A Black & White Movie from 1950 May Be the Most ‘Zen’ Movie Ever.
If one were to mention the phrase “spiritual movie,” there’s a good chance many folks might think of something from the Wachowskis like The Matrix Trilogy or Cloud Atlas.
Others (including monks), might mention the literally timeless movie Groundhog’s Day that some (including monks, according to the film’s director Harold Ramis) would point to as an example of something akin to "Zen,” or maybe even spiritual.
I love all those movies. But I’m certain most wouldn’t even think to compare a black and white movie that premiered in 1950 as an example (or is perhaps the zenith) of a “Zen" movie experience. The film I’m referencing is Harvey, the classic movie staring James Stewart and Josephine Hall (who won the Best Supporting Actress Academy Award for her role in this movie).
If I’m being completely transparent, I should warn ahead of time I have a soft spot for black and white movies. I could go on about the nostalgia they bring, not to mention the visceral acting ability many in that time possessed, but that would take this article in a completely different direction.
But before getting into the details of what makes this movie such a charmingly spiritual, Zen movie, it might be helpful to briefly focus on what both those words mean and why they’ve been paired with some of the aforementioned movies above.
While I think most people have their own definition of what it means to be spiritual, most probably equate that word preceding the phrase “…but not religious.” While the actual definition of “spiritual/spirituality” has continued evolving over time, it usually involves a feeling of interconnection between groups and a higher power (perhaps even over multiple timelines and/or dimensions of existence), and a subsequent search/journey to achieve such a state. Thus, a spiritual movie involves similar themes.
The word Zen though, is slightly more challenging to pin down, as the very act of trying to define “Zen" is, in some opinions, the antithesis of “Zen” in the first place. However, for the sake of this article, I am using the definition as found in an article by Lion’s Roar, where it states that zen is
“This sense of being present, with illumination and intensity, is the essence of zazen, and although there are many approaches to Zen meditation, they all come back to this… But zazen is also understood to be something more than this sitting. It is conceived of as a state of mind or being that extends into all activities. Work is zazen; eating is zazen; sleeping, walking, standing, going to the toilet — all are zazen practice.”
And The Movie Is…
As I mentioned earlier, I’m talking about the movie Harvey. According to IMDb, the synopsis of this movie is about “A whimsical middle-aged man thought by his family to be insane — due to his insistence that he has an invisible six foot-tall rabbit for a best friend. But he may be wiser than anyone knows.”
While that summary is a broad overview of the movie, I prefer telling people that this movie is about how most everyone around the main character overreacts to behavior they find odd.
Dowd, Elwood P., Zen Master
While I’m sure the writers of the movie (or the original playwright Mary Chase) didn’t intend for this movie — about a frequent bar patron who talks to an invisible pooka that takes the form of a six-foot tall rabbit — to be a zen movie, but there is no way around noticing that there are some eerie similarities between Elwood P. Dowd, the main character as played by James Stewart, and a mindful zen master.
One of the main reasons I trumpet the similarities between Elwood and a zen master is because he is nearly devoid of judgments. In fact, the perils of passing judgement is practically the subtext of the entire film.
One could make the argument that Harvey is an extension of Mr. Dowd himself. However, I don’t think it matters if that is the case because both, so far as one can tell, possess the same temperament and affability. The only difference between the two is that Harvey to pooka seems to be an occasional trickster, although never doing anything that harmed others.
In short, the movie follows the copacetic Elwood P. Dowd who one day introduces his towering invisible friend to one person too many, much to the chagrin of his high society sister and niece (both of whom live with him). Elwood’s niece Myrtle Mae is also seeking a suitor, but has been finding it difficult due in part to the middle to upper class society in which this family originates find her uncle off putting since they think he’s crazy. So Myrtle Mae and her Aunt Veta decide to commit Elwood to a sanitarium as a way to stop their rich friends from passing judgement on them. The two take action behind Elwood’s back; drawing up commitment papers in an attempt to convince Elwood to sign. They want it to appear that Elwood has committed himself. What the two don’t tell Elwood is that in signing those papers, he is also handing over his power of attorney (and thus his freedom) to his sister Veta. All of this happens while Mr. Elwood P. Dowd is visiting several bars and speaking with people his high society family would consider less than affluent. I realize that this description makes the movie sound much darker than it actually is. The point being in mentioning this is that, much like a the Buddha or even Jesus, Elwood P. Dowd appears to prefer the company of those who are considered poor and/or working class, which might be part of the reason he frequents bars.
This Too Shall Pass
It’s easy to say and write off the actions of Elwood as being a drunk, but the movie only shows him frequenting bars and having a drink or two, never overindulging. His character is also one that is nearly passive throughout the movie; hardly preferring to take an action on his own accord with the exception it seems of his routine bar crawls or occasional moments to dance. Nowhere in this movie does the character Elwood P. Dowd put up a fight or second guess himself. He seems to nearly agree to anything anyone says. A prime example of this is when he’s at one of his local pubs and a stranger attempts to rip him off after noticing Elwood talking to his invisible friend. As the patron attempts to dine, drink and dash, the bartender admonishes the man. But this sly miscreant (?) simply insinuates that Jimmy Stewart’s invisible friend will pick up the tab. When the bartender attempts to object and defend someone who he perceives may be mentally ill, Elwood P. Dowd simply replies “He’d be glad to.”
He repeats that phrase for good measure, much to the chagrin of the bartender (and presumably the audience). Much like the practice of meditation, Dowd doesn’t object or cause a scene when this new “idea” occurs, but instead simply acknowledges the moment and allows it to pass.
Even when sharing the story of how he met his magical, tall furry friend, Elwood P. Dowd seems to practice a similar action.
In one pivotal scene, one of the doctors attempts to “talk some sense” into Elwood, asking about the origins of this creature and the name, trying to prove that perhaps the name came from a childhood friend. But as Elwood describes the meeting, this line in his monologue always stood out to me, “I started to walk down the street when I heard a voice saying: "Good evening, Mr. Dowd". I turned, and there was this big white rabbit leaning against a lamp-post. Well, I thought nothing of that, because when you’ve lived in a town as long as I’ve lived in this one, you get used to the fact that everybody knows your name. And naturally, I went over to chat with him.”
According to Elwood P. Dowd, he simply accepted the fact that a magical being in the guise of a 6-foot rabbit was talking to him. He didn’t react by freaking out or questioning his sanity. It just was. Rather, at the time of their encounter, it just is. I don’t think you can get much more “Zen” than that!
Nothing to See Here
You may recall when I offered my personal description of this movie, I noted that it was about how most everyone around the main character of Elwood P. Dowd overreacts to behavior they find odd. There was a reason I mentioned that.
You see, throughout the majority of the movie, nearly all characters (and the audience) cannot visually see this magical being named Harvey. Most of the main characters simply treat this lack of visualization as a sign that when Elwood P. Dowd is introducing them to this unseen character, they are in fact being introduced to nothing. Needless to say, most folks have a comical, yet also oddly frightened response after the introduction is made. This is a purposeful choice on the director and writers, which I think has to do with the fact that most of the characters, all of whom happen to be coming from a western mindset, find this introduction to nothing mildly unsettling.
Later in the movie, one other character claims to have “seen” Harvey. After this moment, they undergo a major transformation; moving away from a mindset that is rather curmudgeonly and arrogant, to something at first, more bewildered, then into a certain amount of serenity. This is because, according to Elwood P. Dowd,
“Well, Harvey can look at your clock and stop it. And you can go anywhere you like, with anyone you like, and stay as long as you like. And when you get back, not one minute will have ticked by. You see, science has overcome time and space. Well, Harvey has overcome not only time and space, but any objections.”
The reason I share this is because, while again it might be a stretch to assume the writers of the movie and play intended to introduce concepts of Zen to the audience, nonetheless another major parallel can be made. The way Elwood describes Harvey’s ability for stopping your clock sounds an awful lot like what happens when someones enters in a meditative state.
Granted, there are many forms of meditation that one can practice, all with different outcomes. However, there is a certain concept that several iterations of Buddhism practice that reveal an underlying zen aspect to Elwood P. Dowd and his friend Harvey.
Śūnyatā (or shunyata) is a word/concept that often arises within various practices of Buddhism, thus it’s translation is slightly dependent on what sect of Buddhism one subscribes. But for the sake of time and clarity, I will use the most widely associated and translated word for Śūnyatā; emptiness. In essence, emptiness is the word/concept of nothingness.
A case could be made that Elwood P. Dowd is metaphorically introducing the characters to this concept of emptiness/nothingness.
Much has been written about the concept of Śūnyatā over the 2,500-ish years of Buddhism’s existence, so me trying to summarize it in a few sentences will neither do it justice nor explain much of it. However, my understanding of this concept is that it is akin to a certain phrase that many typically associate with meditation, “Clear your mind and think of nothing.” This can become a little confusing, especially when one begins to understand that even “thinking of nothing” is really thinking of something. Tricky right? In essence, one has to be able to not think about anything, and in order to practice this concept one must not be thinking, just being.
The idea behind this concept, as I understand it, is to develop a non-attachment to thoughts, as they can and often take one out of the present moment. Needless to say, if Elwood P. Dowd is in fact introducing nothingness to his friends and family in his subtle way, it’s no wonder then that many would act with bafflement and potential fear. Their western busy-body minds with all these attachments to thoughts and possessions simply cannot handle it.
I Recommend Pleasant
To make the point of Dowd’s copacetic acceptance, one only needs to look at the main plot of the movie where, at the behest of his sister, Elwood P. Dowd is willing to go to and stay at the sanitarium. Later, his sister who is at her wits end for a variety of reasons, encourages her brother to receive a shot of undisclosed medicine that will potentially erase Harvey from his mind. At first Mr. Dowd declines, perhaps the only time in the movie he’s refused something. But after a few (potentially crocodile) tears from his sister, Elwood agrees to it, saying “I’ve always felt that Veta should have everything she wants.”
Granted, at first his sister Veta is less than honest with him about why she wants him to stay in the sanitarium. However, much later in the movie, of all people, the sanitarium’s head psychiatrist confronts Mr. Dowd about Veta’s true motives. But instead of becoming angry or frustrated, we the audience receive another lesson in Zen from our good friend Dowd, Elwood P.
One could make an argument that this philosophy of “recommending pleasant” the main character eschews is not unlike the philosophy of “loving-kindness,” another concept found in several iterations of Buddhism.
As mentioned several times, I understand it is a stretch to imagine that the writer of the play and those involved in the making of this black and white movie from the 1950’s purposefully intended to promote certain aspects of Buddhism and spirituality. But in a way, that is perhaps what makes this movie even more special.
Movies like The Matrix Trilogy, Cloud Atlas and even Groundhog’s Day have a purpose that signals to the audience a certain amount of thought/philosophy one must be willing to engage with while said stories unfold. In this way, however, the movie Harvey is much more subtle. While, perhaps the intention of the filmmakers and writers of the movie wasn’t to purposefully introduce concepts of “zen” to an American audience, the story and concept is vague enough to warrant a certain amount of latitude that one can glean from it. Then again, maybe it’s because I have a tendency to come from the David Lynch model of film interpretation. Regardless, I highly recommend this movie not just to my spiritual friends, but everyone in part due to it’s subtle themes of “zen” and magic, but also because if my weirdo millennial friends ever feel like watching a black and white movie, I want this to be the one they see.
I’m by no means a movie critic or spiritual expert. But like many others, I’m a fan of movies, and sometimes take notice of and become inspired by certain patterns or themes I see in them. So, I writes, in hopes that others get inspired and maybe feel inclined to speak up as well. Feel free to read more of the patterns that I notice on Medium or check out my website to learn more about myself and what I do.