“Zen Noir”, this 2004 indie comedy, will resonate with some viewers or will annoy others. The cinematic debut of Chicago theater director Marc Rosenbush can be considered an exercise in over-acting, metaphysical chatter routines, and dark-comic editing style (the director used the simple, asymmetrical editing, in order to shatter the sense of linear time). The movie seems to be the marriage between dark and dry humor, pulp fiction and spiritual inquiry. In this movie, Marc Rosenbush tries to blend the Eastern philosophy and Western film-noir traditions, and the result is a movie with a non-conventional plot, low-budget non-Hollywood-style, who can be boring, or pretentious, or both. But it has its originality, unusual visuals, great sound mixing, and a thematic depth.
The plot involves a nameless 1940s-style “detective”, a Private Eye who has been grieving over the loss of his wife, and, for some reason, is investigating the sudden death of a Buddhist monk – only to find his perspective on life challenged and transformed as he learns more about the situation.
With few exceptions, the story takes place in a meditation room, known as a Zendo, and the contrast between his chaotic drama on the one hand and the quiescence of the Zen students on the other is stark, which thus conveys to some extent the point of Zen.
The Zen students constantly offer the detective a cup of tea, which only frustrates and exasperates this “important” man trying to solve an “important” puzzle. Can be fun to see his tough-guy persona getting decimated by smart Buddhists – who find him stressed-out and preoccupied with small worldly things (including a bald femme fatale, a secretive monk and an eloquent master), with questions like: „What exactly do you mean by time?” „And how do you go about solving a murder if a murder may not have taken place?”
The film is in color, but most scenes appear in varying shades of black and white, with other muted tints thrown in for variety. Shadows and geometric angles add visual interest and we have lots of close-up shots. Music is pretty eclectic. Funky jazz alternates with complex music suggestive of the cosmic, and gong sounds punctuate throughout.
Dialogue veers toward elliptical terseness at times followed by periods of silence, during which the visuals convey the underlying message. Humor runs through the entire film. Sometimes the humor is subtle; sometimes it is more obvious.
The writing is mostly clever but has uneven parts. Despite the film’s overall dedication to witty and unexpected dialogue, it includes moments like a sophomoric “laypeople are people who can get laid” joke. Sometimes the comedic aspects feel forced and weak, consisting of silly and predictable gags or very awkward slapstick.
In an interview, Marc Rosenbush said the following:
Zen Noir is a strange, dark, funny Buddhist murder mystery. At first it seems to be a parody of hard-boiled film noir detective movies, but eventually, it evolves into a dark, surreal exploration of some pretty heavy Buddhist ideas, in particular the question of how we deal with death and the fact that the only constant in the universe is change. That’s my pretentious answer. My other answer is: if David Lynch, the Buddha and the Marx Brothers all took acid and made a low-budget movie together, this would be it. The budget was tight, so we had to shoot the whole thing in 12 days. It was hectic, but a lot of fun. The editor was really good at getting me to let go of my preconceived ideas about how a scene should work and just try something new. There was a real improvisational feel to the editing process. Some of the most interesting moments in the film came from our just experimenting, superimposing images on top of each other or running footage backwards or adding weird sounds.
He also admits that he made Zen Noir as a ‘koan for the audience.’ (A koan is a paradox used to train the student of Buddhism to break out of logical, linear thinking and to embrace the Zen approach to mindfulness.) Thus, in Zen Noir, the linear narrative structure, the story of the film, is played with as a form, in part to shatter viewer expectations and, hopefully, to lead to instant intuitive insight. It is precisely this deliberate playing with film form that makes Zen Noir either a brilliant gem of an experience or a totally frustrating one, depending on how receptive the viewer is to Zen philosophy.
Not an Academy Award material, but a comedy with lots of fun, who is offering even a spiritual lesson or two because it proposes a truly excellent koan:
“You gonna freak out, or eat orange?”
Photo credit: imdb