The nature of reality is this: It is hidden, and it is hidden, and it is hidden."
-Rumi, 13th-century Sufi poet and mystic
In an early John Updike story, a nameless narrator registers the mysterious allure of an old Chinese man smiling and sitting alone at a baseball game as the stadium crowd clears out. "It flashed upon me," the narrator declares, "that this was the happy man. The man of unceasing and effortless blessing." Mr. Updike's narrator, an apparent alter-ego, reports a desire to write "an immense book about this man . . . recounting his every move, his every meal . . . everything all set sequentially down with the bald simplicity of intrinsic blessing, thousands of pages, ecstatically uneventful."
Mr. Updike never got around to writing this book, nor is his would-be hero, the anonymous blessed man, likely to be the focus of a documentary film, though his ghost flashed upon me while watching "Ram Dass Fierce Grace," a portrait of a high-profile, extremely public "blessed man," Baba Ram Dass. The film (opening Wednesday at Film Forum) tracks the eventful path traveled by the former Richard Alpert, chronicling his evolution from expelled Harvard professor to giddy LSD proselytizer to best-selling hippie guru to his current conspicuous identity, the survivor of a near-fatal stroke, presenting himself to the camera with his equanimity challenged but intact.
Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this compassionate portrait is its sobriety, its steadfast conventionality. The most engaging, oft-quoted presence in a gallery of talking heads is Ram Dass's older brother, William Alpert, a handsome, avuncular man with a fund of tolerant memories and selfless asides. The film's visual high points are its historical footage (extracted from a 1969 documentary called "Sunseed"), showing Ram Dass in his heyday, the center of hippie lawn parties held on his father's New Hampshire estate. We are treated to the spectacle of a vanished time — long- haired youths cavorting on the family golf course while the beaming, bearded guru strolls shirtless among his initiates, gingerly adjusting the ankles of those standing on their heads. These images and earlier black-and- white clips documenting Mr. Alpert's tenure, with Timothy Leary, at an LSD-fueled communal experiment in Millbrook, N.Y., make you wonder about the novel Mr. Updike could conjure from this material, and about what epic follies and glories might be distilled in an unlikely Hollywood Ram Dass biopic, told with a reckless sociological sweep.
The director, Mickey Lemle, an acquaintance of Ram Dass's over the last 25 years, takes a determinedly respectful approach, employing a tame show-and-tell method in which home movies, archival material and sound bites from corroborating conversations (including a few shot in India) are sandwiched between recent interviews with the elderly Ram Dass — now pushing 70, beardless, wheelchair-bound but haltingly, amiably articulate.
The guru's personal history — minus anything resembling a private life — is briskly encapsulated, with music filling or inflating almost every scene. There's testimony from a married couple whose grief over a daughter's death was salved by Ram Dass's powerfully empathic letter. More glancing, cheerful commentary is delivered by his glitter-eyed contemporaries, including a tie-dyed Wavy Gravy (captioned "Cosmic Clown") and a Cheshire Cat look- alike Bhagavan Das ("Spiritual Traveler").
"It's in you" is the rock-bottom spiritual assertion from Ram Dass on camera — a message derived from the supernatural example of his guru, Maharajji, the quintessentially inexplicable Hindu holy man who granted Dr. Alpert a new identity and name (Ram Dass means "Servant of God") in the foothills of the Himalayas in 1967. The film features some swell shots of Hare Krishna rituals, and lingers lovingly on still photos of Maharajji, but Mr. Lemle doesn't dig into the more expansive spiritual loam comprising the foundation of the guru's teachings. Nor does he explore the contents of "Be Here Now," Ram Dass's 1971 book that achieved wide-ranging currency during the cultural revolution of the time.
In fact, confronted with accumulating images of Ram Dass enduring sessions of speech therapy, swimming and acupuncture, I found my mind cartwheeling into territory at the outer edges of the filmmaker's apparent concerns. What's the substance of Ram Dass's philosophy, aside from an endorsement of psilocybin as a gateway to religious experience? What are the side effects of 2,400 micrograms of LSD every day for weeks on end? Even (or especially) if you subtract psychedelics, how can purity of thought, purity of action, occupy the center of a person's life within our current consumer culture? Could Mr. Updike's happy, blessed man hold himself together if he were delivering lectures, authoring books, being followed around by a film crew, consciously blessed? How, for that matter, can a filmmaker decant the intoxicating essence of an unconventional life while employing a staid documentary style?
These questions sparked others, more wayward and impatient. How about running one of Stan Brakhage's handpainted films over the parade of talking heads, allowing those convulsions of color and light to give the film a surprise glimpse of Godhead? Or, more to the point, how about taking a deep breath, holding back on the "uplifting" music, pulling back the camera and allowing Ram Dass and his story to exist more fully and nakedly in the moment? To register, in Mr. Updike's phrase, "the bald simplicity of intrinsic blessing"?
A visit to "Be Here Now," for a reader unaware of the best-seller lists 30 years back, is tonic; the book is not just a glimpse into a vanished cultural moment, but also an effusive attempt to search out a way to exist in the world. A self-described "manual for conscious being," it is charged with antic energy. It opens out, in its exuberant middle stretch, into a kind of cosmic comic strip, pages printed on brown paper with prototypically "psychedelic" line drawings blossoming around blocks of text set ALL IN CAPS and running up the pages at right angles, requiring the reader to turn the book on its side
Within the groovy, willfully accessible rhetoric ("BABY, THIS IS THE WAY IT IS, YEAH, O.K., HERE & NOW . . . I ACCEPT THE HERE & NOW FULLY IN THIS MOMENT!!!"), Ram Dass offers up a concentrated blend of Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and Sufi teachings fortified by direct quotations at the back of the book. His essential subject is the tug of war between appetite and awareness — awareness, that unscientific state that comes and goes but is, by definition, at the core of any spiritual quest.
Ram Dass's ongoing message: enlightenment, a condition of heightened being, rides along a continuum linking all experience. With a properly selfless perspective, day-to-day living is transcendent. You have to adjust and detach. You have to turn the book on its side. Cleansed of preconditions, awareness translates into love. "All your acts," Ram Dass writes, "will be consecrated."
Allow me to worry over this point, since the phrase "BE HERE NOW" is, in essence, a simple description of what movies do, 24 frames a second. What other medium gives you access to such rapturous nowness — the quality of sustained immediacy, an immersion in the moment, reality revealed as a weave of subjective sensation? Being here now is the primary miracle drawing us to the most exciting documentary films, from the Lumière Brothers through the Maysles, from Frederick Wiseman to Errol Morris. Films which, through an illusion of transparency, provide a window onto reality and reflect a larger light.
The level-headed limits of "Ram Dass Fierce Grace" are thrown into relief by a documentary profiling another quixotic, modern-day near- saint, the Swedish cinematographer Sven Nykvist. "Light Keeps Me Company" (2000), made by Mr. Nykvist's son Carl-Gustaf, presents itself, like the Ram Dass movie, as an intimate, life-affirming tribute. There are testimonials from famous collaborators, clips from home movies intercut with behind-the-scenes footage from classic Bergman films. But this portrait (recently released on video and DVD) allows glimpses into its subject's private life. There are reticent but firm suggestions that the brilliant cameraman was more committed to his work than to his marriage. Music is used sparingly and kept low when it does surface.
The suicide of a son (Carl-Gustaf's brother) occasions a review of photographs, displayed in a kind of stunned silence. And while it is announced up front that aphasia has forced Mr. Nykvist into retirement, his medical condition isn't given much screen time. Rather, Carl-Gustaf absorbs lessons from his father's signature camera style, an expressive simplicity, serving up images of the old man walking his bicycle in a wealth of Nordic sunlight. These shots carry an unexpected quality of immanence, a spiritual charge. The gathering impression is a rare one: a tender but critical portrait of a man humbled but heroic and at peace.
But this comparison isn't altogether fair to Mr. Lemle's lucid and generous film, which, in its final stretch, achieves its own measure of unexpected grace. Ram Dass is shown in a kind of grief counseling session with a young woman struggling to find a way past despair over her boyfriend's violent death. It's the longest sustained scene in the film. In place of explanations and quips, we are witnessing an evolving conversation, a search. Mr. Lemle refrains from hurried editing rhythms, or the imposition of music. There's room for confusion, awkwardness, jargon.
"That's this crossroads thing," the woman says, "like the knock came a long time ago. The knock came again when Terrence came into my life, when I was pretty asleep. I hustled to respond to that knock with Terrence, and then — he's gone."
She recounts a dream in which the dead boyfriend appeared, bearing a message that's devastatingly hopeful. "Yumyumyum," Ram Dass responds, gobbling up the wet sentiment of it all. Then something more urgent hits him; he clutches at his mouth, sobs, moans, gasps. Then, in a quiet voice, says: "Boy, that's — that's strong."
"Yeah," says the woman, smiling through tears.
The revelatory rawness of this exchange equals any transcendent moment you're likely to find in a fiction film, a novel or a "manual for conscious being." Ram Dass both bestows and receives a blessing. When the woman stands and embraces him, it's not clear whose heartbeat is being amplified by the radio microphone. The moment is convincingly, joltingly part of a larger mystery.
Michael Almereyda's films include "Nadja" (1994), "Hamlet" (2000) and the forthcoming "Happy Here and Now." He is working on a documentary about the playwright Sam Shepard.