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2. The 7 Faces 0f Dr. Lao – 1964 This curiosity movie is as close to sui generis as anything I have ever seen, including Last Year At Marienbad, and showcases what has to be the finest performance ever in a fantasy movie. Tony Randall plays not only the enigmatic, if stereotypical, title character, but also six other phantasmagorical entities; The Abominable Snowman, the Magician Merlin, Medusa, Pan the “god of joy”, The Great Serpent, and Apollonius of Tyana, a blind soothsayer who has been cursed by the gods to speak only the truth.
Dr. Lao, a bald, opium pipe-puffing (I don’t think anybody thought there was anything but tobacco in Dr. Lao’s pipe in 1964, but times have changed), “me-no-speekee” Chinaman rides into the Western town of Abalone to set up his tent of wonders. The townspeople are busy having their community stolen out from underneath them by an unscrupulous real estate speculator, but they pause in their headlong rush towards chaos and dissolution to pay heed to the dusty and weatherworn marvels on display at Dr. Lao’s “circus”. Alternately astonished, cynical, unbelieving, and shocked, the inhabitants of Abalone are one by one coaxed out of their fantasies of individual power and significance to confront themselves as they actually are; ridiculous but necessary and beloved threads of the greater tapestry that is the community of Abalone.
Not all of them pass the test. One of the most uncomfortable moments in the film is when the blind soothsayer confronts a silly not-really-a-widow who is desperately clinging to an outdated self-image of herself as a young coquette. Apollonius tells her that she will never be rich, she will never marry again, and that her days will blur together into a dreary parade of sameness until she dies and is forgotten. For good or for evil, he tells her, she will have had as much effect as if she had never existed at all. As self-awareness breaks over her character, the talented actress playing this role displays for a brief moment the horror of the damnable truth Apollonius has just told her, but then her face relaxes again as she pulls her comfortable lies back around her.
This is a deeply Taoist film, whether by design or happy circumstance. I have always wished Christianity was more like Taoism. I wouldn’t want Christianity to be Taoism, exactly, because the Tao of the Old Boy is impersonal and, frankly, a bit scary. Nevertheless, when I look at the face of the personal Christ in the New Testament, I see a lot more that reminds me of the Tao than of the joyless moralist we have made Him into. Dr. Lao, who has to be based on the founder of Taoism Lao-Tzu (he disappears from the town of Abalone mounted not on a bullock, but on a donkey, the foal of an ass), strikes me as a Holy figure.
I have always wanted to study the idea of Holiness apart from the idea of Morality, with the idea of Morality being a declension from holiness, an oblique case of Holiness, as it were. Dr. Lao, despite his seeming amorality, is good place to start. Without striving, and without putting himself forward in any way, he gently diverts each of townspeople who are amenable to his guidance away from the stampede towards non-being they are pursuing back towards a position of Coinherence in the Web of Exchange that is the town of Abalone.
Interestingly, the author of the book that this film was based on, Charles G. Finney, was not only an influential writer of fantastic fiction in the thirties and forties, but he was also the great-grandson of the evangelist Charles Grandison Finney, who introduced so many fantastic elements into the American strand of Christianity.