Stumbling Forward, Backwards & "Sideways"
by Shen Shi'an, The Buddhist Channel, March 17, 2005
Singapore -- The tagline of this movie, the winner of the 2005 Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay, goes - "In search of wine. In search of women. In search of themselves." It sums up pretty well the original intentions of Miles (Paul Giamatti) and Jack (Thomas Haden Church, Nominee for Best Supporting Actor) - two best friends on a road trip to celebrate the waning freedom of bachelorhood, who stumble instead into misadventures of self-discovery.
As with all meaningful road trip movies, the focus was not so much on the physical journey, which in this case was to nowhere in particular, but one of spiritual nature - an accidental modern pilgrimmage of sorts, during which its fellow travellers help each other pull through rough times, before making it to the destination. In this case, the destinations were Jack's marriage to his fiancee after a life of "endless non-commitment", and Miles' new lease of hope and love after a dreadful mid-life crisis.
While Miles is a more thoughtful, yet self-absorbed individual wallowing in his self-imposed misery, Jack is outgoing, "devil-may-care" and sex-hungry. An odd pair - just the right mix though, for a comedy combining wit and wisdom. We see both drifting in life, neither settled nor grounded in reality. Even despite Miles having stronger sensibility, he was too grounded in self-pity to find true ground. Yet better off was Miles, who saw his existential crisis clearly, than Jack, who did not see anything wrong with his life till almost too late.
The duo's trip was a journey to go wine-tasting in the various wineyards of Santa Barbara county. To the general audience who is unfamiliar with the fine art of wining, it can seem pretty much ado about nothing, somewhat making mountains out of molehills, as we hear Miles wax lyrical on how the finest wine is brewed, about how it is to be experienced through specific rituals of taste, smell and sight. Seems like wine can be more intoxicating to the senses than most thought!
It is ironical that Miles' magnified mindfulness and appreciation of the finer details of wine sometimes gives way to drunken stupors. He even "wasted away" his much treasured bottle of '61 Cheval Blanc by drinking it unmindfully over fast food, in a moment of bitter disappointment at his life. His '61 had been saved for that special moment of his life - a moment he wasn't sure was what, and whether it would come. To that, his love interest, Maya (Virginia Madsen, Nominee for Best Supporting Actress) remarked that the moment one opens a '61 is a special moment. What a vivid way of emphasizing the importance of rejoicing and living in the moment, of appreciating life as it is, of not procrastinating our happiness! Why dangle the carrot in front and walk on and on in anticipation of eating it? Why not stop and eat it there and then? Afterall, the savouring of life happens now - not at any other time!
As the movie occasionally dwells on wine-tasting in measured doses, there is a striking realisation that wine, which the movie fusses on and pivots upon for telling its story, essentially has the same nature as any other material thing. Wine exhibits the Three Universal Characteristics - being of constant change (Anicca), being a possible condition of dissatisfaction (Dukkha) when clung to, being lacking in fixed nature or substantiality (Anatta). This rings true as the more wine ages, the more it changes (Anicca and Anatta) and the more delectable it tastes, before it goes downhill (Dukkha). This is an interesting revelation because it clearly shows how trivial our material obsessions and fascination with emotional highs can be, since they do not have any attributes of the true and lasting happiness we seek. It also illustrates the "empty" nature of even the finest wine - of how it is not something which can be held on to.
The recurring theme of valuating different wines also reminds us about our values - the ones you consciously or unconsciously choose will shape your life. If so, why not skillfully choose and nuture the values that lead to True Happiness? One can't help noticing the innate "emptiness" of the self-created values put into wine-tasting. Are they not simply clever labels defining our personal likes and dislikes? It is as if the wine connoisseur is already intoxicated with his fascination with wine without being drunk! Does this not also apply to our values for the myriad objects and matters in our life?
Wine is also portrayed in a rather neutral, and thus "empty" manner in another way, as we see how it can be both a source of pleasure, when taken in mindful doses, and a source of pain, when drunk unmindfully. As with anything else, wine is not good or bad; it is how we consume it that makes all the difference. Thus is there the ongoing Buddhist debate on whether the fifth precept's intention is to encourage us not to lose our mindfulness through intoxicants by over-drinking, or not to drink a single drop at all. The safest practice is of course the latter, since many drunkards do not even see the moment they become drunk, as they cross the invisible boundary between having ample mindfulness to losing it!
Overwhelmed by infatuation, Jack deluded himself into thinking he had fallen in love with Stephanie (Sandra Oh), who he met at a wineyard. He even considered calling off his marriage to be with her. However, as quickly as he fell head over heels in "love", he picked himself up when she rejected him upon realising he was hiding his approaching marriage from her. Unmindful of the lessons he should had learnt from the harmfulness of deceit, Jack finally realised the danger and mistake of his promiscuous ways when he was caught red-handed in the act, barely getting away from a fling with a married woman. He suddenly sees the amount of happiness he was staking just to satisfy his lust. Repentant, he decided to be married as planned. Jack paints a perfect picture of a fickle-minded person - of one who always rides the roller-coaster of life for its highs, forgetting the lows that inevitably come between. In one minute he was convinced that Stephanie is the true love of his life, in the next he eagerly beds a stranger. How true could his love be? His was a case of cyclic attachment, detachment and "re-attachment" without growth of wisdom - the way Samsara runs on and on!
When asked by Maya for the reason of his fascination with Pinot, which is an ingredient for his favourite wine, Miles replied that it's because "it's a hard grape to grow..., it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early... Pinot needs constant care and attention... in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world.... and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it... Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then... its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle." Consciously or not, the perfect grapes which make the perfect wine he seeks represents himself. Immersed in self-pity, he was yearning for a companion who could resonate with him, who would take the time and patience to understand and appreciate him.
When it was Maya's turn to answer why she loved wine, she said, "I do like to think about the life of wine, how it's a living thing. I like to think about what was going on the year the grapes were growing, how the sun was shining that summer or if it rained... what the weather was like. I think about all those people who tended and picked the grapes, and if it's an old wine, how many of them must be dead by now. I love how wine continues to evolve, how every time I open a bottle its going to taste different than if I had opened it on any other day. Because a bottle of wine is actually alive - it's constantly evolving and gaining complexity. That is, until it peaks - like your '61 - and begins its steady, inevitable decline."
Maya is thus much more wise and less egocentric than Miles in her philosopy of perceiving wine. Thus was she able to experience greater joy when savouring it. While Miles savoured only wine, which constantly lacked in comparison with his dream Pinot, Maya appreciated the interdependent web of life with every sip from her glass! Hers is the enjoyment of change itself, of treasuring the processes of life and not just hankering after their results. While Miles tastes wine, Maya tastes life itself! Maya's words on the dependent origination of wine and life are without doubt the brightest gems of wisdom in the film. Incidentally, "Maya" means "illusion" in Buddhism. Everything is merely "illusion" when we do not perceive them as according to the reality of the Three Universal Characteristics. In this aspect, Maya definitely fares better than Miles!
As we stumble forward and backwards in the ups and downs, in the trials and tribulations of life, may we lean "sideways" at times, and rediscover the balance we miss. Away from the extremes experienced by Miles and Jack, may we be sober and steady as we walk on the Middle Path, as we drive on this road trip of life. Will you appreciate the rich wine of life, or just be intoxicated by it? Don't you drink and drive!