Zen Noir (2006)

Zen Noir (2006)
Marc Rosenbush, director

Filmmaker Marc Rosenbush readily admits 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.

In other words, Zen Noir is not so much a film as a kind of video installation art work. Its title is what it is: a kind of Gesamtkunstwerk of noir film as zen lesson. A balding Caucasian male in his mid to late forties, a nameless detective (Duane Sharp) in a fedora, arrives at what seems to be a Buddhist temple in what seems to be Chicago in a noir-present era. He has been called to investigate a murder, which does not seem to have been a murder. As he interviews three elusive denizens of the temple, he becomes increasingly unhinged from his rational approach (the detective is a model deductive thinker). He encounters Ed the monk (Ezra Buzzington), who seems to be hiding something, Jane (Debra Miller) the noir femme fatale who inhabits the temple apparently to seduce the detective, and the Master (Kim Chan), who does typically Zen master things to and with the detective.

The acting is stylized, the sets are stylized, the editing is stylized, all toward a Zen-like minimalist aesthetic. Identities shift imperceptibly, then abruptly. There are no clear-cut psychological motivations. The detective’s exploration of his own haunted psyche, as he mourns the early death of his own wife, morphs into love-and-death paradoxes, which typify each of his relationships at the temple–if they can be called relationships.

The film is beautiful, often mesmerizing to look at. Rosenbush’s visual metaphor, of burning oranges never touched by the flames that engulf them, states and sustains the fundamental paradox sumptuously. Simple, asymmetrical editing allows the director to shatter the sense of linear time. All characters come to know and embrace pain. Undercutting all of the mystery and frustrated desire (the detective embodies the audience’s presumed frustration over narrative expectations being undermined) is a wonderfully sly and wise sense of humor. Is this film really a big joke? Are life and death, or the human obsession with living and dying really the cosmic joke we play on ourselves? Zen Noir offers an engaging and satisfying mental puzzle to play with, a thoroughly realized aesthetic object to meditate upon. But whether it really is a narrative film is hard to say.

Les Wright