Know Your Mushrooms begins with scenes from the 1902 Méliès film, Le voyage dans la Lune underneath a song by The Flaming Lips. It’s an impressive beginning. Knowing enough to utilize film history minutiae while simultaneously convincing Wayne Coyne to write an original song for your film is no small feat. Director Ron Mann seems to have cachet with celebrities having made Go Further and Grass with Woody Harrelson in 2002 and 1999 respectively, and utilizing John Goodman and Jay Leno, among others, for his 2006 documentary, Tales of the Rat Fink.
Most of Mann’s films document subjects that were at one time on the fringes of mainstream American culture: marijuana, hot rods, environmentalism, and comic books, among others. As a consequence of this oeuvre mushrooms and mushroom culture are not a big stretch for Mann. He’s covered this kind of territory before. Unfortunately, it feels like it. Despite what seems like a large production budget for a documentary (how else to explain songs from The Lovin’ Spoonful, Ray Charles, Heart, The Coasters and ELO?) he manages to make what would otherwise be an intriguing subject seem lifeless and fatigued.
Perhaps the explanation lies in who the film seems to be marketed at: college kids with Bob Marley t-shirts and black light posters of bright green pot leaves hanging on the walls of their dorm rooms. There is not much critical thinking that goes on when you’re doing bong rips and under the delusion that wearing a Che Guevera t-shirt is actually a relevant political statement (at one point the film’s main subject, Larry Evans, is sporting one. While he undoubtedly takes Guevera seriously and has probably read The Bolivian Diary several times, when it’s possible to purchase a t-shirt with the bereted revolutionary’s image on it at Hot Topic you have officially wandered into irrelevance, Barack Obama notwithstanding).
It’s difficult to criticize documentary film. There is so little of it; it is underfunded, not well publicized or distributed, and rarely makes the filmmaker any profit. Most documentaries are true labors of love. The few who have made a name and a living at crafting them are the exception, and Ron Mann can count himself among them. However, to not fairly criticize the film is to condone its shoddy craftsmanship and lazy directing. If budget were an issue there might be an excuse, but after listening to the soundtrack, watching the dozen or so animated sequences, and the highly-produced DVD menus, it’s obvious Mann had more than the typical documentary budget to make this film. Whether he spent it on the production of the film or on creative sessions with himself and plastic baggies of his subject matter is open to debate.
Conjecture aside a caveat is necessary: despite it being poorly made from any sort of critical standpoint Know Your Mushrooms is still worth a watch, if only for the reason that it is occasionally fun. Watching new-age hippies cavorting can be a gas. On a more sobering note, much of the subject matter, mycology and entheogens, and their relevance to human cognitive and spiritual development could possibly be of such import that any information on the subject put out into mainstream cultural channels is welcome, however limited it is. Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Not only is the universe stranger than you imagine, it’s stranger than you can imagine.” Unfortunately, the film breezes quickly by the theory that mushrooms in their role as entheogens were possibly the fruit of the original tree of knowledge, catapulting humans into language and its attendant self awareness.
However, if you’re looking for a film to actually learn anything substantial from you’ll be forced to look elsewhere (for those interested the books Food of the Gods by Terence McKenna and Mushrooms Demystified by David Aurora are good starting places). A major part of the problem is that the film does not seem to have been planned in any meaningful sense. Most of the footage was shot over the course of a weekend at the what appears to be sparsely attended 2007 Telluride Mushroom Festival in Colorado. There we follow around two mushroom celebrities, Larry Evans and Gary Lincoff, and meet a bunch of people they know but that don’t interview particularly well.
What we do get are some amazingly irrelevant anecdotes, at one point Evans telling us an uninteresting story about riding in a bus in Bolivia that has nothing to do with mushrooms, or him, or anything in the film. On another occasion we’re forced to endure several minutes of Lincoff’s description of a psychedelic mushroom experience that he had, a story which would have been better left untold, especially if you’re attempting to win people to the cause of legalizing psychedelic mushroom research, which the film champions.
Everything interesting in Know Your Mushrooms seemingly gets cut off before it can begin. Evans is a fascinating character, and through a brief interlude we see his home movies of trekking through South America and other parts of the world in search of mushrooms, psychedelic and non-psychedelic. This is a man on a quest. He drives a junkie old car and during the festival in a town famed for its accommodations sleeps in a sleeping bag out in a field.
Why couldn’t Mann follow Evans around the world on his mushroom quest—skip the elaborate animations and music budget—and come up with a film that might add something to the documentary canon? Instead, by the end of the film we are left holding an empty plastic baggie, the contents having spilled out somewhere between the beginning of the film and the end credits.
There is something that redeems the DVD version of this film. Buried in the otherwise standard extras there is a short educational film, around 15-minutes long, shot on grainy video. It looks like it was transferred from an old VHS copy that someone found at a library book sale. Shot in 1993, Evan’s short film Welcome to the Fungal Jungle is everything that you could want in a mushroom documentary: well made, fun, and passionate. While Know Your Mushrooms will ultimately be forgotten, it’s DVD extras may live on.