"the Tibet of filth, ferocity, arcane religious practices. . ."

Louis Proyect lnp3 at SPAMpanix.com
Sun Jun 25 18:00:56 MDT 2000


New York Times, June 25, 2000

Review: "Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-la From the Himalayas to
Hollywood", by Orville Schell

By JONATHAN MIRSKY

The journalist Orville Schell has a sharp eye for the absurd. In 1996 he
traveled to the Argentine Andes to report on the making of ''Seven Years in
Tibet,'' a film based on the remarkable memoir by Heinrich Harrer, an
Austrian mountain climber who became the Dalai Lama's mentor after the war.
When Schell sneaked onto the set, he found an extraordinarily precise
re-creation of Lhasa, the Tibetan capital, as it must have appeared to
Harrer a half century earlier. Prayer flags were snapping in the wind, and
chortens, traditional monuments containing sacred relics, marked the way to
a perfect mock-up of the city's West Gate. When Schell kicked a piece of
yak dung, it made ''a clinking sound, being a ceramic reproduction and
another emblem of the film's commitment to detailed authenticity.''

Such effects are, of course, part of the usual Hollywood magic. But while
creating the powerful illusion of being in Harrer's Lhasa, they do not
bring us closer to Tibetan reality. In his enjoyable new book, ''Virtual
Tibet,'' Schell argues that despite the production's manic attention to
''authentic'' detail, fantasies about Tibet enveloped, or infected, the
movie and its makers. Even the Tibetan extras, one of whom was the Dalai
Lama's sister, were caught up in this fantasy; they hoped that the film's
re-creation of the Lhasa-that-was would shame the Chinese occupiers of
their country.

Jean-Jacques Annaud, the director of ''Seven Years,'' believed his film
would help people to understand ''that generosity and compassion are good
words because they make one happier than anything else.'' Tibet, Annaud
told Schell, ''represents one of the most extreme alternative ways of
structuring a society. If that disappears, then our own lives become
something like a highway with no exits.'' Nearly everyone on the set spoke
of Tibet in the same transfixed tone. And why not? Schell has even seen an
ad for a Tibetan Buddhist baseball cap urging prospective buyers to ''step
up to the plate with your compassion on your forehead.''

One of the most resilient myths about Tibet, Schell points out, is that it
has ''managed to remain apart from the compromised outside world.'' Richard
Gere, one of the best-known Buddhists on earth, told him, ''Traditionally,
Tibetans didn't let anyone in and no one wanted to get out because they
thought they were already in heaven.'' This is bunk: the star has
apparently swallowed whole James Hilton's 1933 novel, ''Lost Horizon,''
which created the image of the nearly impenetrable city of Shangri-La.
Schell, a respected expert on China who has visited Tibet twice since 1981,
notes that Tibetans have been in touch with other societies for over a
thousand years. They sacked the Chinese capital in 763; in the 17th and
18th centuries Jesuit and Capuchin fathers stationed in Lhasa wrote about
Tibet in an informed and straightforward way. And in 1720, at the
invitation of the seventh Dalai Lama, soldiers of the Manchu emperor
entered Lhasa, ''establishing for the first time the basis for considering
Tibet as a protectorate of China.''

But this book is about virtual, not actual, Tibet. This Tibet, Schell
observes, owes much to Western mythmakers like Hilton. In 1953, the
13-year-old Schell was drawn into the fantasy of Tibet as ''a place in
which a separate peace might prevail.'' He now understands that such
fantasies obliterated ''the Tibet of filth, ferocity, arcane religious
practices, grinding poverty, barren wastes, inhospitable weather, serfdom,
disease and theocratic absolutism.'' These are aspects of Tibetan society
before the Chinese occupation that the Dalai Lama himself does not deny.
But that earthbound Tibet is not the one that interests celebrity Buddhists
like Gere and Steven Seagal, as Schell shows better than almost anyone has
up to now. (He could have said something about the promotion by some
Tibetan exiles of their own version of a spiritualized Tibet among
credulous foreigners.)

Throughout the shooting of ''Seven Years,'' Brad Pitt, who played Harrer,
was immured in a secluded hacienda with Gwyneth Paltrow. Just before he is
allowed near the star, Schell is told the ground rules: ''It is acceptable
to gaze upon him from afar but out of the question to address him.'' One of
Pitt's handlers warns him, ''He is such a nice guy that, if he meets you,
he might then feel obligated to talk with you.'' Fascinatingly, Pitt is
almost the only Westerner involved in the film who knows what he doesn't
know. Schell quotes him in an interview with Time: ''They hand me a script,
I act. . . . I'm a grown man who puts on makeup.'' To Schell, he says, ''I
just have no place jumping into a political ring talking about the future
of Tibet.''

While the film was in postproduction, Heinrich Harrer was outed as having
been a Nazi and SS member in the 1930's. (Oddly enough, Hitler himself
fantasized that Tibet was the original home of the Aryans.) Harrer's
grudging response to this disclosure was that he had become a Nazi merely
to advance his mountaineering career. ''There are not that many moments in
life,'' Schell remarks, ''when to claim to be a craven careerist of the
most calculating sort is a step up from ignominy.'' The studio panicked
and, in a form of damage control that Schell likens to forcing ''the ugly
sister's oversized foot into Cinderella's glass slipper,'' one of the
film's marketing managers explained: ''It's about redemption, O.K.? The
fact that he was a Nazi only explains that the character had to change.
This is a movie about guilt and remorse. The bulk of his life, when you
measure 85 years, is pretty exemplary.'' Perhaps inevitably, the film
flopped, despite the yaks flown down from Montana, the special fly-trainer,
the Dalai Lama's sister, Brad Pitt and a $65 million budget.

There is now a modest body of scholarly books and articles about the
history, religion, art and literature of traditional and modern Tibet.
Schell has not attempted to add to their number. What he has done,
admirably, is to peer deeply into the Tibet fantasies of Hollywood
groupies, baseball-cap mantras and, above all, films. Unlike many of the
characters in his vivid and insightful book, he understands that ''my
Tibet, my Lhasa, my Heinrich Harrer, my Dalai Lama, even my yaks were to be
found nowhere on earth other than inside my own imagination, my own
childhood dreams and several centuries of wistful imaginings in the West.''

(Jonathan Mirsky, a China specialist, was a Shorenstein fellow at Harvard
last year. He has been to Tibet six times since 1981.)

Louis Proyect
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