Docurama // 2008 // 73 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Adam Arseneau (Retired) // December 17th, 2009
Far out, man.
So...an entire documentary about mushrooms, you say? Sure, why not? You can make a documentary about anything these days.
From director Ron Mann (Comic Book Confidential) comes Know Your Mushrooms, an investigation into all things mushroom in our culture. Follow mycology enthusiasts Gary Lincoff and Larry Evans as they lead audiences on a hunt for the wild mushrooms and the deeper cultural experiences attached to the mushroom. From the annual Telluride Mushroom Festival to the psychedelic connotations of magic mushrooms, Know Your Mushrooms opens the doors to perception and takes the audience on a long, strange trip.
Depending on how you approach the word "mushroom," your perceptions may vary wildly in our society. If you like to cook, mushrooms are a tasty addition to any meal. If you are a psychedelic seeker, mushrooms mean a particularly crazy trip. If you are a biologist, mushrooms are a fascinating organism with deep ties into our planetary lifecycle of decomposition. Such is the way of Know Your Mushrooms, an all-encompassing examination into all things mushrooms, from edible to intellectual to interplanetary.
A short and scatterbrained film, Know Your Mushrooms has genuine passion and fervor for its subject matter, but never really finds a solid narrative footing for audiences to appreciate it. There are so many things to talk about mushrooms, so many perspectives and cultural significances, so many weird, wonderful slow-motion stop footage clips of mushrooms slowly growing, that the film races from topic to topic like a hyperactive child. Audiences may learn a little bit about this, a little bit about that, and, as a Mushroom 101 course, the documentary is interesting from a purely academic sense, if you can keep up with the swaying.
We follow mycological enthusiasts from exploring the woods of Colorado looking for edible mushrooms to lecture halls discussing the merits of mushrooms, all the while interjected with esoteric stock footage, bizarre commercials, and hallucinogenic animation sequences that serve no purpose but to alarm audiences tremendously. Just as we learn something interesting about mushrooms, like how scientists use them to sop up oil spills in the ocean, or how they lower the blood pressure of mice in laboratory tests, like a bad trip, the film swings wildly to another subject -- commercial mushroom harvesting to weird stock footage to cooking mushrooms to a chemical composition of poisonous mushrooms to a 5-minute monologue by a crazy guy going on about his magic mushroom trip -- and more of those creepy animation sequences of dancing mushrooms. The overall effect is...well, kind of unsettling. Dare I say it? Kind of trippy.
Could mushrooms be too large and complex a subject for a mere 70-minute documentary to tackle? It certainly seems so. A lot of these points are actually quite fascinating, like the Western culture mentality eschewing the harvesting of wild mushrooms due to danger when in actuality, surprisingly few mushrooms are dangerous, or the spiritual and psychedelic cultural connections to mushrooms shared by numerous societies and cultures throughout human history. Alas, we get only tantalizing minutes on each subject before we go whooshing off into the starts, literally. If the film could sit still long enough to concentrate on one particular angle, it would be much more enjoyable.
From a technical perspective, this is an average low-budget documentary. The widescreen anamorphic presentation gets the job done, varying in quality depending on the footage shown, but exhibits a flat color palate, weak black levels, and blocky compression artifacts. The 5.1 Surround transfer is more impressive, with surprising bass response, clear dialogue, and satisfying whooshing sound effects swinging from rear speakers. The score is a psychedelic blend of Sixties rock and music by The Sadies and The Flaming Lips.
Extras are okay. We get a video short introduction by Larry Evans, uncut footage from Gary Lincoff's lecture from the Telluride Mushroom Festival, some deleted scenes, a theatrical trailer, and a trivia game. The best feature is an interactive listing of mycological groups in North America for the curious to seek out and explore the world of mushrooms.
As documentaries go, Know Your Mushrooms is kind of a raging mess, leaping from subject to subject with no narrative flow and too much psychedelic pomp. Still, in a sense, it does get audiences somewhat curious about the world of mushrooms. You go into the film wondering how the hell someone is going to make an hour-plus documentary about something as innocuous as mushrooms, and leave it musing about how the filmmakers needed a film three times as long to actually explore the subject. I'd count that as a partial success in my book.
At a cursory glance, Know Your Mushrooms is interesting and esoteric enough to warrant a curious glance, but the transparency of the documentary reveals itself too quickly. Mushrooms are unexpectedly interesting as a subject matter, but not interesting enough for audiences to sit through an hour-long documentary this scatterbrained and unfocused. Too much of this film comes off like a Troma version of Alice in Wonderland. Know Your Mushrooms needs more focus and substance to do its subject justice.
A strange trip, but too strange for this poor Judge's taste.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.78:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
Running Time: 73 Minutes
Release Year: 2008
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Deleted Scenes
* Recorded Lecture
* Trivia Game
* Theatrical Trailer
* Mycological Group Listing