Wellspring Media // 1994 // 90 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // April 13th, 2004
"Soon, we all will die. Our hopes and fears will be irrelevant."
Even more than the wholly intrinsic and befuddling love of American Idol, all living beings have one universal commonality tying us together: we are all going to die, every single one of us, and there's no getting out of it. (Ironically, when I watch American Idol, I find myself unable to think about anything but this fact, but that is another matter altogether.)
What happens when we die? From a Tibetan Buddhism standpoint, we lose everything that we think is real. All the things we cherish, we are torn apart from, and this inspires fear in life. According to the Buddhists (and this is serious "Buddhism for Dummies" here, keep in mind), if we cannot shake off the fear, if we cannot let go of the things we hold onto, we are doomed to reincarnate in another body, to repeat the painful cycle of suffering and loss again and again.
"The Tibetan Book of the Dead" (the actual book, not this DVD) dates back to the eighth century and is the pivotal Buddhist text on the subject of death and reincarnation. A cobbling of allegory, instructions, prayers, and wisdom, it is traditionally read for 49 days after a person has died in the presence of the body and/or place of death, for the benefit of the departed and lingering spirit (49 days being the time it takes for a person to reincarnate in another body on Earth). The text is read to guide the dying person, to provide illumination to the departing spirit, and to aid in the natural transition between death and rebirth.
To explain things further would involve a lot of herbal tea, some incense, and about 30 years of hard study, so I shall move on.
The Tibetan Book of the Dead (this DVD, not the actual book) is a joint project between Canada, France, and Japan and is narrated by the unflappable Leonard Cohen, which is a much more exciting idea on paper than in practice. His voice, a slow, withdrawn baritone, narrates the film with a mysterious air that borders on the disinterested and apathetic. The DVD contains two feature documentaries, "A Way of Life" and "The Great Liberation."
The first examines the historical development of "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" and its traditional use in Northern India in a remote village called Ladak. Filmed over a four-month period, the feature examines the rituals and liturgies for a recently deceased Ladakhi elder, combined with a thoughtful interview with the Dalai Lama. Situated between the border of China and Pakistan, Ladak has been closed to all foreigners since 1974 due to its politically volatile and unstable geographical location; ergo, the culture has remained relatively unchanged or influenced by modern life. The glimpses offered into this reclusive Tibetan Buddhist village are far more interesting than the dialogue and subject matter. The film discusses thoughts and observations from the book about death, the transition between one world and the next, throwing off the chains of suffering, and the reincarnation of all living things. Though moderately interesting, the presentation is wishy-washy at best, offering very little substantial information to the casual viewer. Most of the presentation muddles down in snippets of allegory and metaphor and fails to capture any sort of viewing interest, and may lull you to sleep.
In fact, the only other redeeming quality in "A Way of Life" is the segments interviewing the Dalai Lama. Any interview with the Dalai Lama is guaranteed to be totally amusing -- the guy is like a big, excited koala bear -- and though he only appears on The Tibetan Book of the Dead for a few short sound bites, they are the highlight of the material, offering much needed cheer and a burst of energy to the hypnotic drone of Cohen's narration and the lackadaisical subject matter.
The second feature, "The Great Liberation," is far superior to its counterpart and explains in detail about "The Tibetan Book of the Dead" and its teachings through the death of a young monk and the 49-day journey his soul takes as he travels through the cycle of life and death. The surreal animation by acclaimed international filmmaker Ishu Patel, combined with Cohen's morose narration, creates an absurdly lucid and often frightening atmosphere of transition, which is hard to quantify without the use of psychotropic narcotics. We are taken through a Buddhist's death in a remarkably intimate and moving fashion, paraphrased with teachings from the book. Vastly superior to "A Way of Life," this feature is engaging and thought provoking, though it suffers from the same concept flaws as the previous feature (sluggish narration and droopy subject matter).
>From a technical standpoint, The Tibetan Book of the Dead is lackluster, offering respectable video transfer and sound without any frills, extras, selling points or outstanding merits. The films are directed and shot with utilitarian and minimalist efficiency, and the lazy baritone dialogue of Cohen floats dully through the speaker tracks. The feature offers no extras to speak of, which, given the incredibly diverse and intertextual subject matter, it has absolutely no excuse to do.
Buddhist, I'm not; but like many before me, as a trendy teenager, I took it upon myself to read "The Tibetan Book of the Dead," which at the time read like "The Handbook of the Recently Deceased" from Beetlejuice. Nevertheless, I struggled diligently through the prosaic and dense material to emerge fairly unscathed, if not totally muddled, with the fundamental realization that, while the subject was deep, rich, and fascinating, Tibetan Buddhism was at fundamental odds with my lifestyle at the time, which primarily involved skipping class and playing saxophone in a ska band.
Even those interested in the mystical teachings of the Buddha may find this DVD a boring pill to swallow. The intense subject matter often times has a draining effect on the viewer, as if the DVD physically sucks the energy right out of the room you are standing in, dispersing it away forever into the endless cycle of suffering and rebirth. Morose stuff, for certain, and the über-laid-back narration certainly does not help matters -- Cohen's speaking voice is the aural equivalent of paint peeling slowly over a span of 30 years from sheer boredom. There is only so much you can jazz up the subject of death and Tibetan Buddhism, which at its core is somber, somber stuff...but if the Beastie Boys can do it, this DVD should be able to, too. While admittedly a film about a fascinating and diverse subject, The Tibetan Book Of The Dead is somewhat of a drag, though a fairly interesting and psychotropic drag.
It is hard to recommend this DVD for a few reasons. Unremarkable production values, coupled with Cohen's languid narration and a morose and complex subject matter, make The Tibetan Book of the Dead a puzzling DVD purchase, alienating the potentially curious, while being far too sophomoric for the enlightened. There will be little value here for scholars or studiers of Buddhism, who would be familiar with the material. However, the subject matter is undeniably fascinating, and anybody truly into the subject may want to give The Tibetan Book of the Dead a spin -- but if you ask me, most people would be better off sticking with the stereo-instruction-esque original text.
"Geographical and temporal perimeters. Functional perimeters vary from manifestation to manifestation." Oh, this is gonna take some time, honey.
Review content copyright © 2004 Adam Arseneau; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 90 Minutes
Release Year: 1994
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* DVD Offer
* IMDb (The Great Liberation)
* IMDb (A Way of Life)