Schell (Mandate of Heaven, 1994, etc.) explores ``the depths of our collectively imagined Western version of Tibet as it seemed on the brink of reemerging in popular culture'' through the mythmaking of overheated reports sent home from travelers and in the technicolor fantasies of Hollywood.
Schell concentrates on the two vehicles that he believes have delivered a virtual Tibet to our modern consciousness. One is made up of the narratives written by visitors to the rooftop of the world (``a corpus of romantic transferences''); the other is Hollywood's confection as served forth in such films as Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet. Schell's historical overview, not surprisingly, is terrific: a lightfooted, sentient presentation of material from first colonial and missionary contact to Alexandra DavidNeel and the adventures of Heinrich Harrer. Each produced descriptions that spun an illusion of paradise built on a yearning for the poise, dignity, and spirituality that Tibet supposedly counterposed to the travails of modern Western life. This is the Tibet of Lost Horizon and ShangriLa. Hollywood's version, as experienced by Schell primarily through his attendance on the set of Seven Years in Tibet, reeks of glamour, tawdry sensationalism, and narcissism. By his own admission, Schell is sucker-punched by the glitter machine: at one point he is as eagerly awaiting Brad Pitt to be ``revealed'' to him as the Dalai Lama was revealed to Tibetan commoners way back when. Schell fortunately keeps on his feet long enough to explain just how little celluloid and the real Tibet have in common.
Schell's reality check will surely spoil lots of sincere, if vapid, dreams out there, but if Hollywood is indeed the dream merchant (as Schell acknowledges even by his own starcrossed lights), that can't be all bad, or bad at all.