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Fantastic Fungi

"Tell a dream, lose a reader." (Henry James via Martin Amis)

An obstacle which I did not anticipate, two days ago when I hastily conceived of my Doc.tober challenge, is deciding what I'd watch. My internal choice architecture is a byzantine house of mirrors. I get catatonic when confronted with making the most basic consumer decisions. I know this about myself. Yet, it had not occurred to me that choosing a documentary to watch each day could be the hardest part of the challenge. What do I feel like watching today?

After approximately 65 minutes of browsing VOD platforms, checking my "2C" folder in Evernote, cross-referencing imdb, watching three trailers, scanning a few virtual festivals, thinking about the repercussions of writing about films made by friends, or clients, watching a bit of CNN, fretting that I'm committed to viewing and writing about a doc every day and that this is only day two, wondering about how much attention I had for something too slow, or too emotionally taxing, keeping in mind that I wasn't watching alone, consulting with my partner ("whatever you want, babe"), I landed back on the first documentary on my Apple TV "Up Next" queue: Fantastic Fungi.

Doc.tober could get expensive at 7 bucks a day.

I've been following the marketing and distribution of Fantastic Fungi, and have been intending to watch it for months. The production has been one of the few independent docs to break-through the noise this year. Partnering with Kirt Eftekhar's Area23A, credited here as the "hybrid distributor," the producers had, by their count, a 500-theatre event run scheduled for March 2020. Fortunately, they had launched the film in October 2019, claiming an approximately $2.5 million worldwide gross until the pandemic hit. The plan was to keep that momentum going and then spin the word-of-mouth equity (or "demand expressions") into TVOD gold. Then all the bookings started dropping. Admirably, and as they held all rights, they were decisive in quickly launching digital sales. Of interest, their first digital window, commencing in April, consisted of "virtual theatrical" and direct sales from the official website (using Vimeo-On-Demand as the back-end). More recently, Fantastic Fungi has launched on TVOD platforms (Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu), where it's consistently been on the top bands, this discoverability indicating strong sales. It appears that Fantastic Fungi is the most successful iteration of the model, producer-driven marketing and distribution, that many of us are adapting, in one form or another.

Last week Variety interviewed producer/director Louie Schwartzberg and Eftekhar on the Fantastic Fungi release, and they've been speaking of these matters on festival webinars and elsewhere. It's all very impressive (knowing the time and money involved in managing such), and with some 14 Executive Producer credits listed, I'm assuming the production had an actual marketing budget to work with (the production budget is not listed on IMDbPro).

Mushrooms are having a moment, as are psychedelic compounds. I'm quite interested, informed, and experienced on the later, and learned lots, generally, about fungi that I did not know. Fantastic Fungi is effective as a "big idea" doc, and structurally it moves along crisply and lucidly. Mark Monroe is credited as a writer, which suggests the producers had problems in the edit to solve. He's often brought in as a ringer in these instances. It's also possible he was simply hired to write Brie Larson's narration, which is serviceable.

Too bad much of the visual content of the film is a hot mess, inside a dumpster fire, inside a train wreck, to borrow a phrase du jour. This is especially annoying, to me, in segments attempting to represent high dose psilocybin experiences (more than 5 grams), which becomes pure kitsch in Fantastic Fungi. While the visual and spatial effects stimulated by recreational doses of psilocybin are relatively similar, perceptually, across individuals, at the "heroic dose" level the visuals are idiosyncratic, internal, and highly personal, like dreams, but different. I'm of the opinion that such experiences, when one goes beyond the borders of ego, are impossible to express, in any medium, from the point-of-view of human consciousness. How does one express, for example, limitless gratitude? The best I've managed, having had one of these experiences, is "Wow...I got a glimpse." It was fantastic, indeed, though largely unreportable.

I enjoyed following the film's primary guide, Paul Stamets, and agree with all the speakers in the film, which naturally includes Michael Pollen (the Jaron Lanier of food ecology docs), who adamantly advocate for the prospects of psilocybin and other psychedelics in the treatment of depression, addiction, trauma, and end-of-life despair. Yet, I do think it's irresponsible of the filmmakers to omit including a speaker (unless I missed that, I didn't take notes) to caution viewers on how destabilizing these compounds can be for some, the importance of set and setting, as well as having a responsible, safe, informed guide. Also, this just yesterday: "The Ontario Poison Centre says it’s seeing a rise in calls related to mushroom foraging, including some where people had to be hospitalized after eating wild mushrooms."

That Fantastic Fungi has earned a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is either an indictment of contemporary film criticism, as applied to nonfiction films, or points to a lack of nuance in RT's converting a written review to a numeric rating.

Better luck tomorrow, hopefully.

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