking—the Mongol hordes, Peter the Great, music of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, authors Dostoevsky, Checkhov, Gogol and Tolstoy, painter Kandinsky, the Revolution and of course Gorbachev—all avidly read, listened and consumed. Attendance of these eagarly awaited, two times a week lectures turned an until this point miserable academic career completely around, and as a bonus, was taught by actual Russians—sadly, the same positive didn't apply earlier in the German faculty. Career diplomats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs even walked down the road to give guest lectures.
  2. I had a school friend that was Russian. This was somewhat unusual in 1980s New Zealand, and so was he; I was nice to him really because no one else was—I felt sorry for him and the often self-perpetuated misery he was enduring. I even forgave him the time he announced that he had figured me out—“I worked out what you are—you're pompous!” I tried his caviar sandwiches once but didn’t acquire the taste.
  3. I had a dream once of being in a large school hall surrounded by people from all over the world, feeling happier than I had since childhood, as though I was a child again, sitting on the ground talking to another child, a child who seemed to be my best ever friend—a Russian boy. Almost every aspect of this dream eventually came true.
  4. Despite long wanting I have never been to Russia—except in dream-flight. Another vivid night-time vision, at almost the same time as the previous saw me in Russia, and as a musician. While not exactly booking my flight or practising the piano, I am somewhat curious to see if this will one day come to pass.
  5. I am still waiting for a politician, possibly human being to admire more than Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev. Ronald Reagan stopped the Cold War indeed...
  6. A film and drama major at University—once I discovered how to pass (and study)—I went through something of a Russian cinema phase; the watching of mother and father of modern film montage, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potyomkin, 1925), course prerequisite and introduction to a host of realistic yet lyrical, near forgotten works. One of my favourites, a example of poetic film-making rare even today is Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Earth (Zemlya, 1930), which to quote one reviewer:
    Dovzhenko’s“film poem” style brings to life the collective experience of life for the Ukranian proles, examining natural cycles through his epic montage. He explores life, death, violence, love and other issues as they relate to the collective farms. An idealistic vision of the possibilities of Communism made just before Stalinism set in and the Kulak class was liquidated
    Lyrically beautiful, Earth is also deeply tragic, a poignant example of what could have been, in film and in real life; the last film of its kind before Stalin’s iron fist descended. I even sat through the dense, almost impregnable works of Andrei Tarkovsky—Ivan’s Childhood (Ivanovo Detstvo, 1962), The Sacrifice (Offret, 1986) and the original Solaris (Solyaris, 1972—Steven Soderbergh’s 2002 remake is surprisingly watchable, and worth it for the soundtrack alone)—all watched but not completely understood; example enough of the graphic realism, lyricism and otherworldly transcendentalism which I dream of one day etching as keywords to my own masterpiece. My favourite Russian film of all? Come and See (Idi I Smotri, 1985) by Elem Klimov, a film more brutal than I could stomach a second time, yet containing an near unique, hallucinatory otherworldiness and sensitivity—a young boy wanders in a daze through the countryside and the atrocities of World War II Byelorussia.
  7. My favourite author for a period was Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the 1970 Nobel Prize winner in literature. His combination of politics, realism, sense of justice, morality, absurdity and irony mirrored my own at the time of reading, and his personal account of some of the darkest days of Russian history are, like a car wreck, compulsive viewing.
  8. My eighth and final fact? Visitors from the Russian Federation rank eighth in the list of visitors to this site. And I really am not making that up.
Feeling quite the spammer already after my last post, I’m not going to personally tag anyone to participate in this meme, but should you want to list eight random facts about yourself, I’m sure you know the drill. Come and See trialer http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LMKwMzLj8Ow

Knife fights and personal transformation

I'm officially excited. My personal book of the year, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, is about to be made into a movie. Hang on a minute—just how many books have I read in the last year? Johnny DeppThe answer to that is besides the point, as is the fact that Shantaram is some four years old now, not to mention approximately twenty years in the writing. What matter accuracy in the world of adaptation to screen? For those unfortunate enough not have read this epic of knife fighting and personal transformation, the following over the top, self-penned book review would be a good place to start, although page number one of Shantaram, from which the following is taken, would be even better:
“It took me a long time and most of the world to learn what I know about love and fate and the choices we make, but the heart of it came to me in an instant, while I was chained to a wall and being tortured.”
The film rights to the novel were brought by actor and embodiment of cool Johnny Depp, who narrowly beat real life Australian hard-man and wanna-be criminal Russell Crowe (he’s a Kiwi actually) in a bidding war for the story of an Australia prison escapee who found redemption in the heart of India. Roberts relates the following about meeting Depp for the first time after the movie rights were secured:
After making the successful bid for the movie rights to Shantaram, Johnny Depp invited me to visit him in London. Took me a nanosecond, yaar, to pack a grip and pick up the First Class ticket he left for me at the British Airways desk in Melbourne. A limo picked me up at Heathrow and dropped me at a superb boutique hotel, The Baglioni, near Kensington High Street (Oh yes, Mr. Depp is very definitely a Class Act). When I met the man himself, he was kitted out for the Willie Wonka role in Tim Burton's refacimento of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate factory. He looked surreal: a crimson Valiant vision of velvet-elegance with a hint of mischief's menace in the electronic smile (you'll see what I mean, when the movie releases in 005). Then he shook my hand - warm, strong, painter-musician grip - and took 90 seconds to set me free in the mansion of his heart. What can I tell you? All of Johnny's fans ( a considerable number of them have contacted me in recent weeks) will be delighted but not surprised to hear that he's just about the nicest guy on the goddamn planet. He's generous, considerate, modest, brave, intelligent, good-hearted, creative, funny, gentle, wise, loving, loyal, hard-working, and almost unbearably cool. Watching him work, on the set of Tim Burton's C and the CF, was an education in itself. The total professional, Johnny puts passion and intensity into every take, and is always in the moment. No less important, it seemed to me, was the way that he brought so much affectionate communication to every other actor in each scene, and extended that warmth to every member of the crew. It was a happy, positive set, and I put that down to Johnny's art, and his good heart, and to the sensitive brilliance of his friend, the wonderful Tim Burton.
Shantaram the movie is due to released in 2008, and will be directed by Indian director Mira Nair (Monsoon Wedding). Johnny Depp, whom you just know will somehow manage to look cool in a handle-bar moustache, will star and produce. In the absence of a trailer being available to watch, we’re going to have to be content for now with a video of the author talking about his experiences living in a Bombay slum: