Stephen Spielberg

Films of Stephen Spielberg:

“Catch Me If You Can” - Stephen Spielberg (2002)


Catch Me If You Can (2002) is a lighthearted dramatic crime film that was “inspired” [1] by the real-life experiences of teenage criminal Frank Abagnale. Abagnale ran away from home and dropped out of high school in order to pursue an errant, criminal path of confidence games and check forging.  The film, which was directed by Stephen Spielberg, features an all-star case that includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hanks, Christopher Walken, and Martin Sheen, and it was a both a critical success and a hit at the box office.

The film is based on Abagnale’s 1980 autobiographical account of the same name  [2], which may have strayed somewhat from the truth, since Abagnale later admitted that the book was primarily written by his co-author, Stan Redding, who apparently only interviewed Abagnale about four times and saw his task as “just telling a story” rather than writing a biography [3].  Nevertheless, we can assume that much of what is depicted is largely true, and it seems like an extraordinary tale  – a young boy from an upscale New York suburb heads off on his own to assume a number of false identities that lead to his thefts of millions of dollars from victimized institutions.

The narrative is set up as a long-running contest between
  • a naughty, cheeky boy – Frank Abagnale Jr, (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and
  • a stodgy, straight-arrow FBI agent – Carl Hanratty (Tom Hanks)
This is the classic confrontation between the impish boy who doesn’t want to grow up and the concerned parents who want to guide the youth into adulthood.  The metaphorical contrast is likely overplayed in this film, and that is both the film’s weakness and probably where its charm lies.

In fact the whole father-son obsession on the part of Frank Junior is apparently a narrative amplification on the part of Spielberg and scriptwriter Jeff Nathanson [1].  In this film Frank Jr. is continually trying to do things to please his father, whom he idolizes.  The fact that Frank Sr. was convicted of tax fraud was not a matter of importance to his son.   What really mattered to him was his father’s romantic nature.  This is well portrayed by Christopher Walken in the role of Frank Sr., who evinces a sincere never-say-die optimism throughout the film.  After his father disappears from his son’s life, FBI agent Hanratty assumes the role of a surrogate father, although with a more modest, down-to-earth perspective than that of Frank Sr.

The film begins with the 15-year-old Frank Jr. living with his parents in a prosperous home.  Soon problems arise when his father runs into trouble with the US Internal Revenue Service, and the family has to move to a modest apartment in another town.  Frank Jr. begins his life of fraud by pretending to be a new substitute teacher at his new high school instead of a student.  When his mother abandons his father to live with another man and files for divorce, the boy runs away from home and begins supporting himself by writing bad checks.  Soon he gets really good at this kind of con game and begins taking in lots of money.

Almost by serendipity, Frank Jr. wanders into other impersonations to earn money.  He manages to fool Pan Am airways into believing that he is an airline pilot and soon forges airline payroll checks worth millions of dollars.  But these kinds of activities have a short lifespan, and Frank Jr. always has to stay on the run.


Meanwhile FBI agent Carl Hanratty is assigned to the boy’s case, and he begins an increasingly obsessive manhunt for the boy shapeshifter.  As Frank Jr. keeps running, he assumes the identity of a medical doctor and then a lawyer. He also takes advantage of his respect-attracting professional identities to seduce women along the way.

How does he do it?  This is what must fascinate viewers.  He is only a boy in his late teens, and he continually manages to fool people that he is ten years older than that and has substantial professional qualifications.  And the women he seduces obviously must be convinced that he is  older and more experienced, too.  The sheer impudence of the boy’s brash actions and the continually precarious circumstances in which he finds himself induce the viewers to pull for his escape every time.

Of course we know that Hanratty and the law will eventually catch up with Frank Jr., and this finally happens (not without one more breathtaking, though temporary, escape, though).  Hanratty tracked Frank down in Europe, where the boy had been wildly writing bad checks in several countries, and he convinces the boy to surrender before he is about to be shot by the French police.

When he is returned to the US, Frank Jr. is duly sentenced to 12 years in prison.  However, with the surrogate dad Hanratty occasionally making visits to him in prison, they discuss forgery techniques, and Hanratty becomes convinced that the boy could be a valuable FBI asset in fraud detection.  So Franks ultimately  gets to serve the rest of his sentence as an FBI worker without pay.  Moreover, at the end of the film, we learn that after his release from prison, Frank became an expert anti-forgery professional and made millions of dollars in fees.  And over the years he continued to be friends with Carl Hanratty.  So to a certain extent we could say that Frank Abagnale Jr. did get away with it.

The film’s ending may offer a feel-good outcome to the viewers, but I would say there are several weaknesses to this story that diminish overall satisfaction.

The main problem is that the film doesn’t provide the means for us to empathize with what Frank Jr. is thinking and planning to do.  We don’t get a chance to get “inside the head” of Frank Jr. and feel what he feels.  Clearly Frank Jr. was smart and continually developing skills along the way, but the film makes it look like he was just stumbling randomly from one situation to another.  That makes it look like everything was just pure luck.  Yes, there was clearly luck involved, but he couldn’t have managed to carry out all his impersonations successfully without some degree of skill-honing and planning.

Another problem is the character of Frank Jr., himself.  He seems to be inordinately selfish and chasing after simple materialistic pleasures, and DiCaprio’s emphatically naughty performance only accentuates that feeling. In this respect it is interesting to compare Frank Jr. with another famous impersonator, Fred Demara [4], whose story was presented in the 1961 film The Great Imposter.  In fact I wonder if Frank Abagnale Jr. saw that film and was inspired by Demara’s amazing deceptions.  There is a difference between Demara and Abagnale, however.  Demara seemed interested in the pure thrill of changing his identity, while Abagnale was just out for the money.  Demara’s stance is more interesting and sparks the imagination more than Abagnale’s.

The father-son relationship is touched on throughout the film, but it is vague and never really developed.  There is one oddly revelatory flashback shot sequence when Frank Jr. early on was living happily at home with his parents and his mother spilled wine on the carpet.  The boy is told to get a cleaning rag, but his father comes up and immediately initiates a romantic dance with his mother as they carelessly step all over the permanently setting carpet stain.  This short sequence symbolizes Frank Sr.’s disregard for practicality and, instead, emphasis on romantic gestures, which evidently left a lasting memory on his son.  There was potential to go further in this regard, and Walken’s performance as the father does draw us in, but the Hanratty-Abagnale relationship ultimately turns out to be only a shadow.

Another drawback is the presentation of women in the film. They are all exclusively shown as avaricious, shallow, and flighty.  You might say this is just a side-effect of the general overacting in the film, which is why the film is often referred to as a comedy.  But even in the context of  the generally exaggerated roles in this film, the men are not shown in such a superficial light as the women. Indeed there is no subtlety to any of the characters.  Although Tom Hanks seems to be trying to do something, his character is intentionally cast as so dull that there is little he has to work with. Only Christopher Walken, as Frank Sr., seems interesting, but his character is never fully developed.

These thoughts lead me back to the idea, as I have remarked elsewhere [5], of seeing Stephen Spielberg more as a civil engineer than as a fashioner of cinematic narratives.  He has the tendency to create lavishly elaborate cinematic environments, inside of which we think interesting and compelling things are likely to happen.  But the narratives he ultimately constructs tend to be superficial, and his endings are often weak and lack dramatic closure.  In the case of Catch Me If You Can, the 140-minute train ride he takes us on doesn’t arrive at the station we might have expected.
★★½ 

Notes:
  1. "Catch Me If You Can”, Wikipedia, (23 May 2016).
  2. Frank Abagnale and Stan Redding Catch Me If You Can, Grossset & Dunlap (1980).
  3. “Frank Abagnale”, Wikipedia, (21 May 2016).
  4. “Ferdinand Waldo Demara”, Wikipedia, (5 May 2016).
  5. See for example:

“Ordet” - Carl Dreyer (1955)


Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Ordet (The Word, 1955) was another unique exploration of cinematic expression from the famed Danish director. All of the films from his long but sparse career (he directed only six films over the last 38 years of his career) seemed distinct from each other and from the rest of the international film production community, and Ordet is no exception.  And yet there’s enough expressive intensity to all his works that they seem to carry a common reference to a transcendent reality beyond the here and now [1].  This is one of the reasons why many critics and film scholars now regard Dreyer as one of the greatest filmmakers. Dreyer’s expressive intensity and single-minded approach to production didn’t usually translate to success when his films were released, though: Ordet was his only commercial success.

In addition to Ordet’s favorable financial returns, many critics have heaped the film with their highest praise, asserting that it is not only Dreyer’s greatest work, but perhaps the greatest film of all time [2,3,4].  Nevertheless, many of these same critics seem to be at a loss for words as to why they were so overwhelmed by the film.  Indeed several of them say that the film doesn’t even have a plot, but that it still has stupefying greatness, anyway.

I do think Ordet is a very good film, but I will to explore some of its features that make it so.  There are two interesting aspects of Ordet to consider.  One is the film’s spiritual themes,, and the other is  Dreyer’s interesting and peculiar mise-en-scene.

Ordet is based on Kaj Munk’s 1925 stage play I Begyndelsen var Ordet (In the Beginning was the Word, or simply, The Word).  Munk was a Lutheran pastor whose opposition to the Nazi occupation (1940-1945) led to his martyrdom in 1944.  Dreyer saw Munk’s play when it was first performed in 1932, and from that moment he had the intention of making a film based on the play.  It took him twenty-three more years to realize that vision.

The story of Ordet is set in rural West Jutland and centers around the family of a prosperous farmer, Morten Borgen.  Because of the multiple-personality perspective of this tale, there are a number of significant characters:

  • Morten Borgen is an elderly widower and the patriarch of the Borgen family.   He has three sons. Mikkel, Johannes, and Anders.
  • Mikkel Borgen, the oldest son, is married to Inger.
  • Inger, Mikkel’s wife for eight years, has two daughters and is now pregnant and shortly expecting a third child.
  • Maren Borgen, the older of Mikkel and Inger’s two daughter, is about seven years of age.
  • Johannes Borgen, Morten’s next eldest son, has been insane since suffering a mental breakdown while studying theology to become a preacher.
  • Anders Borgen, the youngest of Morten’s sons, wishes to marry Anne Petersen, the daughter of Peter Petersen, a local tailor in town.
  • Peter Petersen, the tailor and father of Anne, belongs to a different Lutheran sect from that of the Borgen family.
  • Anne Petersen, Peter’s daughter, is in love with Anders Borgen.
  • the Pastor is a Lutheran minister who has newly arrived in the township.
  • the Doctor is a medical doctor who treats Inger for her medical condition.
I enumerate all these characters, because they all represent significant perspectives with respect to the main spiritual themes of the film.  We can consider the overall narrative to comprise four sections or acts.
1.  Johannes    
The film opens showing the mentally-ill Johannes wandering about the moors asserting that he is Jesus Christ and warning the multitudes, “woe unto you for lack of faith” (lack of faith in the “fact” that he is Jesus).  The Borgen family, knowing that Johannes is not of sound mind, chase after him.  Later during a family discussion, we learn that Johannes went mad while studying the works of the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, who famously wrote attacks on the Danish Church a century earlier.  It is in this section that we learn of an important difference between Morten and his son Mikkel.  While Morten is a upstanding member of his parish and devoutly religious, his son Mikkel confesses that he lost all faith in God and believes one must rely on human reason.

The viewer will get the impression in this section that Johannes will be a key narrative thread, but actually Johannes soon more or less disappears into the background until the closing stages.

2.  Anders and Anne
Now the story moves to the concerns of Anders Morgen and Anne Petersen, who wish to marry  but need permission from their parents.  Here, too, the viewer may believe that the love story between Anders and Anne will be a major narrative thread, but in fact Anders and Anne are not significant characters in this story.  The real issue here concerns the religious differences between Morten Borgen and Peter Petersen which block their children’s union.

The problem is that Morten Borgen is a lay leader of the local Lutheran congregation and is proud of having restored Christian religiosity to the area, while Peter Petersen is the leader of the Inner Mission evangelical sect in opposition to the mainstream views of the Borgen-led parishioners.  Morten initially opposes the marriage, but when he learns that Petersen has rejected Anders’s formal proposal, he is insulted by the indignity and reverses himself.  He now vows that Anders and Anne will marry no matter what Petersen thinks.

3.  Inger’s Plight     
49 minutes into the film, a new situation arises.  Inger’s pregnancy takes a bad turn, and a doctor is urgently summoned.  It turns out that Inger is in a life-threatening situation, but after the doctor surgically aborts the fetus, he assures the family that she will be all right.  They all rejoice, and there seems to be no evident remorse about the death of the stillborn child.  Only Johannes is grim, and he tells them that if they had believed in him (that he is Jesus), this tragedy would not have happened.
 “You are seeking grapes on thorn bushes.  The vines you pass by.”
Inger’s innocent daughter Maren then comes to visit Johannes in his room, and he tells her that Inger will soon die and that only he could possibly resurrect her, if the others would let him.

This thread has now taken prominence, because it unites all the characters’ concerns.  Morten Borgen has been praying for Inger’s recovery, while Mikkel and the Doctor count on modern science.  In this connection the subject of miracle’s comes up.

In an earlier discussion between Morten and Inger in Act 1 about Johannes’s condition, Morten had lamented that miracles no longer happen because we are lacking true faith in God.  But Inger responded that she believes God’s miracles are happening all the time but that we don’t notice them.  Now here in this part of the story, the Pastor and the Doctor get into their own discussion about belief in miracles.  The Pastor confesses that God no longer performs miracles, because they would be in violation of His own laws of nature that He has set up.  It was only during the exceptional situation with His son, Jesus, the Pastor says, that God permitted miracles.  The Doctor just smiles and says he believes in the scientific miracles like those that he performs.

Johannes is more doleful.  Now he arrives and pronounces ominously to all of them that he has just seen Death with his scythe arrive on the scene and to take a life.  And so it eventuates.  Shortly after the Pastor and the Doctor depart, Mikkel goes in to Inger’s room and discovers that she has passed away.

4.  Life  
This departure of the most compassionate and understanding character in the story with thirty more minutes remaining is unsettling.  Inger, it seemed, was the person who held things together.  But her death does bring them all together to mourn her passing.
Inger’s death is duly reported in the newspaper, and the burial is about to take place.  Peter Petersen repents his past stubbornness and comes to the Borgens to offer his daughter’s hand in marriage to Anders. The Pastor utters words of blessing, assuring them all that Inger is going to a Heavenly place and it is we who must suffer her absence. Morten assures the grief-stricken Mikkel that Inger’s soul is now with God.  But Mikkel sobs, “her body is here.  I loved her body also.”  Yes,  when a loved one passes away, we know, as Mikkel knows, that it was in a physical form that we interacted with and cherished that loved one.  And that physical form is left here on earth to rot away.  That beloved form of interaction is lost forever.

Now at this appoint, just before they are about to put the lid on Inger’s coffin, Johannes, who had disappeared into the moors on the day of Inger’s death, suddenly reappears, this time without his customary mournful cowl, and now looks perfectly sane.  He again castigates them all for their lukewarm faith in God’s miracles.  Maren comes up to him and innocently asks him to restore Inger to life.  Johannes smiles when he sees her complete faith in him and looking upward says,
“Jesus Christ, if it is possible, then give her leave to come back to life.  Give me the Word, the word that can make the dead come to life.”
Inger stirs in her coffin and comes back to life.  Mikkel rapturously hugs her and says to her, “Now life begins for us.”  Inger kisses him passionately and responds wondrously,
“Life, yes. . . Life.  Yes.  Life.”

Dreyer’s Mise-en-scene  
An interesting aspect of Ordet is the stark black-and-white cinematography and unusual mise-en-scene that Dreyer uses to tell this story. There are only 114 shots in the entire film, and most of the interior shots are  several minutes long, with three of the key conversations in the film each lasting more than 5:40.  However, despite what must have entailed very careful planning for these shots, they are not particularly fluid, in the manner for example of Antonioni or Mizoguchi. Instead they are very deliberate shots, with the camera moving slowly from a medium frame of one character to that of another as a conversation evolves.  This gives quite a different feeling from the usual experience of the “invisible witness” that represents the viewer’s perspective [5].  In an Antonioni film, for example, the invisible witness sometimes nimbly moves about, even within a single shot, in order to get the best perspective on what is happening.  That can mean shifting to an over-the-shoulder shot of a person listening to another character speaking to him or her and thus enlisting an empathic feeling for the person listening.  Here in Ordet, though, the invisible witness mostly remains static, almost as if this witness is sitting on a chair and watching the proceedings.  This feeling of a static witness is accentuated by keeping the camera framing mostly in medium shots, so that the camera movements are almost like a person turning his or her head to see another part of the room. 

Another interesting thing about these camera movements is that they sometimes precede an action that might be thought to elicit one’s attention.  For example, sometimes the camera pans slowly to a closed door, and only then does the door open and someone enter the room.  This suggests narrative anticipation of the part of the witness that borders on omniscience [5]. 

These two basic camera effects and the way they affect the invisible witness – (1) the static physical location but fluid “head movement” on the part of the invisible witness and (2) the anticipatory camera movements – give an eerie feeling to the visual presentation that is difficult to characterize in words.

There is also a further bizarre camera movement when Maren comes to visit Johannes in his room in Act 3, and he tells her that Inger will soon die.  Johannes and Maren are shown in one of the rare medium closeups in the film, as the camera appears to rotate slowly around them as they speak.  At the same time the room background, in what may be a back-projection effect, rotates around in the opposite direction, but more rapidly than the camera’s rotation.  The direction of the background’s rotation is as you would expect, but its pace of rotation does not correspond to the camera’s movement.  The overall effect is a further eeriness to Johannes and this scene.

I have also remarked in connection with my reviews of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and Vampyr (1932) about Dreyer’s interesting emphasis on the human face.  In those films there are more closeups that concentrate on personal expressiveness.  But even here in Ordet, where there are few closeups before the final scenes, there is an emphasis on the face.  This is achieved by having the characters often speaking rhetorically and not looking at the person with whom they are speaking and instead facing the camera (the invisible witness again).  This is particularly true of Morten Borgen and Johannes.  And in general a character often retains a marked and emotive facial expression that has an almost expressionistic feel to it.

The expressionistic presentation of faces is further accentuated by the way Dreyer maintains sculpted studio highlighting on the faces of characters, even as they move about a room.  This is artificial, but the viewer is unlikely to notice it and only experience the expressionistic feeling indirectly.  A noteworthy exception to this lighting effect is the way that Johannes is lit – his face is always kept in relative darkness (until the final resurrection scene, in which his now-sane countenance is also highlighted).

Ordet’s Spiritual Theme  
Reflecting on what has occurred in the film, we can see that this film does have a plot, but it is not about such mundane things as a madman or the romantic love between Anders and Anne.  Instead it is about faith in God and the different ways that people have in trying to come to terms with death and life. I do not believe that Dreyer was putting forth a strictly religious interpretation of faith like that of Morten Borgen – that miracles will occur if only you believe strongly enough.  In fact Dreyer, himself, was not particularly religious, although he was interested in spiritual issues [2].   In this film he shows us people from four different religious domains or spheres that are associated with how people look at the infinite.  These are four distinct approaches that are commonly taken by people, and they are each represented by some key characters in the film.  I say “spheres”, because people can lie somewhere within or outside of these general spheres, which encompass various ways people have of relating to God.

  • Johannes  – Spirit.  
    Johannes represents the mystical, the unquestioned belief that there are saviors and miracles.  There is no logic to this sphere, and virtually everyone is outside of this sphere’s compass. Only prophets and people like Johannes are inside this sphere; although other people outside of it may look worshipfully to the mystics from this sphere for guidance. But the few people from within this sphere are darkly mysterious, and that is why Dreyer keeps the mad Johannes’s visual countenance in darkness.

  • Morten, Peter, and the Pastor – Religious Mind.  
    A second sphere concerns conventional religious doctrine and practice.  Here we have people who follow various rules to find hopeful salvation.  But they are using the mind to follow their holy path.  Morten complained to Peter that Peter’s faith was too sour, that his own faith was eternal joy, while Peter’s faith longed death –
    “My faith is the warmth of life, and yours is the coldness of death”.
    However, when Morten prays for a miracle and it doesn’t happen, he has a mechanistic belief that his own lack of faith must have made the pray–>God–>miracle process not work on that occasion. This is similar to the feeble and non-falsifiable "Law of Attraction" notion that gets passed around these days [6].

    Many people are within the scope of this particular sphere, although they, like Morten and Peter, may be in opposition to one another.
     
  • Mikkel and the Doctor – Scientific Mind.   
    Mikkel and the Doctor are benign humanists who put their faith in human reason.  These are the rationalists, and many modern-day educated people are within the scope of this sphere. They have faith in scientific progress, but the scope of their thinking and their conceived powers is tiny compared to the infinite wonders of life.
      
  • Inger – Love and Life.   
    Inger represents the fourth sphere, love. Her idea was that the miracle of love and life was happening all around us all the time.  She doesn’t argue the point intellectually; she embodies it.  In this sense she is another one of Dreyer’s physically embodied existential feminine heroines that are distinctly his.  As I remarked in connection with my review of Dreyer’s Vampyr,
    "Dreyer, like Mizoguchi, always had a fascination and sensitivity for the feminine role in human interactions . . . Like Kenji Mizoguchi, the feminine role is not an abstraction for Dreyer, but is always a very physical presence in his films. Yet it is far distanced from the typical male fantasy of a feminine abstraction. . . . Von Sternberg’s” women are idealized and viewed from the man’s perspective. But throughout Dreyer’s career, his women, like Mizoguchi’s, are grounded in the physical world, and yet have some strangely 'spiritual' dimension, too."
    The resurrection that happens at the end, in my view, is not just a matter of Maren’s sincere belief  that makes the pray–>God–>miracle mechanism (that Morten referred to) work this time.  No, it was actually a true, incomprehensible miracle that defies our understanding but which Inger embraces, as she does all aspects of life.
       
    Inger’s sphere of Love and Life can include religious feelings, but these would be driven by love and compassion and not by harsh proscriptions [7]. Everyone can be inside the compass of Inger’s sphere, and I believe this is where Dreyer stood, as well.
The magic of Ordet derives from showing people from all the above-mentioned four spheres interacting with each other and engaged in meaningful dialogues. Overall, this is a rich and fascinating film, and repeated viewings may lead you to new insights and different responses about death, life, and love.  I would only say that for me (and Dreyer), Inger’s final word is the word.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. Paul Shrader, Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, Dreyer, University of California Press (1972).
  2. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Mise en Scène as Miracle in Dreyer’s ORDET”, Jonathan Rosenbaum (JonathanRosenbaum.net), (16 February 2016).
  3. Roger Ebert, “Ordet”, RogerEbert.com, (8 March 2008). 
  4. Chris Fujiwara, “Ordet”, The Criterion Collection, (20 August 2001). 
  5. Ray Carney, “‘Knowledge in Space and Time,’ a discussion of Ordet (The Word)”, (excerpts from his book Speaking the Language of Desire: the Films of Carl Dreyer) (1989).  
  6. For further comments on the pseudoscientific "Law of Attraction" notion, see
    • The Film Sufi, "The Secret", The Film Sufi, (26 April 2008).
  7. In terms of my comments on “The Two Religions”, Inger’s spiritual feelings would correspond to “Religion 1", while those of Morten, Peter, and the Pastor would correspond to “Religion 2":

“Loving the Silent Tears” - Vincent Paterson (2012)


Loving the Silent Tears (2012) was a Broadway-style musical stage show with a theme of compassion, nonviolence, and spiritual awakening.   It was based on the poetry of Supreme Master Ching Hai, a spiritual teacher and advocate of vegetarianism [1]. There were several unique and interesting things about this musical which I will outline below, but the first thing to mention is that this extravagant production was a one-time only stage performance that was presented at the Los Angeles Shrine Auditorium on 27 October 2012 before a capacity crowd of 6,300 people and at the same time filmed. 

The released film, which is available on a 4-disc DVD set [2], includes, besides the show, coverage of the production background and events associated with the performance.  So we can consider it to be both a fiction narrative and a documentary film offering.

Although Supreme Master (aka Suma) Ching Hai only wrote the poetry and was not involved in the actual stage or film production, it is worth first briefly discussing her, because her spirit very much affected everything that followed.  Over the past thirty years Supreme Master Ching Hai (SMCH) has attracted a large international following of disciples who adhere to her precepts and the teachings of her “light and sound meditation”.  A principal theme of this teaching, as it is with a number of other spiritual movements derived from India (such as, for example, other Surat Shabd Yoga groups, the Brahma Kumaris, Sadhguru, et al.), is that spiritual enlightenment comes from within – each person has the potential to become godly by finding and evoking the already-resident “inner master” that is also the one, eternal Master.  And like the other similar groups, her movement is not a religion, and they accept people from all faiths. 

She is reported to have been born Hue Dang Trinh in Vietnam in 1950 and only later took on the title of “Suma Ching Hai” [3]. Exposed to both the Roman Catholicism of her parents and the Buddhism of other family elders, the young woman left home to pursue a path in search of spiritual enlightenment. She traveled to Germany, where she married a German physician; but after a couple of years, they separated amicably, because she wanted to continue her spiritual quest [4].  Thereafter in India she became a disciple of Sant Mat spiritual leader Thakar Singh, from whom she learned the Surat Shabd Yoga spiritual practice and which was presumably the inspiration for her own Quan Yin Method.  It was during this time in the 1980s that she wrote the poetry in English that was only much later published in her book, Silent Tears (2007) [1], and it was also during this time that she, herself, began to be recognized as a spiritual master.  Over the years her organization has also become known for its charitable work [5].

SMCH’s poetry from this period expresses her longing and sometimes frustrated attempts to find true spiritual enlightenment, but it is infused with a conviction that there is a path to the inner master. Oscar-winning songwriter Al Kasha was so inspired by this poetry that he decided to use it as the basis for a new musical play.  Eventually an all-star lineup of creative personnel – most of them winners of Oscar, Grammy, Tony, and Emmy awards – was assembled to put together the full production of Loving the Silent Tears

The musical composers for Loving the Silent Tears, all of whom besides SMCH are past academy award winners, were
  • Jorge Calandrelli
  • Al Kasha
  • Doug Katsaros
  • Henry Krieger
  • Don Pippin
  • Nan Schwartz
  • David Shire
  • Supreme Master Ching Hai
They composed twenty-one songs based on SMCH’s published poetry (three poems were drawn from other SMCH works besides Silent Tears), which were arranged in a sequence that could suggest a narrative progression.  The overlying narrative structure of the play was configured as a magical mystical train ride led by a train conductor and carrying two separate faithless and self-seeking passengers.  These principal actors, who are also highly skilled and well-established, were
  • Patti Cohenour, who plays Joy, a middle-aged woman with past regrets and lost hope,
  • Luke Eberl, who plays Pete, a jubilantly arrogant and self-seeking young hedonist, and
  • Junior Case, the jovial train conductor and reticently sly guide through the spiritual wilderness.
They are all magically transported on the mysterious train to countries across six continents, and at each stop they are exposed to emotive and colorful song-and-dance numbers that embody SMCH’s poems.  Each of the songs in the show is sung by an internationally famous recording artist from a different part of the world and often in a multilingual format.  These singers are listed here, with the associated countries they represent shown in parentheses:

  • Jon Secada (Cuba)
  • Jody Watley (USA, Africa)
  • Black Uhuru (Jamaica)
  • Debbie Gravitte (USA)
  • Kiril Kulish (Ukraine, Russia)
  • Liz Callaway (Australia)
  • Flo Ankah (France)
  • Camellia Abou-Odah (Lebanon)
  • Ho Quynh Huong (Vietnam)
  • Mark Janicello (Italy)
  • Liel Kolet (Israel)
  • Katie McMahon (Ireland)
  • Brian Joo (South Korea)
  • Heather Park (South Korea)
  • Fabiana Passoni (Brazil)
  • Siavash Shams (Iran)
  • Kay Tse (China)
Each of the songs is accompanied by a spectacular ensemble dance number that is reflective of a different culture, and it is observable that a number of those lead singers are very good dancers, too (notably Kiril Kulish).  The overall effect is to convey the idea that these spiritual longings and quests are common to all cultures.  We are all one.

My favorite songs in the show were:

(All the track recordings are available at http://suprememastertv.com/lst/.  All references to 'Master' in these songs are to the "inner master", not to SMCH.)

How all these different songs and dances featuring contrasting rhythms and styles were effectively put together and rehearsed in the short span of six weeks is amazing to me, and great credit must be given to the director, Vincent Paterson, and the choreographer, Bonnie Story.  In the latter regard I should comment that I am not normally a fan of group stage dancing, but the dances in this show are all perfectly executed grand showpieces, each having a distinctive and flamboyant style.

So in the end, does the train and its passengers reach the right destination?  Let us just say that at the close of the show, it appears to be headed in a promising direction.

Overall, I found it worthwhile (and I recommend to you) watching the entire 7-hour-plus DVD set, which included:
  • A “red carpet” show, which is a traditional promotional event on a show’s opening day that has the major artists walking down a red carpet in front of the theater so that onlookers can get a closer look at them.
     
  • The musical show itself, as well as coverage of associated events, such as some spectacular aerial acrobatics from Cirque du Soleil performers, a post-performance vegetarian dinner, and the presentation of individual $100,000 gifts to three separate animal and human charities.
     
  • A backstage look at the people and techniques behind how the show was put together and rehearsed.
     
  • Coverage of the Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association’s charitable work in disaster relief.
The entire collection is well presented and has high production values.  As I mentioned, the dance numbers are very well performed and superbly staged.  But in addition to that, the camera work and editing deserve special praise, particularly since they were filming a live, one-time-only performance in a packed auditorium.  This is not a static camera view of a stage performance, but a smoothly and kinetically edited presentation from multiple camera angles that flows with the music perfectly.

Although the outer, enveloping narrative is a little thin and primarily serves as a vehicle to link the songs together, I thought it still held one’s interest.  And the acting performances on the part of the three principals were all excellent.

The most compelling aspect of the show for me, however, was the evident sincerity and commitment on the part of all the participants to work for a more compassionate and loving world. From the red carpet show and across all the pre- and post-production interviews, one can see that these people are committed to the idea that we should not participate or support the taking of lives of others. And that means not contributing in any way to the killing of any sentient beings, such as animals raised for meat.  As one show participant reminds us, citing Tolstoy, “as long as there are slaughterhouses, there will be battlefields”.  And many took to heart the simple SMCH slogan: "Be Vegan, Make Peace".

As I have commented in connection with my reviews of documentary films on meat-eating (Eating, 3rd Edition, 2009; Forks Over Knives, 2011), there are "four main spheres of increasingly more personal interactive compass that underlie why you should be vegetarian [7]:
  1. World. It takes more than ten times both the land acreage and energy from fossil fuels to produce a calorie from animal food than from plant-based food.  We are currently facing a worldwide food crisis due to the use of land and water resources devoted to animal farming. The world’s cattle alone eat enough grain to feed 8.7 billion people. If humans consumed a plant-based diet, there would be no such crisis. In addition, animal farming contributes significantly to global-warming gas production . . . .
  2. Community. Every year roughly 50 billion animals are slaughtered for human consumption. Yet animals are sentient beings like us that feel pain. They are existentially our brothers and sisters and do not deserve to be killed for our pleasure.
  3. Body. . . . a diet with more than a tiny amount of animal-based food (meat and dairy) is harmful to human health.
  4. Soul. Most small children are instinctively alarmed when they first learn that they are eating flesh from dead animals, but adults persuade them to accept it. That initial alarm that you felt back then was the voice of your inner soul – the essential core being who you really are. When you resolve to give up eating animal-based food, you are responding to that inner voice and following the path of your true, compassionate nature. You are becoming the complete person that you have always wanted to be."
I believe that these ideas are in accord with those of Supreme Master Ching Hai and also of all the people who enthusiastically took part in making Loving the Silent Tears.  Regrettably, however, because of SMCH’s advocacy of vegetarianism and veganism (the SMCH International Association operates an international chain of more than a hundred vegetarian Loving Hut restaurants), her organization has sometimes been falsely attacked by meat-and-dairy industry-funded lobbyists [8] as a cult. I don’t believe it. Although no organization is flawless, my own personal experiences with people from that organization and from watching this film lead me to believe that all these people are agents of love and compassion and are sincerely working for a better and happier world.  That is what moved me and really stood out about Loving the Silent Tears.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. The Supreme Master Ching Hai, Silent Tears, (2007), The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association, http://www.smchbooks.com/new-eng/book-e/e-silent_tears.htm.
  2. Loving the Silent Tears is available here:
    • http://silenttearsmusical.com/
    • http://suprememastertv.com/lst/
  3. Gordon Young, “God Inc.”, SF Weekly, (22 May 1996).
  4. “A Brief Biography of The Supreme Master Ching Hai”, God's Direct Contact, The Supreme Master Ching Hai International Association. 
  5. Indeed the date set for the Loving the Silent Tears performance was intended to commemorate the 19th anniversary of Supreme Master Ching Hai Day, which was declared to be 25 October 1993 by Honolulu mayor Frank Fasi in honor of SMCH's charitable efforts.
  6. There is also available a version of "Talking to a Stone Buddha" that was sung by Supreme Master Ching Hai and recorded in 2007 that can be found here.
  7. The Film Sufi, “Forks Over Knives”, The Film Sufi, (16 November 2012).
  8. For example, Humanewatch.org.