Category Archives: Documentary

The Deep End: Teal Swan

The Deep End, directed by Jon Kasbe, is a documentary about the spiritual teacher Teal Swan, who has been a controversial figure for years. While she has consistently attracted a large number of “haters,” this is the first mainstream coverage/expose of her work. It raises at least as many questions about the intentions and integrity of the media and documentarians as it does about Teal Swan and her organization.

I don’t have strong feelings about Teal Swan one way or the other. I subscribe to her YouTube channel and have watched probably 10 or so hours of her content over the last few years. Some of it is insightful, but I don’t have any urge to attend a live workshop. I watch many people but don’t really “follow” anyone. The word “follow” is relevant here because, in The Deep End, they insisted on labeling almost anyone who attends an event a Teal Swan “follower,” which is a loaded word typically applied to cult members. Just to be clear, this is mainly a discussion and review of the documentary The Deep End, and not of Teal Swan and her work. I’m not nearly familiar enough with the latter to have an informed opinion.

Documentarians as Narcs

If you are going to watch The Deep End, I highly recommend going to Teal Swan’s YouTube channel and watching her responses. She claims that the producers, who filmed her for 3 years, misrepresented the intentions of the project, at first assuring her that it would be portrayed in a positive light. While this may seem like a case of “they said, she said,” I doubt that she would have given permission to do such intensive filming if she knew that she would be portrayed as a cult leader. It seems like the director Kasbe and his crew approached the project with the mentality of narcs or undercover agents, infiltrating the organization and pretending to be allies.

Teal Swan points to the many ways that the documentary distorts reality, including the spooky music that often plays ominously in the background. Most notably, when you have hundreds of hours of footage and edit it down to a few hours, it’s easy to paint just about any picture you want. Cults are very popular right now and they make for sensationalistic TV.

This isn’t to say that Teal Swan is beyond reproach. When someone reaches her level of influence, it’s inevitable that “followers” will have good and bad experiences. One area that her critics (including the makers of The Deep End) have always focused on was her attitude towards suicide. While Swan doesn’t advocate suicide, she does talk openly about it, recognizing that it’s an option. Unfortunately, a certain number of people (a growing number) do take their own lives. This includes people who watch Teal Swan, as well as people who are under the care of psychiatrists and psychologists. However, the point of a program such as The Deep End is to point an accusing finger at Teal Swan.

Just about any popular self-help or spiritual teacher could be labeled a cult leader. Right now, this would include Anthony Robbins, Sadhguru, GaryVee, Abraham Hicks, and many others. if you applied a microscopic view to any organization and applied selective editing, you could alternately make anyone seem like a true savior or a complete charlatan.

By the last couple of episodes, The Deep End devolves into pure melodrama and cheesy horror movie effects, casting Swan as a demonic figure. Clearly, the intention here is to push a certain narrative and the intended audience are viewers who accept such narratives at face value.

The Media: Exposing Cults or a Cult In Itself?

The Deep End is a fascinating example of how media and art forms such as documentaries can construct reality. Personally, I am more interested in this general concept than I am in the doc itself or even Teal Swan and her teachings.

For anyone who shares this kind of bizarre obsession with the cultoid, propaganda, and how the media creates and distorts perceptions, I’d recommend watching The Deep End along with Teal Swan’s reactions (there are 4 videos, one in response to each episode).
It’s usually too flip and simplistic to say that the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but in this case, it truly seems like the most likely scenario.

Bisping: Documentary of the UFC Fighter

Bisping: The Michael Bisping Story is a documentary about a popular mixed martial arts fighter who became the UFC Middleweight champion. It’s an exciting look at a fast growing sport as well an engaging biography of an athlete who was determined to overcome all obstacles to achieve his dream.

I started out as a boxing fan and am only a rather casual and recent fan of mixed martial arts and the UFC (if you read comments on YouTube or forums, “casual” is one of the worst insults anyone can deliver), so I never knew about Michael Bisping until fairly recently when I discovered his YouTube channel.

Bisping looks at the fighter’s origins growing up in a working class area in England, where he frequently got into fights in the street and at pubs. He also started training in martial arts at an early age and began competing in tournaments. After a brief period in jail following a fight, Bisping resolved to turn his life around and began pursuing a martial arts career in earnest.

This documentary provides some great footage, not only of Bisping’s notable fights but also many other UFC stars with whom he fought or otherwise crossed paths. Featured in the film are his arch rival Luke Rockhold, Dana White, Joe Rogan, Micky Rourke, Rashad Evans, and even actor Vin Diesel, who was in a movie with Bisping.

The trajectory of Bisping’s career, which had many ups and downs, has the dramatic feel of a fictional movie. Some of the exciting matches covered in the film include Bisping vs. Luke Rockhold (twice), Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson, and George St. Pierre. One dramatic plot is how Bisping was injured and ended up losing an eye following a brutal knockout at the hands of Vitor Belfort, who, it turned out, was using steroids. Bisping continued to compete, hiding the fact that he was blind in one eye, and still managed to win the Middleweight championship.

Bisping is an inspiring story of one man’s journey to excel and overcome challenges. It’s a must see for UFC/MMA fans. It will also appeal to anyone who appreciates a real life “Rocky” story.

Bisping is currently available on Amazon and other streaming services. For more information see:

https://www.bispingdoc.com

You Can’t Kill The Meme

A documentary by Hayley Garrigus, You Can’t Kill The Meme explores the bizarre and controversial Pepe The Frog meme that became infamous during the 2016 election. Based loosely on the ancient Egyptian god Kek, the cartoon frog Pepe spread online, especially on 4Chan and many “alt-right” message boards.

If you search for Pepe The Frog, you’ll see that, somewhat absurdly for an innocuous-looking cartoon animal, it’s widely considered a “hate symbol.” With so much political controversy, mixed with mysticism and fairly obscure online subcultures, it’s hard to approach this topic with any kind of objectivity. Hayley Garrigus, however, manages to maintain a detached focus on the many unusual belief systems and eccentric characters she interviews. She herself stays in the background, barely appearing in front of the camera at all.

Garrigus isn’t so much concerned with Pepe The Frog itself, but the underlying ideas and movements that latched on or appropriated the symbol. She was inspired by the book Memetic Magic: Manipulation of the Root Social Matrix and the Fabric of Reality, by R. Kirk Packwood, a now out of print book. Packwood is interviewed and expresses an ambivalent attitude about the movement he unintentionally inspired.

Memes (including the word “meme”) Have a Life of Their Own

The terms meme magic and memetics go back to the original definition of meme rather than the more limited modern idea of memes as simply images shared on social media. Richard Dawkins coined the term as the cultural equivalent of a virus that spreads quickly through society. Of course, Dawkins is a rather dogmatic atheist and would most likely cringe at some of the ways the term has been used. But this is, somewhat ironically, the very way memes work: they evolve or mutate in unpredictable ways. Pepe The Frog is the perfect example.

If you want to follow the bizarre evolution of Pepe, you may be more interested in another doc called Feels Good Man, about Pepe’s actual creator, cartoonist Matt Furie who disowned his creation after it was appropriated by underground movements.

The ADL has labeled Pepe a hate symbol. Yet, the ADL website says, “In the fall of 2016, the ADL teamed with Pepe creator Matt Furie to form a #SavePepe campaign to reclaim the symbol from those who use it with hateful intentions.” So they are somewhat ambiguously calling it a hate symbol and trying to redeem it. The whole history of Pepe, including its creation and abandonment by Matt Furie, R. Kirk Packwood’s own distancing of his book on memetic magic all show how slippery memes can be and how they take on a life of their own.

Fortunately, Hayley Garrigus doesn’t get bogged down in the controversy of Pepe and the simplistic right vs. left conflict and gets into more esoteric territory. She interviews a self-described lightworker in Las Vegas named Carole Michaella as well as other eccentric magicians, including Billy Brujo, whose getup includes white face paint and a cross on his forehead. All of this seems practically designed to scare away “normies” to dismiss all this as woo-woo or the ravings of political extremists desperate for a way to feel empowered.

When memetic magicians (if that’s the correct term) claim they were responsible, not only for Trump winning the 2016 election but even for causing Hillary Clinton to collapse in the street, skepticism is understandable. However, Garrigus seems open to the ideas that are presented, however farfetched, or at least lets the characters express themselves without judgment (at least that she expresses). She seems more interested in the underlying possibilities of memes than in the particular idiosyncratic way certain characters have interpreted these memes. After all, versions of magic (or magick) have been around a lot longer than American politics.

I think some viewers and reviewers were frustrated by the film’s apparent lack of a clear message. If this topic was handled by, say, a network TV show such as 20/20, the focus might have been on exposing the characters as lunatics or dangerous extremists. On the other hand, I never had the sense that Garrigus blindly believes anything anyone says. Her detached style lets you judge for yourself and, if you’re so inclined, to do further research.

You Can’t Kill The Meme will probably be most appreciated by people who already have some knowledge of alternative belief systems, if not memetic magic itself. It at least helps to have an open mind. Our world is far richer and more complex than is portrayed by conventional institutions and this documentary sheds some light on one loosely defined subculture that is exploring certain aspects of human potential.

You Can’t Kill The Meme is not a movie for everyone, and it received more than its share of negative reviews. Most of these are from “normies,” people with either no background or interest in the occult and fringe movements who are often outright hostile to anything outside the mainstream. In this case, there’s additional pressure to distance oneself from a movement that’s been so closely associated with Trump and the “alt-right” (whatever that really means). However, Garrigus isn’t endorsing any political or cultural movements here but simply exploring a fascinating phenomenon. Memes are always with us and can have a profound, and often hidden, impact on society, whether we like them or not or whether we’re aware of them or not.

You Can’t Kill The Meme is currently streaming on Hulu.

A Glitch In The Matrix: Documentary streaming on Hulu

Are we living in a computer simulation? Are alternate realities bleeding into our own, causing multiple interpretations of the same events, also known as the Mandela Effect? How can we even know what is real? If these sorts of questions fascinate you, A Glitch In The Matrix, a documentary currently streaming on Hulu might be for you.

Directed by Rodney Ascher, who also directed Room 237, which explored strange symbols and synchronicities associated with The Shining. While the unifying topic of Room 237 keeps it relatively reigned in, A Glitch In The Matrix is an unfocused romp through various loosely related topics concerning science fiction, philosophy, and technology.

Philip K. Dick provides the closest thing to an anchor for the film. Specifically, we see portions of a lecture he gave in Paris in 1977, where he refers to reality glitches and basically describes the popular idea of the Mandela Effect without naming it (obviously, as Nelson Mandela, in any timeline, was still alive back then). Beyond anything else, the doc establishes Dick as one of the founding influencers on modern simulation theory as well as The Mandela Effect.

As the title suggests, The Matrix is also a major theme. The Matrix films actually introduced an ancient concept into popular consciousness —the notion that the world we perceive isn’t the real reality, but some type of projection. Of course, it’s only in the digital age that we came up with the idea of a computer simulation.

Some of the documentary’s more interesting speculations remind us that philosophers from Plato to Descartes have examined these themes. Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in particular, is an obvious influence on the Matrix.

The 17th century philosopher Descartes, posed the idea of a demon who fools everyone into believing in a false reality. This connects to his famous adage, “I think, therefore I am.” While self-identity is fairly persuasive most of the time (I don’t think Descartes was familiar with psychedelics), it doesn’t necessarily prove that the world around us is real.

The film doesn’t mention Gnosticism, an early Christian heresy, which was strongly influenced by Plato and various schools of ancient mysticism. Gnostics believe the world we see was created by the Demiurge, a kind of false god (who may also be the God of the Old Testament) and usurper. The goal of gnosis or knowledge is to find our way back to the true creator.

Buddhism and other Eastern religions also helped to set the stage for simulation theory. Of particular relevance is the concept of Maya, which can be translated as illusion or deceit. If we don’t perceive reality as it is, it’s not so farfetched to believe we’re inside a simulation.

When not focusing on Philip K. Dick and ancient philosophy, A Glitch In The Matrix features a group of seemingly random interviewees. These are all guys dressed in bizarre sci-fi outfits. I’m not sure if these costumes are from cosplay events, comic books, or computer games, but the effect doesn’t exactly add to the film’s credibility. To me, it has the effect of pigeon-holing the topic into the realm of sheer geekiness. To be sure, these are geeky, intellectual topics, but they didn’t have to go overboard to drive home this point.

I’m not sure if the interviewees wanted to remain anonymous or if they just thought it was cool or entertaining to have these get-ups. They sounded intelligent enough, but didn’t seem to have any special credentials apart from having some interesting anecdotes regarding synchronicities. I found some of these stories a bit underwhelming, at least as far as providing any real insights into simulation theory. Arguably, they could have better spent the time by delving more deeply into the history and philosophy of these ideas.

Aside from Philip K. Dick and the costumed characters, the film quotes various other opinions on simulation theory, including Elon Musk to Neil deGrasse Tyson, who both believe it’s likely we are indeed in a simulation. A couple of the talking heads bring up the statistical probability of this being true. Personally, I don’t find statistics convincing with this type of metaphysical argument. It’s either true or it isn’t.

A Glitch In The Matrix also reveals the potential dark side to simulation theory. In the 19th century, Dostoyevsky explored the idea of nihilism in novels such as Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov. A famous line from the latter novel, spoken by the atheist Ivan, states, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.” Of course, Dostoyevsky meant this in the worst possible way, meaning that people have no reason to follow any type of moral code. In the 21st century, simulation theory can be seen as posing a similar moral dilemma. A Glitch In The Matrix explores this in depth.

One character who gets lots of air time is Joshua Cooke, who came to be known as “The Matrix killer.” He also used The Matrix Defense in court, a variation on the insanity plea. We hear Cooke himself describing in detail how, after repeatedly watching the films (along with listening to various hardcore music soundtracks), he murdered his parents with a shotgun. This eerie and unnerving sequence reveals a dark side of simulation theory, the possibility that, if our lives aren’t even real, we don’t have to worry about the consequences of our actions.

On a similar note, they cover a case of someone who randomly decided to steal a plane because he’d done so in computer games. Before fatally crashing, he is heard over the airwaves saying that it’s just like a video game.

A Glitch In The Matrix is not the most coherent presentation of ideas such as the Simulation Hypothesis and the Mandela Effect. On the other hand, these topics are intrinsically confusing, paradoxical, and multidimensional, so a logical linear approach may not be ideal or even possible.

It’s not likely there will ever be a definitive study of this infinitely complex and unprovable theory (which is equally impossible to disprove). A Glitch In The Matrix, despite its unevenness and the distracting costumes, does contribute something of value to the discussion and certainly provokes further thought.

Nomadland: Film and Book

Nomadland, directed by Chloé Zhao and starring Frances Mcdormand, is a fictionalized rendering of a book by Jessica Bruder. The book is a nonfiction study of the emerging subculture of nomadic people who, mainly due to economic necessity, adopted the nomadic lifestyle of living in vans.

The movie focuses mainly on a woman named Fern (McDormand) who sets off in her van after her husband dies and the town in Nevada where they lived literally shuts down after losing a factory. The movie, while fictionalized, follows a documentary format. Indeed, it stars many actual nomads who are discussed in the book such as Bob Wells, who acts as a mentor for people new to the van lifestyle.

Since around the financial collapse of 2008, many people in late middle age and even older, became van-dwelling nomads. Some subsist on social security or savings but many work at a variety of temporary jobs all over the country. Amazon warehouses are a major employer of these folks, which is portrayed in the film and, much more comprehensively, in the book.

The movie was recently awarded a Golden Globes Award for Best Drama. While the acting (such as it is, as many characters are simply playing themselves) and cinematography are flawless. The lonely beauty of the American Southwest plays a major part in setting the mood. However, compared to the book, Nomadland tends to water down some important aspects of this lifestyle.

A Self-Reliant Loner

Frances McDormand expertly portrays low-key, earthy characters such as Fern. Her character here is still recovering from the heartbreak of losing her husband and home. The movie mainly depicts the challenges of life on the road and the creative ways nomads cope with everyday issues such as staying warm, going to the bathroom, and cooking.

The closest thing to a plot is that a fellow nomad is obviously interested in Fern and pursues her while she keeps him at a distance. There’s also a scene in which Fern visits her family and tensions from the past arise. These scenes all depict the conflict between the “normal” domestic way of life and the nomadic one. It suggests that living on the road for a long time makes one feel imprisoned by conventional life.

Led by Bob Wells, we see how the nomads form temporary yet close-knit communities. Many, like Fern, are fiercely independent loners who, nonetheless, take pleasure in one another’s company and who help each other out as much as possible.

Nomadland Downplays the Harsh Realities of Gig Work

In Jessica Bruder’s book, the modern nomadic lifestyle is explored as a kind of sociological study, with an emphasis on how economic hardship is forcing people to find new ways to survive. This is certainly obvious in the film as well. When Bob Wells makes his pitch to novice nomads, he preaches an ultra-individualistic philosophy of self-reliance and realizing that society isn’t going to take care of you.

The movie, though insightful about the motivations and personalities of its subjects, avoids looking too closely at what its subjects have to do to survive economically. This is most apparent when we see the nomads working in an Amazon warehouse. My first thought was, “Amazon actually let them film this?” The book, after all, pointed out how hard and exploitative these temporary gigs are, especially on older adults. Bruder describes, for example, how injuries on the floor are common.

In the film, however, we only see brief snippets of people working. And, significantly, the only words actually spoken about Amazon are positive, when Fern tells someone that the pay is good. The film, similarly shows a variety of mostly brief scenes of nomads working in different environments, such as a campground. In this manner, the film underplays one of the most significant facts about this lifestyle —it compels people to work very hard for relatively low wages and no benefits. In this manner, the living in van lifestyle of these contemporary nomads who rely on temp jobs can be seen as one branch of the emerging gig economy.

Vulture discusses this at length in an article, What Nomadland Gets Wrong About Gig Labor. Of course, it’s doubtful Amazon would have permitted filming in their facilities if it was portrayed in a less positive light. Or, perhaps, Zhao preferred not to focus on these issues, which would have made the film more political. As it is, the film is more about the expansive landscapes of the American West and the resourcefulness and community-mindedness of the nomads.

An Emerging Nation of Nomads?

Bruder’s book came out several years ago, and explains how many of the new breed of nomads were victims of the 2008 economic crisis. Today, many of the conditions of that decade have only worsened, made even more severe by businesses closed and jobs lost due to COVID. Even before the pandemic, issues such as homelessness and economic inequality have been steadily worsening. Thus, it’s likely that the lifestyle depicted in Nomadland will become more and more common.

Nomadland is currently streaming on Hulu. I recommend it, but you should definitely read the book to get a fuller picture.

My review of Nomadland on Goodreads

I also did a short podcast on Nomadland (the book).

The Social Dilemma

Social media dominates our lives more and more. The Social Dilemma is a persuasive documentary that looks at some of the ways sites such as Facebook may be manipulating us, even beyond what’s obvious. The doc features a panel of speakers, mostly tech industry insiders or ex-insiders.

The main point of The Social Dilemma isn’t really that controversial. The algorithms of sites such as Facebook are designed to target, influence, and reinforce certain patterns in users. While the most obvious example of this is retargeted advertising, that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Retargeting, if you’re not familiar with the term, is when you click on a link, say for a product on Amazon, and then you suddenly start seeing ads for that product everywhere you go.

The retargeting principle also applies to things like YouTube videos as well as the types of posts you interact with on Facebook. In areas such as politics, this contributes to the so-called echo chamber effect. People get increasingly categorized and segregated into subcultures and see fewer and fewer alternative or opposing viewpoints. As the film points out, it’s actually profitable for these sites to do this, as people are creatures of habit. If you’re addicted to conspiracy videos, for example, it makes sense to encourage you to watch more of these. You’re also more likely to click on ads and just spend more time on the sites, which is part of the plan.

The Social Dilemma dramatizes the algorithm process by Anthropomorphising AI into actual people who scheme to manipulate an unstable teen into staying online, which leads to tragic results. The movie avoids getting overtly political, so there’s no tangible movement or group he joins. But the implication seems to be that social media sites may encourage people to join extremist groups and possibly turn into terrorists, school shooters, and such.

The main points made by The Social Dilemma are hard to dispute. At the same time, I’d advise watching this doc with a healthy degree of skepticism. For one thing, what we have here are powerful, influential people warning us about other powerful, influential people. In some cases, the two groups overlap quite a bit. The film’s narrow focus is on social media but some of the underlying issues apply equally to the mass media in general -which certainly includes Netflix.

If we’re talking about manipulation, the film itself uses a fair amount of it to make its points. The creators and the people they interview are clearly part of an elite intellectual class whose views are constantly heard in books, TED Talks, conferences, and docs like this one. Jaron Lanier, declared the “Founding Father of Virtual Reality” has become one of the official spokespeople for exposing the dangers of the digital age. Tristan Harris worked at Google, Jeff Seibert, at Twitter. Shoshana Zuboff is the author of the popular book, Surveillance Capitalism.

So what are the solutions they are proposing? While the movie isn’t putting forth an actual plan, the implication seems to be that we need more regulation and oversight. There’s also the option of unplugging, of course. Towards the end, it’s mentioned that several top executives of social media companies don’t let their own kids use these sites.

Slate published an interesting critique of The Social Dilemma by Pranav Malhotra, where he points out that the film overlooks many key issues such as privacy and how social media depends upon and contributes to economic inequality. He also points out that many scholars and other experts not directly affiliated with the tech industry don’t get a voice. There is a sense here that we’re supposed to trust these tech industry reformers to clean up the damage they’ve done.

With a documentary on social issues, you always need to consider the source as well as what’s being said between the lines. This is most certainly not something put together by an indie filmmaker. It’s a slick production, complete with a website that tells you how to organize, promote it, and take further action. Okay, nowadays, even a kid who made a $1500 doc would most likely have a website and links to more content. But, in this case, it’s Netflix, and the creators are well-connected with the corporate media. So it’s worth questioning their motives.

The Social Dilemma can be seen as a severe critique of the social media age but equally as a pre-emptive action to ensure that entrenched forces remain in control of the narrative.

The Amazing Johnathan Documentary

John Edward Szeles, better known as The Amazing Johnathan, is a high-profile renegade magician who’s appeared in numerous venues as well as in movies and various celebrity shows. In 2014, Johnathan was diagnosed with a heart condition called cardiomyopathy and given a year to live. Several years later, however, he was still around. Director Ben Berman decided that an infamous magician on borrowed time would be a good subject for a documentary.

Of course, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary turns out to be a lot less straightforward than the above introduction suggests. It seems that it’s not enough to make an ordinary documentary these days. It helps if there’s an air of mystery and a heavy dose of “meta,” where the documentarian and his work is at least as important as the alleged subject. Exit Through the Gift Shop comes to mind, and The Amazing Johnathan Documentary, while not quite as fascinating as that one, has some similarities.

There are a few twists in the doc that it’s probably better not to reveal. One, however, must be mentioned. As the filming got underway, several other documentary makers began to surface. One, allegedly, was the production company behind hits such as Man on a Wire. Then another, and yet another, documentary maker appeared, turning Berman’s own doc into a kind of hall of mirrors.

At this point, Berman, as well as the viewers have no idea what’s really going on. Is Johnathan playing him (and us) or is he himself being used by multiple filmmakers cashing in on his impending death. Speaking of which, is he even sick at all?

One backstory is that Szeles is a heavy drug user, which possibly explains his heart condition. In fact, if he really uses meth every day, it truly is a miracle that he’s still alive. At one point, Berman offers to take meth with Szeles as an act of “Gonzo journalism.” He goes as far as to consult with a lawyer on the possible legal ramifications. This episode is an example of how the doc drags in spots. In 2019, it isn’t really shocking or necessary for authenticity to watch people take drugs. Yet this is treated as a major ethical and aesthetic issue.

There are other places where the action slows or feels repetitive. While it’s interesting to contemplate who’s telling the truth and what’s really going on, most doc viewers have already seen this kind of thing before. Just as Berman doesn’t know how far he can trust Szeles, so the viewer is in the same position in regards to him. Do we even know, for example, that there really are multiple documentary makers? The main focus is on the notorious second group. Berman doesn’t let us see or hear anything they do, either for his own purposes or because they don’t want to be filmed.

There’s one scene, in a Vancouver theater, where the second doc is allegedly playing, but we don’t get to see any of it, only a sparse crowd that includes an actor Berman pays to crash and ask a question. If we want to get in the spirit of suspicion and paranoia, there’s little evidence that this doc actually exists. Of course, I haven’t taken the trouble to research it and perhaps others have verified it. The point is that the whole film puts one in this state of mind where everything can be doubted.

Whatever other docs may or may not have been made, The Amazing Johnathan Documentary has obviously broken through. It was showcased at Sundance, has been shown in art theaters and is now on Hulu. I’d recommend this film to anyone who’s fascinated in The Amazing Johnathan and/or who can’t get enough of murky doc/mocs where it’s never quite clear what is and isn’t real. It’s not my favorite example of this genre but it did hold my interest.

Bill Murray Stories on Netflix

The Bill Murray Stories: Life Lessons Learned From a Mythical Man is a documentary on Netflix about a curious phenomenon involving the comic actor who’s reinvented himself as a kind of trickster guru over the last decade.

“Bill Murray sightings” have been reported for many years. These are seemingly random incidents where Murray appears in unlikely places such as a kickball game, a college dorm, or at a random party. Filmmaker Tommy Avallone sets out to document these sightings and find out if they are real or simply bizarre urban legends.

These aren’t like typical celebrity sightings. Murray is always alone and simply blends into the local culture. As Avallone discovers, many of these stories are true. The documentary has footage from several of these events as people are shocked and overwhelmed to have a star in their midst.

You can look at Bill Murray Stories in a number of ways. On one level, it’s a study in the modern obsession with celebrity. Several of the interviewees have almost religious awe at having met Murray, saying how the experienced transformed their lives. This is touching yet also a bit disturbing.

On the other hand, Murray seems intent on providing inspiration and positive energy without the usual celebrity fanfare. Even if these encounters do make the celebrity gossip columns, Murray doesn’t really need the exposure at this point. He seems to be having a good time as he elevates the environment.

We’re also reminded that many of Murray’s films such as Razor’s Edge, Groundhog Day, Caddyshack and even Meatballs have a transformative message. In a strange way, Murray truly seems to be a latter-day Zen master who is now wandering the world inserting himself into the lives of ordinary people.

There’s also a clip from Coffee and Cigarettes, one of my favorite Jim Jarmusch films, which is a series of semi-improvised sketches with odd pairings of celebrities having random conversations. In one scene, Bill Murray plays himself pretending to be a waiter, referencing the whole Bill Murray Sighting phenomenon.

Possible Spoiler Alert: Bill Murray is never directly interviewed in this film. All the footage is taken from previous “sightings” and public appearances (such as one Murray made at a Comi-Con festival). This, however, is actually part of the appeal of Bill Murray Stories. If Avallone had full access to Murray, it would just seem like another insider piece. Instead, it’s more like a doc you might catch at an indie film festival.

Fyre on Netflix

“The Greatest Party That Never Happened”

The Netflix documentary Fyre looks at the infamous Fyre festival of 2017. What was meant to be a game-changing super luxury music festival for privileged millennials turned into a disaster.

While much of the blame can be attributed to organizer Billy McFarland (one of his associates labels him an “operational sociopath”), it was really a group effort that required the complicity of influencers, marketing agencies, and, not least, the people who gullibly bought the exorbitant tickets on faith.

Fyre is interesting on many levels. Far more than just a failed event, it speaks to a crucial aspect of contemporary culture: the obsession with social media and influencers and the obsessive need to be associated with celebrities and glamour.

One darkly amusing segment at the end shows how McFarland, out on bail after the collapse of Fyre, was able to con people on the festival’s mailing list yet again with a bogus “VIP Access” scam that promised imaginary meetings with Taylor Swift, a private dinner with Lebron James, and discounted tickets to Burning Man and Coachella.

What really SOLD people to pay as much as $250,000 for a Fyre ticket? It obviously wasn’t the opportunity to hear great music or even lounge on the beach. You can do that for a fraction of the cost. To really get the idea, you need to watch the original promo video for the event.

They recruited some of the world’s top models along with scenes of pristine beaches, private jets, and yachts to appeal to what MacFarland says in one of the doc’s most revealing comments:

“We’re selling a pipe dream to your average loser.”

What’s so incredibly significant about that statement is that it applies to so much of the modern media, advertising, and social media landscape. TV commercials and magazine ads were doing this decade before the internet. What’s different is that now they can package more than mere products.

Fyre: A Lifestyle App

At the beginning of the doc, it was pointed out that Fyre was meant to be more than just a one-off festival. It was supposedly going to be a platform for matching people (presumably ones with lots of disposable cash) with amazing experiences. Macfarland was also involved in another gimmicky endeavor: Magnises, a metallic black card that was meant to be an even more exclusive version of the American Express Black Card. Like the Fyre Festival, Magnises crashed due to lack of substance.

All of McFarland’s projects from Magnises to Fyre to the post-Fyre VIP Access were blatant attempts to exploit the public’s (it would be unfair to confine it to the easy target of millennials) fascination with celebrity, wealth, and glamour.

Lord of the Flies Meets The Beach in 2017?

One disturbing aspect of Fyre goes beyond the intentions of the promoters and organizers and relates to how the festivalgoers themselves behaved. Granted, they had good reason to be disappointed, angry, and even scared. What had been promised as a luxury resort atmosphere resembled a refugee camp, with hundreds of tents lining the beach.

We see how their mood transforms from exuberant to skeptical to outraged. This is perfectly understandable. What’s unfortunate is how this quickly degenerated into what one observer called a “looting mentality.” The scene became a nightmare that evoked some of the most dystopian novels/movies set on beaches from Lord of the Flies to The Beach.

One festivalgoer, without apparent shame, admitted how he and his friends destroyed neighboring tents to make them uninhabitable, all so they wouldn’t have close neighbors. This type of reaction doesn’t bode well for civilization if any major catastrophes ensue.

Equally interesting was the reaction on social media from the general public -in other words, people not suffering at the festival. The reaction was hardly sympathetic. On the contrary, there was widespread hilarity and exuberance. The prevailing attitude was that it served these spoiled rich kids right for spending so much money on a luxury excursion. There’s was definitely an element of class envy going on here.

The Dot Com Collapse, Blockchain and Castles in the Air

The way McFarland and co-conspirators were able to sell the Fyre concept is reminiscent of other internet-related phenomena. While fast-talking scammers have always been able to con the gullible, it’s now much easier to create the appearance and framework of substance even when none exists.

In 2000 there was a collapse of internet companies that threatened the demise of the digital age in its infancy. While this is sometimes conflated with the post-9/11 economic slump, the internet bubble actually started to burst in 2000.

It turned out that many companies were built on nothing but vague concepts. Many were running at a loss. Of course, it’s well known that Amazon, now one of the world’s wealthiest companies, went for many years losing money. However, the majority of businesses that start out losing money don’t turn into Amazon: they simply fade away.

Now, almost 20 years later we have several new developments that make it even easier to create castles in the air: social media, online video, and smartphones. The Fyre Festival was able to construct such a castle by creating a glamorous video and hiring some models and influencers.

The blockchain and cryptocurrency are also producing all kinds of vague and untenable companies. Following the rise of Bitcoin, hundreds of new cryptocurrencies were (and continue to be) released, enticing speculators to invest. Apart from cryptocurrencies, many businesses are using the blockchain concept in realms from publishing to online security.

When McFarland gets out of prison (he’s currently serving a 6-year sentence) it wouldn’t be surprising if he starts a blockchain company. This isn’t to say that the blockchain and cryptocurrency don’t hold real potential. The point is, they can easily be used to create promising yet impractical businesses (or outright scams in some cases).

The Fyre Festival, like McFarland’s other schemes, points to how much of modern society is built on vague and shaky promises. It may be significant that the virtual space where so much data is stored is called The Cloud.

A Society Obsessed With Images

Last year, I read and reviewed a modern classic of sociology, The Image, by Daniel J. Boorstin. This book from 1961 identifies many of the key movements that would morph into contemporary social media/influencer culture. Another prescient classic that dealt with this type of issue was The Society of the Spectacle, by Guy Debord in 1967. Both of these pre-internet thinkers identified the emerging trend of a society where people are obsessed with appearances, images, and celebrities (i.e. people whose images are worshipped).

The Fyre Festival was indeed a pipe dream but one that was irresistible to people immersed in an image and celebrity-centric culture.

Wild, Wild Country on Netflix

This podcast, which runs about 14 minutes, contains the following blog post (more or less) with some additional comments:

Wild, Wild Country, a 6-part documentary, directed by the Way brothers and produced by indie film director Mark Duplass, is about the Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh cult that was established in Oregon in the 1980s. I was interested in watching this as I read several of his books and knew people who were followers (though no one who actually lived on the commune). Before I started watching, I didn’t even realize it was a doc; I assumed for some reason that it was a dramatization. The doc turned out to be more interesting, mainly because several of the principle players were interviews.

Rajneesh, who later become known as Osho, died quite a few years ago so all we have are clips of him speaking. Osho was known mainly for his advocacy of open sexuality and for his blatant materialism, expressed among other things by his large collection of Rolls Royces. But was he materialistic or mocking materialism with his excessive wealth? This is one of the many questions that are hard to answer. It’s worth noting that Osho has been called a trickster guru along the lines of other controversial spiritual leaders such as George Gurdjieff, whose name comes up briefly here as well.

Strangely, Osho is really a background character in this documentary. Most of the focus is on his secretary, Ma Anand Sheela, who turns out to be the character who really makes the whole movie fascinating. Sheela is a notorious figure who was accused of several criminal acts, including the poisoning of the entire town of Antelope, Oregon and attempted murders of rivals within the group. There are a couple of other higher-ups who were living in Rajneeshpuram who give extensive interviews as well.

In many instances, Sheela comes across like a textbook psychopath -charismatic, without remorse, and a natural leader. Her obvious love of the camera and willingness to talk at length are what really make Wild, Wild Country so interesting to watch. Those looking for a more in-depth exploration of Rajneesh/Osho’s philosophy would do better reading some of his books.

A couple of other figures are also prominent in the doc. Swami Prem Niren (like many in the group, he’s an American who took on a Sannyasin name), the group’s attorney for many years. He is clearly conflicted about many events and is brought to tears several times at memories of better days in the movement. Another is Catherine Jane Stork, an Australian woman who joined the movement and spent time in prison along with Sheela for attempted murder. Stork is the only interviewee who seems to have truly repented and left the movement behind.

Considering that it’s a documentary about a religious movement that’s generally labeled a cult, Wild, Wild Country is about as balanced as you could expect. The shocking events, which are well documented, are shown alongside the fond recollections of former members who still find much of value in their years under Rajneesh.

As much as anything else, this film is about sociology and culture; about what happens when you have two radically opposed subcultures living alongside each other. Rajneesh, and really Sheela, chose a remote rural community of Antelope Valley, Oregon, whose citizens were mostly elderly, insular and very conservative. You couldn’t possibly have more of a mismatch between a group following a Tantric Indian guru and a disapproving community of conservative Christians, many of whom probably disapprove of much of modern mainstream culture much less free love, polygamy, and anarchy (one of the recurring themes in Osho’s discourses is to distrust all traditional authority).

How you react to this film will, of course, depend on your own background and biases. Even if you see merit in Osho’s teaching, however, it seems clear that Sheela was a ruthless and power-hungry character. This also brings up some interesting issues about the nature of power and radical movements in general. Arguably, it’s people with those characteristics who are most likely to seize power in any institution. It’s just more noticeable in a cult because it’s operating outside the norms of society. We don’t notice the pathology of mainstream authority because it’s right in front of us.

Apart from the excesses and corruption within the group/cult, there’s little doubt that the locals in Oregon, and later higher up faction within the U.S. government, were determined to oust the Rajneeshees one way or another. When Sheela and others refer to themselves as an oppressed religious community, they have a point. At the same point, it’s instructive to note how quickly the leadership within the group sank to the same level, or even lower in some cases, as its opponents.

The story of Rajneesh and Rajneeshpuram is very complex, involves many people, some no longer living (most notably, the guru himself). This documentary is certainly not the whole story. Another of Osho’s disciples, who doesn’t appear in the doc, wrote her own book that tells, believe it or not, a far more damning picture of both Osho and Sheela. In a recent article, Satya Franklin claims that Sheela, true to style, manipulated the filmmakers into giving her control over the project. Somehow, I find this fairly easy to believe.
https://www.thedailybeast.com/wild-wild-country-a-rajneeshee-cult-insider-on-the-horrors-the-netflix-series-left-out

Take hold of your own life. See that the whole existence is celebrating. These trees are not serious, these birds are not serious. The rivers and the oceans are wild, and everywhere there is fun, everywhere there is joy and delight. Watch existence, listen to the existence and become part of it.”

– OSHO

Speaking of cults, ever wonder if all of society is really a cult? I explore this and other possibilities in my book, a collection of essays called Beyond The Cultoid, available on Kindle and as an audiobook on Audible.