Beliefnet
For the third year, Beliefnet is celebrating Oscar season by interviewing five thinkers on the Best Picture nominees. We begin the series, which runs through Sunday, with Buddhist teacher Sharon Salzberg, author of last year's bestseller (and Beliefnet Book of the Year finalist) "Faith." Salzberg trained in India, Burma, Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet before co-founder of the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies in Massachussets. She also co-founded the Insight Meditation Society, and conducts retreats worldwide.

"Chicago" is the movie version of the long-running revival of the Broadway musical. A vehicle for the choreography of Bob Fosse and starring Rene Zellwegger, Richard Gere and Catherine Zeta-Jones, it tells the story of two women who kill the men who done them wrong. We weren't aware that it's also a vehicle for Buddhist insights, but Salzberg and Mary Talbot showed us that "Chicago" isn't just razzle-dazzle


How did you like "Chicago"?
I had a lot of fun with it. It wasn't especially spiritual, but I loved John C. Reilly's character, Amos Hart, and the song he sings, "Mr. Cellophane." It's about the issue of being so unseen that we don't exist. The whole movie is a take-off on celebrity and the lengths people will go to get it. He was the only one who addressed what it means to have no inner comprehension of who we are. All the others are conniving and calculating and manipulating. They're deliciously fun to watch but it's hard to have much sympathy for them.

It occurred to me that all of the characters in the movie are the personification of the Buddhist kleshas or obstacles to insight--greed, anger and delusion.
They're all so greedy. Richard Gere's character, the defense lawyer, in particular, was a send-up of greed--he had to have his $5,000, and he had to win his case, at whatever cost. Catherine Zeta-Jones' character was jealous and enraged to the point where she committed murder. And Roxie, Renee Zellweger's character, murdered her lover because of thwarted desire--delusion about who she was and how she wanted the world to see her.

And when the world was seeing her as she wanted to be seen, it was never enough. She always craved more.
Everyone changes allegiances according to the whims of fashion and who's going to get them the most advantage. I love the moment when Queen Latifah pops her head up from behind the desk with her hair styled like Roxie's, when she's at the height of her popularity. But when Roxie loses that ground, she's completely lost. The thing is, we always lose that ground. It the nature of celebrity, and it's the continual rotation of samsara. Whether you're on top or not, whether you have success or not, it's not going to last.

Buddhists talk a lot about identification, and the problem of identifying with our external roles. And that's what these characters do in the extreme.
That's right. Roxie killed a guy because her dreams were all tied up with seeing the world in a certain way, and being a star. When her lover thwarted that, she was just beside herself. The whole movie revolves around that point.

We all tend to identify to some extent. We think of ourselves as our titles or our jobs or our position in a family. We depend on being praised by others. But something happens when that praise is undermined. Somebody else may move onto the block that's more popular, or we get a mixed review or something. That sense of who we are that we've been cherishing and that's very threatening and very scary. We are out of control. It's one of our worst vulnerabilities because so nonsensical.

That's why I think John C. Reilly is going to the heart of that problem with the song "Mr. Cellophane." He's hinting that there's got to be another way than always being at the mercy of other people's views, or of worldly gain. It's really the most authentic moment in the movie.

These murderers and incredibly unethical people do a lot of harm to others, but there are ultimately no consequences for their actions. How did that strike you?
This really isn't a movie about karma and receiving the karmic fruits of one's actions! [Laughs] The only woman on the cellblock who was hanged was the only innocent one. And John C. Reilly, the only wholesome character in the movie, ends up in the dust. I guess you have to take a long-term perspective of karma and assume that the repercussions of their deeds come about later, or in later lifetimes!

Though I suppose the fact that Velma (Zeta-Jones) and Roxie end up without celebrity at the end--Roxie doesn't even get her picture taken after her trial because another murderess eclipses her--is a karmic comeuppance.
Yes, but they do get their big show together and have a lot of notoriety at the very end.

Most of the movie takes place in Roxie's mind. Ande none of the characters have seeking the true nature of reality as a goal.
I thought it was very interesting how there were levels of what's going on in physical reality and then there were the characters' inner worlds. Reality is completely elastic. Richard Gere's character manipulates the truth, Roxie manipulates the truth. The whole movie was a blend of fantasy and projection and hopes and fears.

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