Monday, March 30, 2009

Of Ron Mann, Films We Like, and the need to Know Your Mushrooms

Ron Mann's contributions to Canadian film culture deserve ample praise. For starters, he co- founded Films We Like, one of the most consistently interesting distributors of independent and arthouse cinema in Canada, back in 2003 along with promoter Gary Topp (whom I'll forever think of as "the man who brought Jandek to Canada" - I met Gary when I caught Jandek's Toronto gig, and liked him a lot, but I've never met Ron). Some of my favourite film experiences of the 21st century have been made possible through Films We Like's distro, and I've often thought, "Hey, these Films We Like people have GOOD TASTE!" Some of their titles (full list here) include Be Here to Love Me, the doc about Townes van Zandt; Aaron Katz' Dance Party USA and Quiet City, my two favourite (so-called) Mumblecore films - no offense to Andrew Bujalski, of Funny Ha Ha and Mutual Appreciation, or to Ronald's Bronstein, director of the rather gruelling but worthwhile Frownland, all three of which were mumblecore movies that they also distro'd. There's also that funky little doc on gig posters, Died Young Stayed Pretty; the amazing and beautiful Rivers and Tides, about Andy Goldsworthy, as well as director Riedelsheimer's subsequent film, Touch the Sound, which I have not seen; and the recent Examined Life and Jerichow, both of which I wrote about below. Oh, and don't forget Jandek on Corwood. That's a great fucking track record, and it's only a quarter of the films on the list. Films We Like is a Canadian company that deserves a loud round of applause for the films they get behind - a savvy, smart, creative distributor whose judgment is damn near trustworthy 100% of the time; even their lesser titles (like the rather embarrassing Incident At Loch Ness) have charm. Yay, Films We Like.

Some of you with a good sense of how reviews are structured are probably expecting a now amply qualified "but," and you're right to, because I'm about to go public about something that I have heretofore kept secret. Like my feeling, say, that Dylan van der Schyff hits too goddamn hard half the time, or that (sorry, Joe!) DOA hasn't put out a great (or even really good) record since War On 45, it's something I've kept to myself, because it seems unkind to say such a thing about people who (in some ways) contribute so much - but also because uttering it in public could hurt people's feelings and/or (what I'm really concerned about) get me in trouble. The thing is: I am not totally wild about Ron Mann's documentaries - the films he himself has made (IMDB here; there are quite a few).

Mind you, at least one of his movies kicks fucking ass, no doubt about it. The first film I ever saw of Ron Mann's was Poetry in Motion (1981), and it's incredible, well worth seeking out; links below are to inferior Youtube clips that I've sought out in the hopes you'll be inspired to buy the DVD or such. Mann caught on film performances and comments on poetics by some of the most significant American and Canadian poets of the day, including John Giorno, Anne Waldman, Ed Sanders, the Four Horsemen, Dianne diPrima, Robert Creeley, Christopher Dewdney, Charles Bukowski, Amiri Baraka, Michael Ondaatje, and even a few artists, like John Cage and Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs, who are not poets per se, but well worthy of inclusion. Helen Adam's cheery singsong about junkiedom amongst the rats and roaches will remain in your mind for a very long time, as will Allen Ginsberg's punk rock song (I forget the title - "Capitol Air?" - but he also was recorded singing it with the Clash; but the movie version is far better, and not on Youtube). The performances are brilliantly shot, presented without undue interference, and are often as interesting as the poems themselves; the commentary on poetics is revealing and often fun (and marked the first video footage I'd ever seen of Charles Bukowski, way back in the days before Barfly); and the poems chosen are often astoninishingly good - if you like beat poetry, that is, since it is pretty beat-centric. If this all sounds exciting to you, seek out the film, since it's exactly as good as I'm making it out to be: the best film about poetry that I've seen. If you know one better, tell me about it.

If you're a jazz fan, I'd also recommend checking out Imagine The Sound, Mann's 1981 documentary (and I believe his first feature) which features some memorable moments from a rather loopy Cecil Taylor, a subdued post-free-jazz Archie Shepp, and stuff on Paul Bley and Bill Dixon that has not lasted in my memory. I liked the film, but didn't love it; I wrote at some length about it here. I've missed many of Ron Mann's other films, like his generally well-liked Comic Book Confidential and Tales of the Rat Fink, since I'm not particularly a comic book guy, but it strikes me that they might be the sort of projects - based on his film about poetry and his obvious love of using animation and cartoony stuff in his films - that he could successfully pull off.

So far so good, but Mann has also made two films I did not hold high in my estimation. Go Further! is just plain fucking annoying - a whole bunch of beautiful and righteous upper middle class "beautiful people" and liberal celebrities rally around Woody Harrelson to celebrate their beautiful and righteous (and ever-so-enlightened) lifestyles, drop Ken Kesey's name, travel about in an eco-friendly bus, and ride bicycles: big woo. It might be a wet dream for a Birkenstock shareholder, but it made my ass itch at the theatre - I very nearly walked out so I could give it a proper scratching, which I would have likely found more satisfying than the film. There is no critical distance taken from its subject, or indeed anything that Mann brings to the plate that wasn't served to him hot and steamin' by his subjects; it appears rather, um, lazy - as if the methodology was just to take a camera to a place where a group of supposedly interesting people were gathering, capture what could be captured easily, without being too intrusive, and then edit it together and augment it to make it entertaining. It's a risky approach, since the interest value of a film made this way ends up tied to the interest value of the people in it; and while perhaps it's useful to have "ethical pop culture" figures for kids to emulate - maybe there are a whole bunch of people living more liberal enlightened lives because of their great Love of Woody - I have never given a shit about any celebrity endorsement of a cause, which strikes me as often involving a sort of moralistic egomania. I care about Woody Harrelson's politics like I care about Britney Spears' breasts or Kirstie Allie's diet, which is to say, not at all. Maybe if said celebrities actually put their celebrity asses on the line and took risks - as in FTA, with Jane Fonda, Donald Sutherland, and others getting rather confrontational about their politics while entertaining troops in Vietnam and elsewhere - it could mean something, but it would be a far less easily consumed thing. What we have in Go Further! is a revolution that the powers that be don't particularly need to feel threatened by, where the only "risk" anyone takes lies in the damage done to the egos of the people who partake in it - because that much vanity and self-righteousness can't be good for anyone. Woody is a damnsite less distasteful than Bono, to be sure - but I wouldn't want to see a film about Bono, either. About the only thing that could have redeemed this film would be for the Dead Kennedys' "California Uber Alles" (with its lyrics about how "zen fascists will control you/ 100% natural") to play as the credits rolled...

Grass - which Harrelson narrates - didn't piss me off like Go Further! did, but it is simply not a great documentary, or at least didn't seem like one when I saw it in 1999. (I read now that it won a Genie that year, but I don't place much stock in Genies, or Oscars or Grammys or the frigging Junos either). As I recall it, Grass was filled with cute video tricks - archival footage, animations, fun sound effects, humorous intertitles and so forth - that seemed to suggest its target audience was a stoned teenager with a short attention span. That's not totally a bad thing - there probably were a lot of stoned teenagers in the audience, and Mann's visual collage is deft and entertaining; one suspects Michael Moore probably learned/stole a lot more from Ron Mann than he did from Emile de Antonio. Still, you get the feeling that Grass is trying so hard to entertain and to reach a wide audience base that it somewhat loses track of what I take to be the primary objective of documentary filmmaking, to to inform its viewers about its subject matter. It was altogether too safe, light, and slight an approach to an important subject, and left me with a persistent sense of its insufficiency, after the credits rolled: what, that's it? I had expected so much more.
It is possible that I am perhaps a bit harder to please than the average filmgoer, mind you. I have no doubt that those of you who saw and enjoyed Grass might well enjoy Know Your Mushrooms, too; it opens in a couple of days at the Vancity Theatre, and I'd hope not to dissuade people from seeing it if it sounds like their thing. Trouble is, the things I didn't like about Go Further! and Grass are both very much present here: for the film, as with Go Further!, Mann once again makes a pilgrimage to a place where interesting people gather - in this case a mushroom pickers' festival in Telluride; he films what he easily can; and then, as with Grass, he augments the film with trippy visual effects, found footage, cute animations, and so forth, designed more to please a fairly general audience than to really educate. (There are these little cartoon shroom inserts in the form of multiple choice questions that at first seem like a fun way to present nifty fungus factoids - until you start to realize, after about the second one, that they will constitute the bulk of specialized information you're going to receive).

These are not the only similarities to Grass, because Mann obviously bears in mind throughout that at least some people in the audience will be there specifically to hear about psilocybin, and perhaps even under its influence - hence some of the visual tomfoolery one encounters, the use of Flaming Lips' songs, the abundant use of the word "magic," and snippets of archival footage of John Allegro and Terence McKenna that shows both men talking about their stranger theories (that mushrooms were actually Christ, or that they came from space to educate us). The people who chuckle at this sort of thing might actually be a bit let down to discover that there's little about either of these men's work, beyond these soundbites, in the film, though - and just as little about how to identify magic mushrooms, where or when to find them, information about different species, their actual effects on human neurochemistry, how to grow them, the legal issues around them, etc. I suspect, too, that if Mann were aware how bad a time people who eat amanitas could potentially have (because I've heard they're often not a pretty trip), he would have inserted a few warnings or such into the film, which, as it is, might inspire casual viewers to just gobble them up. You can find more useful information about magic mushrooms by spending fifteen minutes visiting the Shroomery than by watching the whole of Know Your Mushrooms.

There's the same poverty of information about other mushrooms, too - lots of mention of morels and chantrelles and such, and some cool footage of people picking them, but not much depth coverage; for instance, I'd have liked a bit of biochemical information as to how toxins in mushrooms work, or perhaps a discussion of why some mushrooms are edible and others not; do the edible mushrooms profit somehow in being eaten? Why have other species evolved to be so toxic, then? ...There are barbs, too, against commercial mushroom growers - as spreaders of disinformation and paranoia about the dangers of wild mushrooms - but I've been on a mushroom farm and found the way the mushrooms were grown - sprouting from hanging bags of decomposing paper - absolutely fascinating. Why not visit one? It's not like the film - barely 75 minutes long - is too long and ungainly to include a few extra scenes. Like Grass, Know Your Mushrooms takes a subject I'm genuinely interested in and produces a cute, light entertainment around it, with the great irony at the end of the film being that there is almost nothing I didn't already know about mushrooms contained in it.* Maybe I'm expecting too much, but if you're going to call a film Know Your Mushrooms and hope adults will go see it, isn't this a bit of a problem?

What Know Your Mushrooms has going for it, however, is that the mushroom pickers - and particularly Larry Evans, the main guy profiled (and the guy in the poster, above) - seem like really delightful human beings. Evans comes across as a curious, funny, smart hippie-type who apparently dresses for picking mushrooms 24/7. Gary Lincoff, another of the pickers profiled, tells some pretty fun stories, including one about a mushroom trip with a very strange character. Picking mushrooms seems to be as big a passion for both these men as collecting rare 78 RPM records is to Joe Bussard (subject of a great recent doc that Films We Like hasn't distro'd, Desperate Man Blues). They probably have dreams where they're in the forest harvesting them. I would have liked to know more about Lincoff and Evans - what they do for a living, how much of their day is spent on matters fungal, what their families think of their hobbies, and so forth. Larry Evans has even co-recorded a CD of educational songs about mushrooms - which the film either doesn't mention or does so so briefly that I missed it. Here too, then, the film falls short of gratifying the curiosities it invokes; but given a choice between watching Larry Evans cooking mushrooms (or relaying anecdotes about his Bolivian mushroom-photographing adventures), or watching Woody Harrelson ride a bike and declaim on the evils of rBGH and Monsanto, I'll take Larry every day. He'll be in attendance at the Vancity Theatre, I'm told. If someone goes, maybe you could ask for me if he ever has dreams about fungus? I'd like to know.

Ron Mann has done some great things for cinema in Canada in recent years, and he's definitely a skilled proponent of a certain kind of documentary filmmaking. He may someday make a film I will enjoy and respect as much as I did Poetry In Motion. Know Your Mushrooms isn't that film. It's not an offense to the eye, and might well entertain at least some of you, as a funny, sweet, engaging, and very easy-to-watch film. For me - having hoped to actually learn about the films proposed subject - it was kind of disappointing.

There, I said it.

*Actually, I'm exaggerating slightly. There were a couple of things I didn't know about mushrooms contained in the film, it's true. I did not know that there was a mushroom pickers' conference in Telluride, only that there was a film festival there; and I didn't know that there was such a thing as an insectivorous fungus. The latter was amazing to hear about, but was granted about 3 minutes of screentime, which really didn't do it justice, given how curious it got me.

No comments: