Idol Chatter

The basis for the new film “Zen Noir” is a kind of funny concept. A noir-style detective investigates a murder in a Buddhist temple. When he asks questions, he gets slippery, koan-type answers. “My name isn’t me,” says one Buddhist. When pressed, the robed man says, “Articulate Lotus Flowing From the Source,” which later turns into “call me Ed.”

The dame the detective inevitably falls for is a bald American Buddhist swathed in dark robes who meditates on death—”So what are you, anyway? Some kind of nun?” he asks. And there’s an old Asian man who enigmatically throws around small oranges, wields a green foam bat, and repeatedly asks, “What murder?” when questioned. Early on, the detective reads his notes in noir-y voice-over, “Cushions, candles, incense, bells. Suspect possible cult activity.”

But like a typical latter-day “Saturday Night Live” skit, the joke could have been contained within the first few minutes. To keep it going, though, writer, director, and producer Marc Rosenbush—who was encouraged to make this debut feature film by friend David Mamet—sees the pork-pie-hat-wearing, tough-talking (“It’s time to kick some bald, Buddhist ass”) detective through a spiritual transformation.

It starts with a chat with the old man, “I’m not like you people,” says the P.I. The teacher starts to differ, and then, off comes the pork-pie hat. We see for the first time that he does, in fact, have something in common with these meditators—he’s bald too! The teacher reaches up and rubs both of their heads, nodding.

Entirely shot in what looks like a single loft space, “Zen Noir” gives new meaning to low-budget. In lieu of changes of scenery, the camera often rests contentedly for long moments on a potted orchid in the temple—or those oranges—presumably to lull us into a meditative state. It’s so low budget that the first DVD screener we received didn’t work. And about a half an hour into the second, it too pixilated and froze.

Instead of being relieved, though—as I would have been in the first 15 arm-chewing minutes—I was surprisingly frustrated. Spoiler Alert: See, the detective had just gotten Jane, the bald, meditating dame (apparently not a nun), out of her robes and onto a massage table. And during the moment when, had this been a regular noir, they would have shared a smoke, she says that he asks a lot of questions, and that she has one for him: “What’s your name?” He laughs and is about to answer when his face clouds over and he says, “I forget.” We are to assume that he is having a pre-enlightened moment in a Buddhisty, leave-your-mind sort of way.

That’s when my DVD died. Though I managed to skip to the beginning of another chapter for a quick, blurry moment to see our P.I., in robes of his own, eyes closed, meditating—on the nature death, murder, love?

Since I couldn’t watch the rest, I wasn’t able to find out whether his transformation was long-lasting, or if the end justified the verrrry slow means. But I can see this so-bad-it’s-good film climbing to cult status. A kind of “What the Bleep” for noir-loving spiritualists.

Zen Noir is now available on DVD:

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