Heart of Lightness
By David Templeton
Writer David Templeton takes interesting people to interesting movies in his ongoing quest for the ultimate post-film conversation. This time out, he takes the loquacious psychiatrist/author Dennis Gersten to find the implied mystical messages in Disney’s George of the Jungle.
Dr. Dennis Gersten squeezes into his seat and–after setting his pack on the floor–takes stock of our collected provisions: there’s popcorn, of course, and a couple glasses of mineral water. He’s brought along a copy of his controversial new book, Are You Getting Enlightened or Losing Your Mind? (Harmony, 1997), along with a thick black notebook crammed to overflowing with potentially useful papers.
While we await the film, Gersten–a widely respected San Diego psychiatrist–passes the time by presenting me with a string of items from his papery trove, including a copy of his bimonthly publication, Atlantis–“the Imagery Newsletter”–and a colorful pamphlet describing a multilevel-marketed nutritional product that he happens to sell on the side.
Finally, he pulls a pen and a pad of lined yellow paper from his bag and settles back. Propping the pad on his knee, he explains, “If I don’t take notes, I’ll never remember the movie enough to discuss it later.”
“Is this usually how you prepare to see a movie? I ask, stifling my amazement.
“Oh no,” he shakes his head. “Never. As a moviegoer, I’m always totally right-brained. I’m very non-analytical. I just plunge into it. Therefore my recall is not usually very good.” Glancing up at the blank screen, he taps his pad, adding, “I wouldn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t taking this seriously.”
I nod appreciatively, genuinely impressed by his commitment to the process.
And with that, George of the Jungle begins.
George, based on the offbeat, late-’60s TV show, is an abundantly silly comedy, a live-action spoof of a cartoon that itself a spoof of Tarzan movies. The title character (Brendan Frazier) is a simple, sweet, directionally challenged (“Watch out for that tree!”) jungle man who lives happily in a treehouse, with a wise gorilla (voice by John Cleese) for a butler/confidant/father figure. When Ursula, a San Francisco heiress (Leslie Mann), discovers George’s paradise, love blossoms. Then they all go to California.
“My first thought,” Gersten offers intently, as he consults his notes after the film, “is that the film is full of archetypal images, surprisingly powerful images–for a cartoon.”
As he reads from his list (George symbolizes “the hero, courageous, and innocent,” Ursula the “enchanted princess,” her socialite mother “the evil sorceress”), the good doctor exhibits both keen intensity and a profound and utter calm, a striking blend that seems appropriate in a person working to widen the overlap between Western psychiatric medicine and mystical spirituality.
“What intrigues me most in the movie is George’s relationship with the animal kingdom,” he remarks. “I just read an article on pet therapy in the Journal of Alternative Therapies. It’s amazing stuff. It shows that, if you’re sick, having a loyal pet is better for your recovery than having a loyal spouse.”
“Really?” I marvel. “Because . . .”
“Because of the unconditional love. Their non-judgmentalism. They don’t care what you look like, how much money you have, or how well dressed you are. Animals can be incredible teachers.”
For an example, he tells me about Leo, his own 15-year-old cat, a remarkable fellow who not only walks through walls (Gersten insists he has witnesses!) but has also been something of a spiritual teacher to other animals.
“I swear to God,” he laughs. “Starting when he was 2 years old, Leo would hold dharsham. He would sit at the top of my balcony and the other cats in the neighborhood would line up on the grass below, as if they were taking dharsham from Leo. This went on for years. He’s also the only cat I’ve ever known who was attracted to spiritual objects.
“It might be a statue of Shiva, an image of the madonna, or a picture of my own teacher, Sai Baba; Leo would find it and curl up in front of it.” Though seriously injured in a recent run-in with a car, Gersten adds, Leo is adapting to his inactive convalescence with dignity and a discernible humility. “Any other cat would have given up to despair,” he says. “But not Leo. He is truly an enlightened animal.”
“And speaking of enlightenment,” I segue, “how does our George stack up. He’s a reasonably enlightened figure, right?”
“For a cartoon character? Yes,” Gersten replies, seriously. He glances back at his notes, then produces a worksheet showing the states of consciousness.
“Let’s compare him to the five core human values that come from the East,” he says. “They are truth, right action, peace, love, and non-violence. The practice of any of those leads in the direction of enlightenment.
“Now, George is pretty solid with truth. He’s completely guileless. And in terms of right action, he’s pretty solid there, too, a typical hero–a hero being the person who does the right thing in spite of fear.” George also passes the test on peace, and gets through love with flying colors.
“As far as non-violence goes, though,” Gersten shakes his head, “held to the highest standard, George appears to be enjoying himself a bit too much during his fight scenes. An enlightened person may resort to self-defense, but does not relish the inflicting of pain. So, on the whole, I would say George is on the path to enlightenment, but still has some work to do.”
Just for yucks, we compare all the major characters in the film to this test, and one person does turn out to be a perfect example of the enlightened soul.
“The ape,” Gersten beams, “was a true guru. Like Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, all the great teachers, he was an embodiment of all the human values, maintained at a very high level. Not bad for a cartoon character, is it?”
Web exclusive to the July 24-30, 1997 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.
© Metro Publishing Inc.