The Sage

by Alan Swyer

study mountain

********

Warning signals were present right from the start.

“We love that little movie you made about baseball,” said the emissary, an earnest sort named Phil Kaplan who was part of a group visiting Los Angeles for a few days.

“What little baseball movie?” Tarlowe asked.

“That exciting one that runs ten minutes or so.”

“Except it’s not a movie. It’s a promo for the film I’m finishing.”

“But what would it take to do something like that on meditation?”

“A promo?”

Phil Kaplan nodded.

“Same thing as with baseball,” Tarlowe explained. “I’d have to shoot the film, then cut excerpts.”

“You couldn’t just –”

“Shoot ten minutes or so of footage?”

Again Phil Kaplan nodded, though with considerably less hope.

“In what you saw,” Tarlowe said, “how many people are on-screen?”

“At least ten.”

“Try fifteen. If I’m going to shoot that many interviews, think it makes sense to get one sound byte per person? Except for post-production, it’s no different than making a full-length film.”

“L-let me get back to you,” Phil Kaplan mumbled awkwardly.

Since most overtures from outside the world of filmmaking inevitably proved to be what Tarlowe, in moments of kindness, termed fishing expeditions – and in less benevolent moments, wheel-spinning, courtesies, or total fucking wastes of time – he expected that the meditation project would vanish as surely and swiftly as those regarding kickboxing, sports nicknames, teaching experiences in Fiji, and the wonderful world of S&M.

Though the reasons given, in the few cases where further contact ensued, were various and sundry, the bottom line, Tarlowe knew full well, was invariably money. Talk was cheap, but not check-writing.

So Tarlowe was more than surprised when, a day later, Phil Kaplan asked to meet for a cup of tea.

“Tell me what it might take,” Phil began when they sat down at a funky Santa Monica coffee house rumored to be owned by Bob Dylan.

“Money and freedom.”

“How much?”

“Of which?

“Which one matters more?” Phil asked.

“The money matters, but not as much as the freedom.”

“The Sage is accustomed to complete control,” Phil said, referring to the preferred name of his spiritual master.

“Then he can have it.”

“Really?”

“Just not with me involved.”

Looking pensive, Phil took a sip of his green tea. “Non-negotiable?” he asked.

“Deal-breaker. And a handshake’s not enough. What’s known as Final Cut has to be
specified both in my contract and in paperwork with the Directors Guild.”

“Let me see what I can do.”

“And there’s more. If you want a puff piece, count me out.”

To Tarlowe’s surprise, Phil Kaplan smiled. “I knew you were the right guy.”

“Can I get that in English?”

“He’s already commissioned films from a couple of people he could control.”

“Misfires?”

“Disasters,” Phil acknowledged with what Tarlowe took to be a hint of glee.

***

Since Tarlowe was considered by many to be the consummate cynic, few even in his inner circle realized that he had an interest in Eastern spirituality dating all the way back to high school, when he first discovered Jack Kerouac, Gary Snider, and Alan Watts.

In the years that followed, Tarlowe spent a period of time with an Indian guru named Muktananda, then did a stint at a Zen center. Each experience, at some point, was short- circuited by two phenomena: Tarlowe’s crazy work schedule, plus the squirming that resulted whenever he attempted to sit still on a cushion for a significant length of time.

The compromise, thanks to a woman in his life, came through technology. Though he jokingly referred to the approach as The Lazy Man’s Path To Enlightenment, or Beatitude Lite, lying in bed with headphones on proved to be an effective means of escaping from the hubbub of life, and finding a surprising degree of serenity.

In no time his CD collection, which featured the likes of Ray Charles, Nina Simone, Sonny Rollins, and Solomon Burke, grew to include a guided meditation by a Sri Lankan monk, a Delta wavelength album by an Orange County chiropractor, several questionable ventures into New Age music, and, ultimately, one about which he was initially apprehensive, since it was recorded by someone who called himself The Sage.

That CD, which Tarlowe privately dubbed Sage’s Greatest Hits, proved to be a mainstay
once he overcame first the name, then his distrust of someone sporting what looked like a dead animal on his head.

MarinaDelReyMarriottRB1

The morning following his second rendezvous with Phil Kaplan, Tarlowe was ushered into the Marina Del Ray hotel suite in which the visiting spiritual master was staying. After being served an unpalatable protein shake, he waited until the enlightened one emerged from the bedroom, wearing a pajama-like garment that looked like a reject from the Hugh Hefner collection.

“Phil says you’ve hijacked my movie,” said the man known as The Sage.

“More like I’m coming to the rescue.”

“Am I not the master?”

“Of meditation, maybe. But of film?”

“And you are?”

“Want to compare track records?”

“I’d say you’ve got a pugnacious side.”

“Same as you.”

The man known as The Sage studied Tarlowe with his intense gaze, then nodded.

“Before we go on, any questions?”

“What am I supposed to call you?”

“Anything wrong with The Sage?”

“When we’re sitting and talking? You bet.”

“Then how about T.S.?”

“As in Tough Shit? Let’s turn things around. What questions do you have?”

“How do you see the movie about me?”

“I don’t.”

“B-but –”

“Phil told me it was to be about meditation.”

“Isn’t it the same thing?”

“Not as I understand it.”

Tarlowe caught what he took to be a grimace from the man he was trying to think of as T.S.

“Tell me what you envision,” the self-styled holy man then asked.

“A fresh look at Eastern spirituality in the Western world.”

“With?”

“Not just gurus, swamis, and rinpoches, but also scientists, physicians, scholars, and the like.”

“And where do I fit in?”

“Isn’t one judged by the company he keeps?”

“But in that company, how much screen time will I get?”

“I guess that depends on what you say and do.”

“Which means, if I understand correctly, I can come up with the funding –”

“Yeah –”

“Then find myself on what I believe is known as the cutting room floor.”

“Know what they say where I grew up in Jersey?” Tarlowe asked.

“Tell me.”

“Sometimes life’s a bitch.”

***

Accustomed to immersing himself in different worlds, Tarlowe, once given a go-ahead he wasn’t sure would be forthcoming, huddled with an assistant. Together they assembled a wish list of people to interview, knowing full well that it was likely to grow exponentially as days turned to weeks, then weeks to months.

Tarlowe’s mantra about the making of a documentary, to use a term he plucked from Eastern spirituality, was something he’d uttered spontaneously while doing a Q&A after a festival screening of a film he made about the criminal justice system. When asked if there was one special key, his reply was succinct. “You need to have a firm sense of the film you want to make,” he began, “then hope you stumble upon a better one.”

That certainly proved to be the case on what came to be known as “East Meets West.” Virtually everyone he interviewed opened doors to other people and places. A psychiatrist in Lower Manhattan, whose writings attempted to reconcile the Buddha with Freud, led him to an institute at Harvard for the study of meditation and psychotherapy. The folks there, in turn, introduced him to a scientist whose high tech study of the cortex of meditators demonstrated that a steady practice slowed – and sometimes even reversed – the loss of neuroplasticity in the brain that led, among other things, to memory loss. That woman then put him in touch with a brilliant Sikh at Harvard Med School, whose work showed the benefits in stress reduction – plus mental and physical health – from a consistent practice of yoga and meditation.

los-angeles-international-airport

A steady stream of airports followed as Tarlowe and his cameraman met with a Columbia professor who’d been initiated as a Lama by the Dalai Lama himself, an ex-Catholic priest who had switched spiritual paths, an American-born swami who ran an ashram in Oregon, then a woman known far and wide as the Hugging Saint of India.

Other interviews followed: a Zen master; a woman who introduced meditation, under the secular name Mindfulness, to classes of inner city kids; a Los Angeles psychiatrist who authored a paper about success treating ADHD with meditation rather than medication; and several Buddhist nuns.

New themes kept asserting themselves: how Eastern spirituality morphed when it reached Western shores; how it interacted – sometimes comfortably, sometimes less so – with medicine and science; how it could be incorporated into Western lifestyles; and, perhaps most interesting of all, how the role of women was evolving in what had been a largely patriarchal system.

***

The non-stop travel, coupled with interviews that ranged from eye-opening to scintillating, proved to be a dizzying experience. But even as he reported in periodically, informing his benefactor about what had been said, and by whom, a question kept gnawing at Tarlowe. How would the man who billed himself as The Sage, but who came off in person like a somewhat epicene song-and-dance man, fit in among such luminaries?

fisher mansion one

By the time Tarlowe made his way to The Sage’s compound in rural North Carolina – a place known as The Sanctuary – that question had blossomed into a full-blown obsession.

Gun shy, Tarlowe delayed what he sensed might be a showdown by spending a couple of days interviewing members of the adherents known as The Flock, not a single one of whom gave him even the slightest bit of comfort or hope. They were what he considered to be the walking wounded – the kind of people he’d encountered over the years in AA meetings and in cult-like groups – only with far less interesting tales to tell.

Nor was he encouraged when at last he sat down, with the camera running, with the spiritual master himself. Knowing that thanks to the wonders of editing he simply needed a handful of pithy sound bytes to create a positive image, Tarlowe found himself fighting against not just cliches like bliss, transcendence, and the third eye, but also the kind of gibberish generally mouthed by geeks who were eager to impress. High-tech, cutting edge, and a marriage between ancient techniques and 21st century means, Tarlowe knew too well, would come off on-screen as highfalutin, lame, and empty, especially when juxtaposed against the brilliance of the others who would be sharing screen time.

The problem was enough to cause a sleepless night. There would be no joy whatsoever in burning the man who had initiated a project he had come to care deeply about. But more importantly, thanks to his own personal experiences, he believed that despite the trite jargon, The Sage’s technology definitely worked.

The only possible solution, Tarlowe realized as he found himself pacing at 4 A.M., would be to create a situation in which the world could see The Sage’s technology in action, then witness the results for themselves.

But where could that be done? And how?

It was only at dawn, when Tarlowe was hiking through The Sanctuary’s hills, that a thought materialized – one that might be hard to arrange, and which might cause The Sage to balk.

***

Without discussing his notion with the film’s financing source, Tarlowe kept to himself until it was a reasonable hour to make some calls. Then, while waiting for a response, he took a drive into Chapel Hill so as to be neither visible nor accessible on the Sanctuary grounds until he hopefully had the kind of approval he was seeking.

***

It was nearing dusk when Tarlowe drove up toward the building on the grounds of The Sanctuary that he had come to think of as the Inner Sanctum. Perched atop a hill, it was an overly-decorated building that housed The Sage’s office and abode.

Taking off his shoes, Tarlowe was asked by a minion to wait, which he did while eyeing the tchotchkes that abounded: silly figurines, drawings, memorabilia, and gifts.

“So tell me about this brainstorm,” The Sage said as he entered the room together with a young male aide.

“You wanted to know what would separate you from the others seen on-screen.”

“Indeed.”

“For the most part, we’ll only see them talking.”

“Whereas I –?”

“Will be seen changing lives.”

From the look on The Sage’s face, Tarlowe sensed that he had him.

state prison

As he and The Sage, in a rented PT Cruiser, approached a state prison in Northern New Jersey a week later, Tarlowe watched his passenger grow apprehensive.

“You okay?” Tarlowe asked.

“Everything is as it should be,” replied The Sage without much conviction.

Aware that, thanks to the strings he had been able to pull, Phil Kaplan and a Sanctuary helper had gone into the prison two hours earlier together with two crew members – the cinematographer and a sound man – Tarlowe chose not to press the issue.

After clearing a checkpoint and a metal detector, the two men were led to a room where, in addition to the two technicians, plus Phil and his helper, were fifteen of the combination desk- and-chair contraptions Tarlowe remembered from high school, each equipped with a pair of headphones.

Silence reigned, with the exception of some heavy breathing by The Sage, then in stepped some of the hardest cases Tarlowe had ever seen, each of them garbed in prison blue.
Representing every possible race and age group, the only common denominator, other than the attitude copped by all of them, was a palpable ferocity.

As the inmates eyed The Sage, with no trace of warmth or affability, Tarlowe cringed, fearing that his notion was about to backfire.

But The Sage, to Tarlowe’s surprise, suddenly rose to the occasion.

“Make yourselves comfortable,” he said in a soothing way, “as together all of us become one.”

Instead of the hoots and protests Tarlowe expected, the prisoners settled docilely into their seats, with the camera rolling. Then again The Sage spoke.

“Let us shake off our discomforts and our woes,” he said, “as we, as one, take several
deep, soothing, healing breaths.”

To Tarlowe’s dismay, the inmates did as told, following instructions far better than he could have ever dreamed possible. And when, after a prompt by The Sage, they donned the headphones, the result was startling.

An almost magical stillness came over the room. Gone, almost miraculously, were the attitudes, the ferocity, and even any awareness of the setting.

In their place was what Tarlowe could only term a glow.

moviemaking

Because filming can be deceptive – a sequence that seems fantastic while being shot too often proves to be a dud when viewed in the editing room – Tarlowe was far from smug even when The Sage praised him for his brilliance.

It was not until the prison footage was edited, then inserted into the documentary, that he allowed himself a sigh of relief, acknowledging to his editor that a potential problem had become a highlight.

But that didn’t guarantee smooth sailing. As Tarlowe suspected, a call inevitably came from Phil Kaplan. Meekly, the emissary asked if a cut could be sent to North Carolina so that The Sage could give his approval.

“Remember a certain conversation we had?” Tarlowe asked.

“Yes, but he’d really like to have a say.”

“And I’d like to run away with a French actress named Sophie Marceau,” Tarlowe replied. “But know what? Neither’s happening.”

***

The next request, as Tarlowe suspected, came from The Sage himself. “The prison idea was perfect!” he announced over the phone.

“And?”

“What’s that mean?”

“I sense there’s more coming.”

“Only that I’m set to give notes when you’re ready.”

“What if I’m not ready?”

“Now?”

“Ever.”

A strained silence ensued until at last The Sage again spoke.

“May I ask why?”

“We’re planning to ask the others who appear on-screen – big names in their fields – to promote the film. Correct?”

“What’s that have to do with anything?’

“Editorial interference.”

“I’d rather call it input.”

“Still not happening.”

“Why in hell not?”

“You’ve heard about never letting a camel get its nose in the tent.”

“That’s not very kind.”

“Plus, I’ve got final cut.”

“I can’t say I’m happy.”

“Your problem. Not mine.”

“Are you always this way?” asked T.S.

“Actually I’m being surprisingly restrained.”

With that, the conversation ended.

***

The Sage’s pouting, which Tarlowe heard about repeatedly thanks to calls from Phil
Kaplan, disappeared the moment the documentary was invited to a festival in Miami.

Instantly, a public screening at The Sanctuary was requested, then scheduled. After watching the film for the first time, The Sage hugged Tarlowe, then expressed his delight to a packed house of followers.

“I may be the master in many ways,” he told the crowd. “But this man is the master of filmmaking.”

Perhaps because he’d been down this kind of road before, Tarlowe couldn’t help but wonder when – not if – the proverbial other shoe would drop.

miami film festival

The Sage brought what Tarlowe thought of as his whole tent show to Miami. Not only did he appear on-stage, in another Hugh Hefner-style outfit, with Tarlowe for the Q&A that followed the original screening – and the one that was later added because of the demand for tickets – but he also held both an Introductory Workshop and what was termed a Plenary at another site.

***

Everything changed, however, when an offer to distribute the film came in from a New York-based company.

In Tarlowe’s terms, The Sage played homing pigeon, first requesting, then demanding, with a very contrite Phil Kaplan as the intermediary, that the film be re-edited in accordance with his personal wants and needs.

When Tarlowe refused, a threatening letter arrived from a North Carolina law firm. Material breach was invoked, together with a preposterous demand for damages.

Whereas once he would have exploded, Tarlowe simply turned the matter over to the legal staff at the Directors Guild of America. They, armed with the contract that Phil Kaplan had generated – and The Sage had signed – rose instantly to their member’s defense.

Simultaneously, Tarlowe’s personal attorney made it clear to Phil that he was prepared to alert the Hollywood trade papers and other media that the artistic integrity of an award-winning filmmaker, despite the existence of signed documents, was being threatened by a cult-like group.

***

Though “East Meets West” went on to win several honors, and Tarlowe remained in touch with several of the people who graced the screen, never again did he have even the slightest bit of contact with Phil Kaplan, The Sage, or anyone of their associates.

He did, however, continue to use the meditation CD on a regular basis.

Meditation
********

Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera. In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel ‘The Beard’ was recently published by Harvard Square Editions. 

Alan’s work has appeared several times at New Pop Lit, most recently with his story “Shut Up and Deal.”

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