SCARECROW ON SEATTLE
Little Buddha (1993)
In 1992, an unprecedented collection of artists came to Seattle to film what was to become Little Buddha. Producer Jeremy Thomas, Director Bernardo Bertolucci, Composer Ryuichi Sakamoto, and Cinematographer Vittorio Storaro, all four-years removed from sweeping the Oscars with The Last Emperor, decided to set the U.S. portions of the movie here. How they came to choose Seattle, I don't know. Perhaps Little Buddha star Bridget Fonda, fresh-off the success of Singles, suggested it. What is clear is that once they arrived, they fell in love with the city. Not six minutes in, after a brief prologue set in Bhutan, we're driving up I-5 towards the Seattle skyline, then on the Alaskan Way Viaduct sweeping past downtown, then on I-5 again looking out over Lake Union and Queen Anne. You can almost imagine Bertolucci and Storaro coming in from the airport and setting up the shot right then. But there was much more care taken in making this film.
On opening night of SIFF 1994, on stage at the 5th Avenue Theatre for the U.S. premiere, Bertolucci stated that he wanted to make a Buddhist film for children - a tricky conceit considering you're playing with $35 million and you know that most families won't choose it over the latest Disney film at the multiplex. But make it they did, keeping it simple enough for most children to understand while not shying away from discussions of death, depression, and spiritual transformations. In fact, this duality is part of what made, and still makes, the movie a little odd. The premise is that Tibetan Buddhist monks find a possible reincarnation of their great spiritual leader in a 9 year-old Seattle boy. They come to discover the truth and eventually travel with him back to Bhutan, where they are in exile. Throughout, Bertolucci, in glorious, colorful flashbacks, weaves in the tale of Siddhartha while also exploring the very human element of parents having to deal with being told that their son is the reincarnation of a spiritual leader from a culture that goes back thousands of years. As I said, it's a little odd, but one of the dominant themes in the film is compassion. So, if one has compassion for the efforts, it can be a very rewarding experience.
At the time of the SIFF premiere, it was very easy to be in love with this movie. Cast and crew members regularly visited Scarecrow to rent movies. I remember someone signing up Bridget Fonda and openly wondering if she was any relation to Henry or Peter. I remember Vittorio Storaro coming in to rent Robert Flaherty films. And I remember, on Valentine's Day, Bernardo Bertolucci walking in with Bridget Fonda and Jeremy Thomas. He'd been turned away at Tower Records because he didn't have a U.S. driver's license, so he came to Scarecrow. He asked for Alfred Hitchcock's Murder and Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here. Both movies, I later discovered, share Bertolucci's penchant for a floating camera, seeking new perspective and uncovering things that we may not have even thought existed. While there's no direct connection between those films and Little Buddha, that thirst for knowledge still resonates in Bertolucci's work today.
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