A pleasant, but unchallenging documentary about a man who left a life of privilege for a life of simplicity and virtue.
Monk With a Camera
To shoot or not to shoot? It’s a question still up in the air for Nicholas “Nicky” Vreeland, an aristocratic American who renounced his life of comfort and excess forever to become a Tibetan monk in India. Vreeland–whose grandmother Diana Vreeland was the editor of Vogue for most of the ’60s–found his passion for women to be the toughest part about his transition from his first life of “worldly ways” to his second life of simplicity and selflessness, but he kept one woman around after all. “Would you like to meet my girlfriend?” he asks with a sunny smile in the opening moments of Monk With a Camera, a documentary about him by Guido Santi and Tina Mascara. He reveals his “girlfriend” is his titular camera, the one worldly thing he couldn’t renounce.
“I kept trying to give it up. I kept trying to not have it be part of my life.” But he couldn’t. The Dalai Llama himself (one of the many adorers of Vreeland stuffed into the film) encouraged the American monk, to his surprise, to continue snapping shots to his heart’s content. But herein lies the paradox. According to Buddhist philosophy, for an act to be virtuous it must be done to benefit others, not oneself. “You don’t produce art without some sort of ego gratification,” says Vogue fashion director Tonne Goodman in the film, another high-profile Vreeland fan and interviewee.
Could the pursuit of photography go against the principals Vreeland has adopted as a Tibetan monk? He’s done everything in his power to make it as selfless a hobby as possible, selling his photographs to his old friends (dignitaries, socialites…people with lots of money) in order to build a monastery for his fellow monks, who had grown in number so rapidly that in their old living quarters, many were forced to sleep on the ground outside in the rain. When he finally raised enough funds with his photographs and built the new monastery (it’s gorgeous–simple, elegant architecture lined with colorful, national flags), The Dalai Llama bestowed upon him an unprecedented honor, making him the monastery’s abbott, a first for an American.
But still, it’s clear there’s still uncertainty in Vreeland. Is his photo-snapping obsession justified? Santi and Mascara don’t explore this moral murkiness enough, focusing more on their adulation for their subjects’ accomplishments. Yes, Vreeland was a celebrity-status playboy who left the world of artificiality to pursue a more noble existence (and actually stuck with it for decades, practicing Buddhism to this day), but is that enough material to make a great documentary? I’d say not. It’s enough to make a decent documentary. Vreeland is a good onscreen subject, his flamboyance and charm from his early days dating girls in Europe still intact, but he’s not charismatic enough to skyrocket the film Alejandro Jodorowsky in Frank Pavich’s docu from earlier this year, Jodorowsky’s Dune.
There was an excellent opportunity for Santi and Mascara to dig deeper and be more challenging, a question that never gets asked: If the selflessness and egocentrism of photography are debatable, what does that say about starring in your own movie? Vreeland didn’t make the movie, but to agree to participate in a production that gathers famous people to sing your praises (even Richard Gere makes several appearances to praise his buddy Nicky) is, with all due respect, just as–if not more–debatable an endeavor. Maybe I’m wrong, but the question is valid, and it’s an elephant in the room that grows bigger as the film unfolds.