2016-06-30
Robert Thurman, the first American to become a Tibetan Buddhist monk, is an author, translator, and professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies at Columbia University in New York. His insights into Hollywood may be aided, too, by his experience as the father of the actress Uma Thurman. We chatted with him about Steven Soderbergh's movie "Traffic."

"Traffic," a dramatization of the War Against Drugs, intertwines the stories of a Mexican policeman (Benicio del Toro), a drug dealer's wife (Catherine Zeta-Jones), and a man appointed to head the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy (Michael Douglas). As the movie follows its characters to Tijuana,

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Cincinnati, San Diego and Washington, D.C., the drug problem becomes a seamless line of culpability linking hardened criminals and high school kids. At the same time, it is in that same human interdependence that solutions may lie.

You liked the movie?
I did. I had heard initially that it really didn't go far enough, but I think it went just the right distance for what the public can tolerate with the revelation of the absolute hypocrisy of this major government program and the stupidity of the government officials.

As my son pointed out, what was really true and cool about the movie was that it kept everything on the basis of the family. It all came back to the family, even with the big drug dealer, and Michael Douglas' character, too. When he walked out, again he placed family above everything else. Because this was the source of the whole drug problem: people getting lost from their actual root of life, their immediate personal relations. They get this cold manipulative thing going, and being completely lost, then turn to drugs to make up for the loss.

There was an interesting symmetry in the way the two families, the drug dealer's family and the drug czar's family, responded to the drug war hitting home.
They both fought for their families. The drug dealer's wife became very cold-blooded. She was like a tigress, and she was mad at everybody. As far as she saw it, her enemies were just a bunch of dealers, and if she could get them to shoot at each other, at least she could get her family back again.

But of course, she isn't going to be able to really restore the home and the community-harmony routine. It's not really going to work. It's built on a falsehood.

Even the hero, the Mexican policeman who was like a monk, who was into it for justice and honesty, had been inducted into a family. Remember, he said he felt like a traitor when he gave the DEA information. But being part of the family was what gave him the power to overturn them.

What solution do you think the movie offers to our drug problems?
I was a little impatient it didn't say more. They didn't take the opportunity to say there is a solution to all this, but the solution is something much more drastic. We have to give up this fake war on drugs thing and instead reflect on the way we are living, how we are relating to the Mexicans, and the poor in our country. It was a little lightweight.

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Instead, we got a lot of action. I didn't see the trailer, but I'm sure what it showed, what people expected, was more of the blown-up cars and shooting.

Michael Douglas' character, the drug czar, didn't cross the line and say, "We've got to change the way we're living."
Yeah, he could have at least said, "I was going to give you a speech calculated to make us all think we're getting somewhere and there's some point in continuing all this. But I can't continue with that. My eyes have been opened by my study of all this, and the war on drugs is a sham. It's gotten to the point that we ourselves have gotten into acting like criminals." We didn't need "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," nothing as corny as that. But he could have struck a much stronger blow there. I don't think that would have been too didactic.

The filmmakers seemed to go with the standard line that we can solve our problems simply by spending more time with our kids. They didn't require the adults to examine themselves beyond that.
Although you have to hand it to the writers and the director that they subliminally challenge that idea, that getting back to your kids is going to make it all OK, by showing the superdealer back with his kids at a barbecue on the lawn, and meanwhile having his former partner killed. We'd already seen that his wife was a vicious killer when she was cornered. Going back to the kids wasn't going to do it.

But that's why I say, I wish we had had something more from this government official, that he wasn't going to just change his own house, but starting from there he was going to change the nation's house. Otherwise, you get the message that it's hopeless, period.

They might have dramatized a person, who might have, even in vain, tried to get the ear of the nation's new drug czar and tell him a few things in a short speech about prevention and decriminalization.

Interesting, because some have said the movie advocates decriminalization.
It is pointed that way, but it's self-emasculating and probably won't get that point out, because it doesn't dare tread on the fact that there's too much money-legal drug money like Merck and Squibb, and liquor money, which is so involved with investing in movies.

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From the beginning, the drug war is just one set of gangsters against the other. The film showed Michael Douglas drinking his Scotch, but no one mentioned Prohibition, no one said, "Gee, we used to have a war on liquor, did you know?"

What can a person caught in this moral trap do? The Mexican cop has a curious response to his situation.
I thought he was brilliant. He was very realistic. He worked for the bad guys to a point, to the end of busting the other bad guys. He didn't make his move too soon. He saw that he was completely at their mercy. You could have made this movie with Antonio Banderas shooting everyone up in a sort of Rambo sort of way, but this was much more subtle.

The reality of this movie was in showing humans being human with each other. The analysis was that a lack of direct human feeling between people was the source of the discontent: the seeking of numbing experiences, the drugs, the buying and selling of everything, and the fantasies of power and the violence. It all has to do with the inability of one human to deal with another.

That's a theme Buddhism has a lot to say about. That is the compassion theme. The idea that compassion is more powerful in the long run, the thing that ties us all together. That was genuinely presented here, it wasn't just fake "family values." People are longing for what is real, and that is definitely a Buddhist theme. The other Buddhist theme that I was disappointed about, that they didn't really deal with, that awareness can solve these problems. Being aware of the full complexity of the situation and not being in denial of it. Awareness is powerful enough to open up the darkest, trickiest problems.

In Buddhism, we have wisdom and compassion. Those are the two main themes. And I think in the movie the compassion was taught. The wisdom side is not enough in there. First of all, nobody says how crack cocaine sends people up the river for years for a tiny amount. And secondly, the movie gives a very unpleasant image of blacks. They are all the dealers, and the rapists, and so on. Art is so powerful, so suggestive subliminally, that they should have watched that more.

I had a similar problem with "Dead Man Walking," one of my favorite movies. [Director] Tim Robbins kept playing these exquisite Pakistani ragas every time they re-enacted the murder scenes. Here it's my duty to introduce these cultures to one another, and here they are reinforcing these stereotypes about Pakistanis and violence, casually screwing up people's attitudes. You'd think they'd realize the frightening power of music. These Hollywood people all go to shrinks. They are always poking around narcissistically in their subconscious. Why couldn't they set the murders to Cajun music? I was writhing with annoyance.



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