by Greg Wright
Three weeks ago, I ran as my first “Waterland Home Video Feature” a review of Dead Poets Society, one of Robin Williams’ more memorable performances. Others include The World According to Garp, Good Will Hunting, The Fisher King, and Good Morning, Vietnam.
Given Williams’ unfortunate passing this week, however, the Williams film that comes most to my mind is the supernatural meditation What Dreams May Come, in which Williams plays a man who dies in a car crash and journeys through the afterlife in search of his one true love.
I rather sappily like to believe that Williams is right now on a similar journey toward love. But at heart, I’m a romantic.
Dreams is not the greatest film in the world, but if you’re looking for a way to get weepy over the loss of Williams (or any of the other thousands who’ve died tragic deaths around the globe the last few days) you might check it out. It’s available online at Amazon Instant.
Also, if you’re interested, below is an excerpt from an interview I did a few years ago with the producer of What Dreams May Come, Stephen Simon, and his producing partner Neale Donald Walsch. Simon touches only briefly on Dreams itself (the subject of the interview was Conversations with God), but the things which concern Simon imbue Dreams… and, I imagine, are subjects which Robin Williams is exploring first-hand right now.
GW: In terms of thematic development, one of the things that comes across very strong is the difference between living out of love and living out of fear.
Simon: Thank you for getting that message.
GW: Now, I have not read your books, so I don’t know how in depth your books discuss your conception of love. But as played out in the film, love is a selfless thing: living for others. In terms of the biblical description of love, in I Corinthians 13, is your understanding of love, as your “conversations with God” have revealed it to you, consistent with that? Is it a Christian love?
Walsch: I think so for sure. I think that the reason that passage from the Bible has become memorialized and embraced by almost all of humanity, regardless of the theological point of view, is because it’s universally true. It’s understood to be a universal truth. And that’s why you can read that passage to a Jew, to a Hindu, and it doesn’t matter. People totally get it. It’s not a Christian passage. It’s ancient wisdom.
GW: And then you get to idea that you were talking about on the radio with Dave Ross this morning, the institutionalization of religion—taking something as beautiful as that, and then corrupting that in favor of perpetuating an institution or organization, as opposed to the practice of “pure religion,” as James calls it, the care of widows and orphans.
Walsch: Thank you, yes. But by and large, I don’t see religion as corrupting anything. I think understanding is just incomplete. They’re sitting there like a third-grade boy who has addition and subtraction down perfectly and assumes he has all the answers to all the mathematical questions in the universe. And he’s not corrupting anything. He just doesn’t understand. And when he gets to geometry and trigonometry, he’s going to go, “Wow!” That’s all I think it is. So I’m very careful, because I frankly don’t feel that religion is corrupting anything—not in the larger sense. There’s a faction here and there, but not mainstream religion. Yet they certainly are limited and incomplete in their understanding of things. And I hope that the message of the movie, among other things, is that we just need to take another look at this. Maybe there’s something we don’t fully understand here, about God—the understanding of which means everything.
GW: I understand that you’re a believer in some form of reincarnation, that having died, moved on to the afterlife, one goes through a “life review,” as you’ve described it. And having learned some lessons, comes back for another go at things. If that’s really the case, why don’t the vast majority of living beings seem to have learned much? We are we still as spiritually backward as we were two thousand years ago?
Walsch: Well, in fact we aren’t. It’s attractive to say that, but we aren’t. Civilization has advanced; now, why it hasn’t advanced more rapidly is a fair question. Surely we’ve made progress from the cave man days, and we’re not walking around dragging people by the hair. So we have made some advances. The sad part of this is that the advances are not coming fast enough, in my view, and right now the difficulty in the human encounter is that we’re making advances in our exterior world much more rapidly than we are in our interior world. That is, technology, and science, and medical science, are moving so fast that, unless our theology and our morality does double-time to keep up, we’re going to be confronting some enormous philosophical, theological, and sociological questions—ones that we’ll have no basis, no foundation, from which to answer. Cloning? Forget cloning. That seems pretty obvious. But what about genetic engineering?
I often tell the story of a lady who’d been in the hospital, and the doctor says, “Your baby has a cellular predisposition to muscular dystrophy. We can do some genetic engineering right here and change the genetic construction, change that predilection.” And the mother says, “What?” And the doctor says, “If it’s okay with you.” She says, “Well, I need to talk to my pastor.” And the pastor has absolutely no foundational basis from which to make a judgment. Except what he thinks he knows about addition and subtraction. It’s against the laws of God. So she goes back and says, “Well, the baby has to born with MD because it’s against the laws of God and nature, I guess, to get in there and do in-utero alterations.” And the doctor is just mystified. “Well, if the baby was born, could I do it one minute after the birth?” And she says, “Absolutely. Thirty seconds after, do absolutely everything that medical science can possibly do.” He says, “But one minute before the birth…” She says, “You absolutely cannot.” So it’s a question of time, and not the procedure. We have no theological basis.
So our understanding of life, and God, and what’s true about all of that is so limited that we are racing forward into a place and time where we will have no foundational basis from which to make the most sacred of moral decisions facing humanity. That is true right now, in fact.
GW: Are you familiar with Fritjof Capra’s The Turning Point, the book that was made into the movie Mindwalk?
Simon: Oh, sure. We know Mindwalk. We saw Mindwalk.
GW: That’s a beautiful articulation of the idea that the contemporary practice of religion is wholly tied up with the Cartesian model of the Universe and mechanistic understanding. It proposes that Systems Theory is a way of looking at interconnectedness—which I think is very compatible with your movie and what it seems to be saying. You could play them back to back and have a very nice synergy. If the spiritual systems of thought don’t catch up and keep up with the technological pace, that will create a spiritual dissonance.
Walsch: And the problem here is one simple sentence. There’s a huge reluctance on the part of organized religion to question the prior assumption. And that’s the one thing that medical science and technology have not been reluctant to do. We’ve made advances because we’ve been willing to go into the laboratory and say, “I know we think it’s like this; but what if it weren’t? And it probably is like this, in fact, but what if it weren’t?” And they’re willing to question the prior assumption, which has allowed us to make miraculous forward movement. Only, in the area of theology, not only are you not allowed to question the prior assumption, in fact if you do, you could be killed in certain places.
GW: It’s interesting that the philosophical license to do that was there, but then theology became divorced from philosophy.
Walsch: So the reason I’m really happy about this motion picture is not that it talks about these topics in particular, but it shows you a person—James Thurber’s Everyman—taking a look at “What is this about? What am I doing here? Who and what is God?” And all that. If we can manage to re-open that question, to re-engage the discussion… Our attempt here is put those questions back across the coffee-table—just like you and I are talking about them right here. And that’s one of the hopes of the movie—to bring that opportunity back to people.
GW: That’s very worthwhile. And it’s nice to see the movie do that effectively.
Walsch: But I want to share something with you that I think Stephen wouldn’t say—the artistic and financial courage that it takes to do that is larger than meets the eye. Because it’s totally outside the norm—forget about religion—even in the entertainment business. They don’t want to hear it. It’s a huge gamble. It’s a huge risk. It’s going to lose a lot of money. So for Stephen to put his financial and his artistic neck on the line, to say we’re going to make this movie anyway—to me, it’s that kind of cultural courage that’s going to be required to change the culture itself.
GW: And from my perspective, as a critic—and as a viewer—I would just as soon see a hundred movies that might not agree with my particular philosophy or theology and yet do what this film does as opposed to sit down and see a single Superman Returns.
Simon: I must tell you that I’m very gratified by that. I’ll tell you that when What Dreams May Come was released, I was shocked and thrilled by how well it was received by several Christian publications. Because the theology of the film is not Christian. But because it is a film about faith, and it’s a film about love. And because the faith is so strong in it, that was embraced. And I say this a lot, and I feel this deeply from the pit of my soul, people who are religious and people who are spiritual (but not religious) have a lot more in common than we do in difference—the way we feel we should be treated, the way we should treat other people, the way we look at love and forgiveness. It’s a different mechanism. And that’s the underpinning of what I think is going to help us get the movie business change the world—breaking down the barriers of people dying over exclusive franchises on faith.
GW: Jesus said a couple of things, and people tend to remember the one over the other. One of the things he said was “He who is not with me is against me.” That one tends to get quoted an awful lot. But he also said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” That’s the one that people tend to forget. And it means quite a different thing.
Walsch: Yes it does.
GW: It means there are a lot more people on your side than you think there are. But in our world, we tend to break it down the other way, and say that if we can’t align ourselves very neatly and easily with somebody’s ideology, then they must be against us.
Walsch: That was the teaching of Mohammed, as well.
GW: Was it?
Walsch: Absolutley. Mohammed called Christians and Jews “people of the book.” And they are to be respected and honored, and not warred against, ever. Because they are people of the book, and those who are not against us are for us. The teachings of all the great spiritual masters have been corrupted through the years, to use your previous word, by those who would have a different agenda.
GW: And that’s where the fear comes in, right? Now the scene in the film where you get out of the limo and essentially confront yourself—or meet yourself, rather—has to it imagery that summons up popular depictions of Jesus. Was that intentional, or accidental?
Simon: Really? Tell me how you experienced that.
GW: Well, when the “other self” turns with the hood partially obscuring the face, it looks like a lot of the 1950s paintings of Jesus with the head covering.
Simon: The only way I can answer that is to be as transparent as I can be about it. The ending of this film has been interpreted about five or six different ways—that I’ve heard so far. And I think that, as more people see it, they’re going to interpret it in different ways. I will tell you that the film that got me to be a filmmaker—the film that got me fascinated with spirituality and metaphysics—was Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Because what Kubrick did with the last fifteen minutes of that film, I just thought was brilliant. And he never, ever talked about what he thought it meant. And if you’ll forgive me, I’m not going to either. Because I know what I meant. Those were the first images that came to me when we began developing this film. I said, “I don’t know what’s going to be in the middle, but I know how I want to begin it and I know how I want to end it.”
GW: That comes through very strongly.
Simon: Those were the first images that came to me. So I know what it means to me, but with all due respect, I want to let others decide what it means to them.
GW: That’s fine. From my perspective, I think you can probably expect some of the more conservative Christian commentators to object to it on the grounds that it seems to suggest that Neale and Jesus are one and the same—which, from a theological—
Simon: You’ve spent thirty minutes with him. Could you argue that point?
GW: Well, nothing against Neale, but that’s wholly dependent on one’s conception of Jesus.
Walsch: I really hope that a Christian commentator asks me that question, or confronts me with that theological challenge. Because I would say to that person, when you see Jesus in everyone, and when you even, for that matter, dare to see a bit of Jesus in yourself, that’s when you’ve understood the message of Jesus himself. And when you fail to see Jesus in everyone else and fail to see Jesus in yourself, that’s when you’ve missed the whole point of his message and ministry.
GW: “As much as you have done or not done for the least of these, you have done or not done for me.”
Mr. Williams, I found a little bit of Jesus in you… a little piece of love that shone in your darkness. Thank you for nurturing it as best you could. Go with God.