Ron Mann discusses spacey theories, DIY distribution and his
illuminating new documentary, Know Your Mushrooms
by MALCOLM FRASER
Ron Mann, the Toronto-based documentarian who's chronicled the
counterculture and its characters for over 20 years in films like
Poetry in Motion, Comic Book Confidential, Grass and Tales of the Rat
Fink, is a bit of a character himself. His trademark mane of hair is
now entirely white, but his enthusiasm and positivity would shame
many a man half his age.
Sitting down with the Mirror to discuss his latest doc, Know Your
Mushroomsa peculiar kind of educational film on the wide varieties
of edible fungi and the good they do for the worldMann spends a
third of our allotted time singing the praises of his friend and
mentor, Montreal-based Hollywood screenwriter-turned-yoga instructor
Len Blum before getting on topic. Like his other films, and like Mann
himself, Know Your Mushrooms is full of information delivered in a
fun manner, outwardly goofy but with a deeper message to deliver.
Centred on the Telluride Mushroom Festival, the film follows two of
the festival's keynote speakers: Larry Evans, a nomadic
mushroom-picking expert known as "the Indiana Jones of mushrooms,"
and botanical authority Gary Lincoff. Woven through their
testimonials are corny animated sequences illustrating mushroom
factoids, copious footage of the festival's frolicking fungophiles,
and archival clips of late left-field mushroom enthusiasts Terence
McKenna (who believed that magic mushrooms played a key role in human
evolution) and John Allegro (who's shown speculating to an
astonished, comically stuffy British interviewer that Jesus Christ
may have actually been a mushroom).
The film originated from a seemingly unlikely source. "Jim Jarmusch,
a filmmaker, a friend and a fungophile, told me about the Telluride
Mushroom Festival," recounts Mann. "I went down there and got turned
on to these mushroom freaks like Larry Evans and Gary Lincoff. I went
on a mushroom foray, which is a 'Where's Waldo' hide and seek in the
forest with mushrooms. And I came out of the forest a completely
"Jim would say things to me like 'Do you know that the DNA of
mushrooms are closer to humans than they are to plants?' And I'd go
'Really?' It's kind of like you start to see mushrooms in the forest
in a different context, as having a
powerful attraction, very magical."
Mann initially intended to make a fictional film"an Alice in
Wonderland story" starring Jarmusch, Tom Waits, Finnish filmmaker Aki
Kaurismäki and the Band keyboardist Garth Hudson.
But with funding tight and Jarmusch's schedule tighter, he found
himself reconsidering. "It was a week before the next Telluride
Mushroom Festival. I said to myself, 'You know what, I'm gonna go
down to just film what I can. If I have a film there, great. If not,
then I'll do the drama.' And it turned out I went down, and that's
this movie. But I wrote a drama with Jim being lost in the woods and
hallucinating, which maybe I'll do one day as a parallel, the fiction
version of Know Your Mushrooms."
Although mushrooms of the magic variety are far from the only kind
discussed in the filmthere's as much time devoted to oyster
mushrooms' ability to clean up oil spillspsilocybin does play a key
role. Lincoff tells a hilarious, epic anecdote about his first trip,
and many of the Telluride festival's participants seem permanently
addled. The far-out theories espoused by McKenna and Allegro are
taken at face value, and in person, Mann doesn't seem at all
skeptical. "It's all speculative, but it makes you think about what
is possible," he says. "I love those kinds of theories… it even goes
further out than you think, and I know a lot of people who've
communicated with mushrooms.
"At first, you go 'Okay…' But the truth is, why not? I just read
about a toy that Mattel is producing using bio-waves, [with which]
you can move objects using your brain! It's like Carrie! It's
telekinesisI mean, how is that possible? It's what Allen Ginsberg
said to me once: 'Everything the freaks were saying at the fringe
actually came true.' So that's what it is about this film and these
people. They're really onto something with mushrooms."
Among his fellow converts is Flaming Lips singer (and recent Arcade
Fire antagonist) Wayne Coyne, who composed a couple of original Lips
songs for the Mushrooms soundtrack. "Wayne I met at South By
Southwest, when we were on a panel together. He was an admirer of my
film Grasssurprise, surprise. And I thought it was appropriate to
ask him to write a song for the film. I actually didn't think he was
gonna do it, but three months later in my inbox was this perfect song."
From Dream Tower, his film on Toronto's Rochdale College (a downtown
communal experiment gone wrong) to docs like Grass and the Woody
Harrelson organic-living manifesto Go Further, Mann's films have
often documented the faded but still lingering echoes of '60s social
movements. Though Know Your Mushrooms risks preaching to the
converted with its unabashedly hippie stance, Mann is unapologetic
about staking a claim for the old-school counterculture.
"When I started making movies in the '80s, Reagan was really
hell-bent on rewriting the '60s, in that everything was reduced to
failure," he explains. "It was all sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll.
Anything that was positive out of that, from education to music, had
to deal with a conservative backlash. We didn't have back then a
pervasive documentary movement because film was expensive. Television
reflected that conservative culture.
"My thing, my project, was to take the artists and musicians and
creative people that I'd read and experienced in the '60s and '70s,
and have a record of their work… a record of art history that
wouldn't exist otherwise. I see myself as a cultural historian rather
than a documentary filmmakersomeone who has a responsibility to go
out and give credit to a lot of artists who are heroes of mine.
"There's a record by Eric Dolphy, and at the end of the record he
says 'Music's in the air, and then it's gone.' That was the reason
for making the films, to capture that moment before it's gone, so we
have a legacy. Art history in the 20th century is audio-visual. If it
wasn't recorded, it didn't happen! People are remembered by the
stories they leave. And that's documentary. It's our oral histories
that defy death, that make us almost immortal."
BOX OFFICE DOCS
As much as he may flirt with the flaky, Mann is a canny enough
businessman to survive in a difficult environment for filmmakinghe
runs his own distribution company, Filmswelike. "It was started
because a friend of mine, Sam Green, who made The Weather
Underground, couldn't find a distributor in Canada. By default, I
said I would distribute the film. Over the last five years, we've
released over 50 films in Canada. They're films which deserve an audience."
Mann has also served as producer on other documentaries, including
the recent surprise U.S. hit The Examined Life, an examination of
contemporary philosophers and their ideas (which comes to Montreal in
April). Despite having faced trouble financing the cerebral doc, Mann
reports with delight that its opening weekend was "the best
box-office gross per screen in North America. It's really a
phenomenon, what's happening with that film."
As for Know Your Mushrooms: "The film opened to rousing applause at
the Telluride Mushroom Festival," Mann laughs, "and Bonaroo when we
showed the film as a work in progress. I just assumed people were on
mushrooms when I showed it! The film's world premiere was at the
Whistler Film Festival, and there I assumed it was the altitude." But
his self-deprecation aside, the film has opened to strong box office
returns and critical acclaim. "I guess I've figured out what
audiences want," he exclaims, bursting into laughter: "philosophy and