Talks About Nothing (2014)

by | Apr 29, 2014 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews

Talks About Nothing (2014)

Discussions with Ken Burns, Oliver Sacks, Peter Sellars, Lama Surya Das, Andrew Cohen, Christopher Potter, Laurie Anderson, Fiona Shaw, Raj Patel and others.
Studio: Rubin Museum of Art/Athena AMP-2142 (3 DVDs) [3/11/14]
Video: 4:3 color (Episodes 1-8); 16:9 color (Episodes  9 & 10)
Audio: English DD 2.0
Subtitles: English SDH
Extras: 16-p. booklet with a history of zero, timeline of the void, a feature on emptiness, a guide to meditation, and profiles of each participant
Length: 468 minutes
Rating: ****1/2 

We have previously reviewed one of the other conversations from NYC’s Rubin Museum. The six-story Museum was established in 2004 “to stimulate learning, promote understanding, and inspire personal connections to the ideas, cultures and art of Himalayan Asia.” The format is one of two participants sitting on stage, and the video work is not perfect because the original intent was for small-screen display on the Internet. (They evidently got a new video camera that did widescreen for the last two episodes.) These don’t have the sometime Keynote screen presentations of the first one, which the videographer never shows, or only one small part of the screen. I think most of these could exist as audio-only pieces, but it is interesting to see what some of these people actually look like.

The conversations are inspired and captivating, covering universal questions and delving into the whole concept of nothingness—what it is, what it isn’t, and how can we tell? It is central to Buddhism, but also to countless other works of art, philosophy, science and spirituality. The discussions took place at the museum during 2010 and 2011 and were totally unscripted and unlimited. Besides the wide variety of subjects covered in the conversations, just getting to know about some of these people is completely fascinating. There is the blind photographer John Dugdal, the Shakespearean actor Brian Cox, the psychologist Alison Gopnik, and Charles Seife, who authored a book about zero. It’s nice to know that Ken Burns is into many other things besides making his documentary films, and Oliver Sacks is a kick.  Several of the participants have written something about nothing, so they definitely qualify for the talks. There’s plenty of humor and inventiveness—this is not all terribly serious discussions.

I found it fascinating to get to know about Patsy Rodenburg, a leading voice and acting coach who has worked with some of the top names onstage and in films (and to see how she works), about British publisher and author Christopher Potter, some of the details about our universe from physics professor Melissa Franklin, and to learn about Lama Surya Das, the man the Dalai Lama calls the “Western Lama,” and who looks nothing like one would expect and much more like a red-headed Irish union organizer.

Patel&SellarsXThe Lama’s duo conversation with spiritual leader Andrew Cohen was fascinating, and performance artist Laurie Anderson had some interesting points to make, as she also did in her talk in the earlier DVD series. Perhaps the wildest conversation was the final one with theater director Peter Sellars and writer/ academic/activist/author Raj Patel. Patel is the most Type A personality one could imagine and one will feel totally wrung out after this episode.

—John Sunier

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