Searching for the Spiritual - UC Berkeley Commencement Speech

Commencement Speech at UC Berkeley (1994)

Searching for the Spiritual

I had the fortunate privilege recently to be able to shoot one of my movies in Thailand. It was called Heaven and Earth, and it's coming out this year. I spent several months over there preparing the movie, and I was struck, as was my crew, by the spirituality of Thailand; by the concept of Buddhism in every walk of life. Of course Thailand has a very corrupt part of society, much like our own land. The politicians for years have been known to be 'on the take'; there's a large amount of deforestation going on; bribes get you everything you need in that society. And the military pretty much dominates it. It's a military-dominated society. When we were there, a military coup d’état occurred and democracy was shuttled to the side. It was an interesting time, because the people are very quiet and, in a sense, very passive by our standards. Until they killed some young people, some protesters, there wasn't the outbreak of sensational newspaper reaction that you get in our country; but something deeper was going on. Thailand, as I said, is a Buddhist society; at 6:00 in the morning everywhere you go you see monks walking on the sides of the roads with their beggar baskets. People give them food. It's very beautiful, the sharing and the trust given the monks.

At one point in my stay there, approximately 100,000 monks got together - in a country that's about as big as Texas - to chant and sing and pray in protest against the military regime.
It was something that was not reported in the newspaper; you didn't hear about it probably because our secular press doesn't pick up on things like that, but it had a tremendous, tremendous impact in that country. It wasn't too much longer after that day when the force of their prayers worked and the military government collapsed. They gave up, and they returned to a form of democratic government. It was a very noble example of bringing change through prayer.

When I got back to America, I was wondering where that element exists in our society. We are a very secular, information and result-oriented society. There's very little faith in the right side of the brain type of thinking, or mysticism, or what we call spirituality. Buddhism in this country is not really understood; it's regarded as sort of quaint, it seems to be an old-fashioned religion. But it isn't, really. It's a very active one and has a place in the modern world.

I couldn't find that kind of spirituality in this country, except, oddly enough, in the American Indian cultures where I've been able to travel with some friends over the last few years. With the Sioux up north in South Dakota, and the Navajo and Hopi tribes down in the Southwest. It's been a very eye-opening experience for me to attend a sun dance, for example. A sun dance, some of you may know, is a coming together of the tribes in a vast gathering in the summertime to pray, to exorcise the demons, to bring the tribe together, to make speeches. Certainly the physical highlight of the event is the piercing of flesh, where the males of the tribe walk around a tree in circles and dance around the tree for days on end. When I was there, there were 300 sun-dancers. There were old people, young people; they beat the drums through the day. There must have been a hundred with pierced flesh on the front, on the breast, and on the back. They were crying as they went through a wall of pain, young boys up to age ll. I saw men lifted into the trees by their chests. Horses were pulling the ropes; they were dragging buffalo skulls in the dust like Christ figures. There was a man walking backward the whole time, for three or four days, until he was totally dizzy, I'm sure. But he was looking for the vision. Visions -- often of ancestors. Without food and water in a hot summer, you start to see a lot of ancestors. And I felt that I was witnessing a combination of fear and an act of faith at the same time, which is rare.

The sun dance was their opera and their theater event of the year. In our culture, you go to the theater, the curtain comes down, you applaud, you pay fifty bucks and that's it. But there is faith in fear. And I think in the whole event, the four days, the building of that fear was intended to induce a sacred state of belief in what St. Paul called "the evidence of things unseen." To the Indians, the thing unseen is the Great Creator of Being, Tonkasha or Tongashira. He's sacred in all things of the earth. The rocks that are our ancestors, Mother Earth, the sky, the sacred pipe that they smoke, the Indians view all things as spiritual. All our winters, the 70 or 80 winters that we pass here on earth, are as a speck in time compared to the eternity spent in the spirit world. We here in this room really are ghosts, secondary to that spark.

For them, the Holy Spirit very much exists, but it exists in ritual. A byproduct is art, and art exists for them only if it is holy, blessed with the spirit. Because art, cultural or whatever, is meant to heal, to bind the tribe together on an annual basis to revive mourning and tears and pity and horror and joy. Those things the Greeks called catharsis, the sharing of pity and terror and joy with all. A bond exists between the onlookers and the pierced ones. They give their flesh as offerings as Jesus did. We watch and we are moved by the sun dance's sacrifice, and after four days, we once again commit ourselves to things of the spirit.

Movies and American Society

I might be presumptuous, but this is what I think movies are for in our culture, or at least what movies should aspire to: A coming together of our tribe. Drama as catharsis, as release, as reaffirmation of the power of the spirit. Films, I feel, should be like the great Hindu and Buddhist ideographs I saw on the temple walls of Southeast Asia. Massive paintings and murals telling the common tales; well-known tales of danger, fear, death, heroes, elephants, love, the birth of children and new kings, new dreams. They worship dreams. Holiness in art, ritual, entertainment.
I tried in my own way, with Born on the Fourth of July and JFK, to tap into the national American conscience of the '50s, '60s, '70s. I tried to show that and I hoped to bring together the nation by depicting a national event and showing how it divided this country, and how it could also heal. But I feel the wounds are still too fresh. The film was attacked in many intellectual quarters from both the left and the right, for being false or simple-minded.

I sometimes think that America, unlike the Sioux or the Buddhist societies I've seen, is torn by too many opinion-makers that divide us into a quarrelsome Athenian society where individual artistic achievements are suspect as attempts to enrich ourselves, or as political propaganda statements. If art exists as spiritual revival for the country or the tribe, then it must include controversy, because art must challenge the thinking and fashion of the time and of society. Art must peel back the lie. Often the official lies, as you know, are confused in our history books with the truth.

In our culture I often find the artistic is denied; the concept of catharsis is secularized. All meaning is over analyzed. The truth of the time of a working-class boy, Born on the Fourth of July, losing his legs in Vietnam and being angry about it, or a young president, Kennedy, being assassinated for a viable motive is just too sentimental or too controversial for our opinion-makers, our cutting-edge magazines, our secular newspapers. Very rarely, in my experience, can a movie break through this secularization of thought, this barrier of repression in our culture. The news must be made by journalists. History must be interpreted by opinion-makers and scholars. Drama is, in our country, a political weapon. Hitler taught us how, with his mass theatrical lies. This century, with Stalin and Hitler and Madison Avenue and Lyndon Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, the political image-makers and their line of puppet presidents with smiling faces have taught us that the bigger the lie, the more likely that people are to believe it. We have, I believe, confused art, the spiritual basis of art, with media. Media as hysteria, media as propaganda, the skin of events only. We have taken the Hindu wall paintings and stripped them of religious and spiritual meaning, for our propaganda purposes.

This is frightening if you consider all the implications, because it puts us in a realm of 21st-century human beings who will not really be in touch with themselves. We'll be cybermen and women, artificial intelligence moving on fast-forward. It will probably be exciting but we may not be in touch with who we really are in our essence, our primal essence. I sometimes wake up and wonder how to make it through another day of belief. I feel as many of you might, stripped of spiritual meaning, of a place in the world. Sometimes we hear the earth is shot and the species is going to mutate into weird beings with plastic lungs, dying for food. The waters are dying. Progress itself is now suspect. Why do we breathe, why do we procreate? My generation, I think, is facing the most depressing moment in time. The question is why survive, why? Except finally because it is all we know.

The Dream-State of Recent History

As a filmmaker I have always responded as a dreamer, not as a doer. I don't build houses, I don't make the waters run, pump electricity, explore the universe, doctor people ... all I do is dream. I make some semblance of those Hindu wall paintings that I hope people like because it reflects a dream of theirs. I try to go to the secret heart we all have, the collective unconscious. But the price I pay is that life increasingly seems to me but a dream, a psychological delusion and metaphor, all symbol, that I have witnessed in my lifetime. My critics like to call me "Oliver Stoned," but I feel we all are "Oliver Stoned" because we have to be in order to fully understand the madness of modern times. Don't we all, whether we know it or not, live in the mass delusion of a dream state of recent history? In my short lifetime, I've seen at least seven instances of it on a massive scale.

My mother was French. I grew up in France in the '50s and when I was there everyone I spoke to - children my own age, adults - no one ever said one word about the French collaboration with the Nazis in World War II. As you may know now, it was very, very extensive. But everyone I talked to in those years was a member of the French Resistance or in some way had staked out his heroism. It wasn't talked about, that was the point, it wasn't talked about. It took one filmmaker, well, more than one, but one filmmaker in particular who did stand up, Marcel Ophuls, and his film "The Sorrow and the Pity," to start to open up this aspect of French society that was a wound of denial.

I had the opportunity to go to Russia in the early 1980s to write a screenplay about dissidents in Russia under the old regime of Brezhnev, and all the people I talked to, old and young alike, were guilty of amnesia. No one accepted the crimes of Stalin. They treated Stalin like he was a benign grandfather, someone on the order of Winston Churchill. We all know that Stalin committed some of the worst atrocities of this century; millions of people were killed. But they denied this; there was either an embarrassed silence about their leader or incredible praise. There again, I ran into society in denial.

In my own life, as you know, I went to Vietnam. I served over there in the military, once, and as a civilian another time, and I came back to America in 1969 and there was a blanket of silence over Vietnam. It was just not discussed. It was a very strange thing. It was impolite. All the official histories I read of Vietnam were, in my opinion (everyone has a different Vietnam), all absolutely fraudulent. So that's why I wrote Platoon, because I felt if I could do one thing in my life it would be at least to deal honestly with some truth I had experienced in my lifetime and to tell it like it is, as opposed to going along with this silence. Vietnam is still a wound, as you know. Bush and Reagan have told us repeatedly that the war is over, but Vietnam is a state of mind. It's like the French collaboration, or Stalin in Russia: Vietnam is a sick state of mind that is evident in this country to this day. I was just at a seminar down in Hampton-Sydney and the undergraduates hadn't done a lot of reading, they didn't know anything about Vietnam. They didn't know what the Gulf of Tonkin was -- which was, of course, one of the most interesting staged events of our lifetime. It led to the declaration of hostility against North Vietnam and was a staged and manipulated event. People forgot that we carpet-bombed Laos and Cambodia. Possibly a million to two million Vietnamese died - who knows, they don't keep statistical MIA's over there - but it was a holocaust for that society, and we were very much a part of it.

In the mid-'80s I was able to go down to Central America. That was another shock. I was in Honduras and in El Salvador, Nicaragua, Guatemala. I did a film called Salvador. There was a very strong bias towards invading Nicaragua at that time, up until 1986. When I saw the American soldiers in the streets of Honduras and El Salvador, I asked them if any of them remembered Vietnam. These were younger people but there in green uniforms, just like I was in Vietnam a few years before. And they really didn't. They were embarrassed to draw any parallels to our behavior in Central America. I honestly don't feel they knew anything about Vietnam. It was devastating, it was devastating to the shared experience of the country to find its citizens maintained an indifference to its own history.

Another example in my lifetime is certainly the John Kennedy killing. I won't belabor it; I made a film about it, some of you people have seen it, but the official historians won't tell you the truth. The polls have always shown a deeply inherent popular distrust of the government version of it, the Warren Commission Report. The people who control the memory of America, the newspaper, press people, the politicians, they would have you believe that Kennedy was killed simply by a lone nut in a random shooting and will not explore the pattern of events that has dictated our lives from the '60s on. They tell you that Lyndon Johnson didn't change a thing when he became president, that he didn't change the policies of Kennedy. This is a very tricky question, but it is not accurate: there was a significant change of policies under Lyndon Johnson, starting with the day he came into office, his meeting on Vietnam with his chief advisors. They issued, two days after Kennedy was murdered, a new national security action memorandum called 273, which was much more aggressive in posture and tone than national security action 263 which was in effect until that moment. Kennedy had made very strong indications and plans, on paper, not just by saying it, but on paper, that he was going to withdraw by 1965, and it's all in that paper which many intelligent people, in their contempt for Kennedy, continue to deny as some sort of public relations stunt.

I think another bogeyman in my life, another dream, is the CIA. To some people they're benign, they don't exist. But I don't think the American people are aware of the strong links this country has to Germany, to the Nazis in World War II, and how much the CIA relied on the Nazi intelligence apparatus to get information against the Russians. I would argue that the Cold War really began in 1944, when we sort of knew that Germany was going to lose, when we started to collect all the smart people that we could in Eastern Europe, and in Germany and even in Russia, to start to fight the Soviet Union. The CIA is very much a part of that. In fact, I would argue that the Nazi scientists came here, the Nazi intelligence people, and they brought with them a Nazi frame of mind, which inculcated itself into the American social fabric. What the CIA did through the 1950s and '60s was destabilize foreign governments, use psychological warfare on a scale that dwarfed all Nazi efforts, and basically militarized our country into a state of fighting a Cold War. We were spending enormous sums of money that should have been going into a healthier society, being used only for weapons of destruction. The CIA is still there; it has not gone away. It is probably the largest criminal organization in the world, and has been in the past.

Another dream (or nightmare) is that the media industry can control the events of our time through the media, and through that media it becomes the truth. Every night on television you look at Dan Rather and he tries to sell you his interpretation of events, and it's basically the consensus journalism that runs through channels ABC, NBC and CBS. The same story is repeated, the same take on the same story, the same spin. Vary rarely do they go into a deeper look, below the surface. This Afghanistan war business was frightening, the way they kept repeating the same mantra "the Russians did it, the Russians did it." Anyone who studies Afghanistan, and I hope they will, will find that there was a lot of provocation going on in Afghanistan, through Iran; that we provoked the Russians, in many ways, to come into Afghanistan because we wanted to drain them.

The Struggle for Consciousness

I sometimes think that the media have dreamed our history up. They dreamed Watergate, the revelations of Watergate, of which we saw the surface. There’s so much missing tape, 400 hours of tape, that we, the naive ones, saw just a few hours of -- the surface events. There may have been a reason for Watergate, which I'm not going to discuss here, but I urge you to read a book such as Silent Coup. I urge you as students to look through Howard Zinn's People's History of the United States. It goes through American history upside down. It reexamines Columbus, the genocide against the Indians. It reexamines all the stories I grew up with; the Indian wars, the origins of the American Revolution, what George Washington was really doing. The origins of the Civil War; was slavery really the issue it was supposed to be? Was it really such a noble conflict? How did World War I get started? There are some fascinating economic reasons behind World War I. What about that most sacred cow of all, the origins of World War II? I'm not saying that Hitler was a nice guy by any means, but I am saying that the origins of that war were thicker and more dense than is the simplistic version of the "good war" against Germany. The Korean War is a puzzle to most of us. Vietnam eludes many people. I honestly have reached a point, cynical as it may sound, where I do believe that history is written by those who win. They won. They killed Kennedy, they rewrote it to match what they wanted you to believe, and if Hitler had won World War II, believe me, today we'd be reading a different history about the United States to justify Hitler. Winner takes all. Never underestimate the power of corruption to change history.

I guess I sound pessimistic, but in my heart, being a filmmaker and taking dramatic license, I am most optimistic. I do feel the media can be used for good purpose in the 21st century. I do feel that a golden age could be upon us. A higher consciousness, so to speak, through computers and communication. In a sort of Buckminster Fuller paradigm, people would be smarter because they have to be, in order to make the earth system work. Fuller would say no matter how greedy and selfish people could get, politicians, businessmen, lawyers, leaders, at some point it becomes naturally unproductive to be so selfish. They've got to start to clean up the atmosphere because it becomes economically profitable to do so. Profit motivates. Survival is profitable.

Technology and soul

We must, in our daily lives, struggle to keep our consciousness growing. I sometimes feel like my children, young people, are only getting film sequels, robots, sound-bytes, created by cynical people. I feel that the minds of my children will perish in a sleepwalk through their adult years from the suburbs to the car to the golf course to the office. Devoid of a sensibility to look beyond their own lives to reach out to others. To trip over a homeless person in the street without noticing because they will be unable to deal with the reality of suffering. Nothing wrong with suffering, suffering is good. The Indians say, "Walk with the pain of the world." It is good to be exposed to suffering, not to run from it, not to keep it at arm's length through some expensive government program that we can ignore. It is good to make it part of your everyday life, like the Indians do in Calcutta.

I think with movies we can begin to strengthen people's immune systems, because people go into the movies with their defenses down. It's not real, therefore not threatening. When they least expect it, that might be the best time for the guerrillas of art to get in there and move the head and the heart. One hopes that people will leave the theater renewed, sacred. In a system that has rendered man more and more insignificant, where artists and all people are packaged and trivialized by the media, where their dreams are categorized and destroyed, I really want to believe in the greatness of the spirit of man. And I think so do our movies, that's why we all like happy endings. I think it's something fundamental to all people.

I choose to believe, in the back-burner of my mind, in some old movie hero besieged on all sides by enemy swordsmen, who by some inner force and greater love conquers his adversaries against all odds. What is a movie but this parade of faces across the screen? Greta Garbo to Julia Roberts, they're faces that, for the most part, you love. Most of the power of movies is the close-up of the face. People, I think, want to see faces because that face of sorrow, suffering, pain, resurrection makes the audience, once again, believe in being human. In traversing the odds, in getting up in the morning and making it through the day.

I think man wants to believe in man, woman wants to believe in women, people in people. And in a world where the systems are crushing us, where many of our leaders are shadow-puppets, mouthing hypocrisies on the media stage, where centralization, big business, big government, is constantly, fascistically, gaining each day on the individual and has wiped out so much of the human spirit in this century, I think that people are the one recurrent hope we have. Day by day in the Calcuttas and Manhattans of the world, you get up and you get through the day, inch by inch, and by making it, you win. If adversity is big, and it is, then I choose to believe that man is bigger than his adversity. In the words of Andre Malraux, "The 21st century will either be spiritual or it will not be."


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