Review: “The Nature of the Flame” (2013), a Short Film by Mike Messier & Chris Hunter

For if it is to be, it will be. All nice things occur in time, with patience and consideration. For what is best shall always take precedence. The Nature of the Flame burns softly.

Although feature-length movies are not novels, both tell stories of some length, often using the same classic, three-act plot structure. Likewise, a short film can be compared to a novella or a short story. Some movies are so brief that they are like poems. Such is the case with “The Nature of the Flame,” a short created by Rhode Island filmmakers Mike Messier and Chris Hunter via Collective Thought Media (see my review of a previous Messier short).

Given its Zen Buddhist setting, imagery, and themes and its run time of 7:46, the type of story that this film reminds one of is the kōan. According to Wikipedia, a kōan is “a story, dialogue, question, or statement, which is used in Zen-practice to provoke the ‘great doubt’, and test a student’s progress in Zen practice.” Like a koan, the question of this movie’s message is difficult to answer, much less to classify and analyze, especially using Western-style, dualistic thinking. However, its visuals are so entrancing that the viewer might just forget that there is a question to be answered (contained, in fact, in the film’s title).

“The Nature of the Flame” was written & directed by Messier, an independent writer-director whose previous work includes a short, “God’s Country” (2008), and two feature-length films, “Wrestling with Sanity” (2009) and “Blood! Sugar! Sid! Ace!” (2012). Its cinematography and editing were done by Chris Hunter, the founder of the Rhode Island South Filmmakers Group. The film was shot over a two-day period in October 2013 in Cumberland, Newport, and Portsmouth, Rhode Island. Some of its sequences were filmed at the Providence Zen Center.

Lindsey Elisabeth Cork

Lindsey Elisabeth Cork — image source: Mike Messier

The picture stars Lindsey Elisabeth Cork & Jocelyn Padilla as two sleepers who dream of a world in which they meet to seek Enlightenment together. However, is one of them the dreamer and the other the dream? What is reality and what is not? Are there such things as absolute reality and unreality? Good and evil? Life and death? Love and hate? Knowing and not knowing? Is there a “middle way”? These are some of the existential questions posed by this short film.

Jocelyn Padilla

Jocelyn Padilla — image source: Mike Messier

Given the photogenic cast and locations, the cinematography in this film is beautiful. One standout technique is the use of rack focus to advance the story within a single shot, moving the viewer’s focus within the frame to make a point without words. The editing makes elegant use of montage, especially to build up tension as the film moves to its conclusion.

In order to fuel their viewers’ further reflections about what they have just seen, Messier and Hunter close the film with a quotation from Zhuangzi, an influential Chinese philosopher who lived around the 4th century BC and who is considered to be part of the Taoist tradition, which had a great influence on the development of Zen (called Ch’an in Chinese). Here is one translation (from Wikiquote) of the passage used in the film:

One night, Zhuangzi dreamed of being a butterfly — a happy butterfly, showing off and doing things as he pleased, unaware of being Zhuangzi. Suddenly he awoke, drowsily, Zhuangzi again. And he could not tell whether it was Zhuangzi who had dreamt the butterfly or the butterfly dreaming Zhuangzi.

Cork and Padilla at Providence Zen Center

Cork and Padilla in a scene from the film — image source: Chris Hunter via Jocelyn Padilla on Facebook

This passage is reminiscent of the Heart Sutra, which is often chanted at Zen dharma centers. Here is an excerpt from a translation from the Sanskrit, as found in the Ch’an Buddhism section of the USA Shaolin Temple’s website:

When Bodhisattva Avalokitesvara practised the deep Prajnaparamita, he saw that the five skandhas were empty; thus he overcame all ills and suffering. 

“O Sariputra! Form does not differ from the void, and the void does not differ from the form. Form is the void, and the void is form. The same is true for feelings, conceptions, impulses and consciousness. 

O Sariputra, the characteristics of the void are not created, not annihilated, not impure, not pure, not increasing, not decreasing. 

Therefore, in the void there are no forms and no feelings, conceptions, impulses and no consciousness: there is no eye, ear, nose, tongue, body or mind; there is no form, sound, smell, taste, touch or idea; no eye elements, until we come to no elements of consciousness; no ignorance and also no ending of ignorance, until we come to no old age and death; and no ending of old age and death. 

Also, there is no truth of suffering, of the cause of suffering, of the cessation of suffering or of the path. There is no wisdom, and there is no attainment whatsoever. Because there is nothing to be attained, a Bodhisattva relying on Prajnaparamita has no obstruction in his heart. Because there is no obstruction he has no fear, and he passes far beyond all confused imagination and reaches Ultimate Nirvana.

Keep this teaching in mind when watching this short film when it appears online and in festivals and limited showings in the near future.

The Nature of the Flame | Teaser from Collective Thought Media on Vimeo.