Jew-Bu detective story blends two cultures

The droll independent film “Zen Noir” has both Jewish and Buddhist genes. It’s easy to spot the Bu from the title, but where’s the Jew?

L.A.-based writer-director Marc Rosenbush, himself a Jew-Bu, conceived of “Zen Noir” as a fish-out-of-water tale, a deadpan clash between disparate cultures (and genres) that resolves itself in genial mutual acceptance. The film is propelled not by acres of plot but by a whiff of mystery, a steady trickle of low-key laughs, an ephemeral love affair and the unusual desire to induce viewers into a contemplative state.

When a follower keels over at a small Buddhist enclave, a tough-talking private eye shows up to solve what he’s certain is a murder. His rat-a-tat-tat style of questioning, aimed at flushing out straight answers and revealing absolute truths, is amusingly deflected and frustrated by the enlightened “suspects.”

The jokes are key to the movie’s appeal, not for their brilliance but because they undercut any tendencies toward earnestness. While that was Rosenbush’s plan, one gathers that comedy is part of almost every project he’s involved with.

“The humor of Judaism is very central to my character,” Rosenbush acknowledges. “A lot of the humor in the film was influenced by Woody Allen — poking fun at one’s deepest foibles.”

A longtime Chicago theater director and producer, Rosenbush, who is in his mid-30s, moved to Los Angeles some five years ago to make the transition to movies. The independently financed, produced and distributed “Zen Noir,” winner of numerous awards at smaller film festivals from Boulder to Chicago to Rhode Island, marks his feature debut.

Rosenbush grew up across the street from the site of an outdoor Shakespeare festival in Oak Park, the burg next door to Chicago made famous by Frank Lloyd Wright. The theater and being Jewish were equally formative experiences.

“I had the seminal experience that many Jewish kids have had: ‘People hate us because of this.’ That part of my Jewish identity is never going to go away.”

Diminutive with a close-cropped beard, Rosenbush was raised Reform in a house of words and ideas; his father was a professor of Russian. (The senior Rosenbush was instrumental in bringing the Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh from Vietnam to Israel in 1999, leading to the formation of some Buddhist communities.) What stuck with him from childhood was “less the religious side of Judaism than the intellectual curiosity — the importance of education, the importance of literature.”

In a late-night conversation in his hotel lobby after a sneak preview of “Zen Noir” a few weeks ago, Rosenbush mused about the differences and connections between Buddhism and Judaism.

“Much of Jewish culture is left-brained. Much of Jewish culture is study-oriented. I wasn’t raised on Jewish mysticism, and so the thing that appealed to me in Buddhism was the non-thinking — the intuitive, the experiential.

“I find the two are a very good balance. You can be Buddhist and that doesn’t mean you’re not Jewish anymore. The more I’ve looked at religion, the more I see how at their roots they’re all the same. Jewish liturgical music is not that far from Buddhist chanting, in some ways.”

Rosenbush added with a chuckle, “Once I learned to meditate, I could have a very nice time in a Jewish service.”

Clearly, “Zen Noir” accurately reflects its maker. It blends Buddhist philosophy and Jewish irreverence, while drawing on a lesson gleaned from years in the theater.

“Laughter’s a good way to get an audience in the door,” Rosenbush said. “Then you can whack them with wisdom.”

“Zen Noir” opens Friday, Sept. 15 at the Lumiere Theatre, 1572 California St., S.F.

Michael Fox

Michael Fox is a longtime film journalist and critic, and a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Film Critics Circle. He teaches documentary classes at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute programs at U.C. Berkeley and S.F. State. In 2015, the San Francisco Film Society added Fox to Essential SF, its ongoing compendium of the Bay Area film community's most vital figures and institutions.