“And Then There Were None” - René Clair (1945)

And Then There Were None (1939) is not only English mystery writer Agatha Christie’s most popular novel, it is the most widely read mystery novel ever written, with more than 100 million copies sold [1].  This novel (which was originally titled Ten Little Niggers but was soon changed to And Then There Were None) was refashioned by Christie in 1943 into a stage play with an altered, more upbeat, ending; and it is this play that has served as the basis for numerous film and TV adaptations around the world over the years.  However, the most famous of these adaptations was the first – the 1945 American film And Then There Were None directed by René Clair.

What makes Christie’s story so irresistibly enticing?  It is undoubtedly the story’s foundational proposition – ten strangers stranded in a lone mansion on a small island are facing the prospect that an unknown member of their group is intent on killing all the others, one-by-one.  As the murders proceed, the surviving parties (and the viewers) must continually revise their suspicions as to who might be the fiendish perpetrator.  Since everyone is ultimately under suspicion, the atmosphere for paranoia is intense.  As such, this turns out to be one of the ultimate claustrophobic whodunits.     

René Clair, the film‘s director, was a famous French filmmaker and something of an auteur, but he spent the  war years of  World War II self-exiled in the U.S., where he had the opportunity to direct a number of Hollywood films (e.g. The Flame of New Orleans (1941), I Married a Witch (1942), It Happened Tomorrow (1944), and finally And Then There Were None (1945)).  So not surprisingly, this film’s production was very much a standard Hollywood product, with the script, cinematography, editing, and music all handled by Hollywood veterans Dudley Nichols, Lucien N. Andriot, Harvey Manger, and Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco, respectively.  Even so, the uniqueness of Agatha Christie’s story has made the film largely stand out as something of an art-house favourite over the years [2,3,4,5,6].

The film begins with eight people, all mutually strangers to each other, being delivered in a small boat to an isolated island off the English coast.  We will soon learn their identities:
  • Judge Francis Quinncannon (played by Barry Fitzgerald), a legal authority
  • Dr. Edward Armstrong (Walter Huston), a medical physician
  • William Blore (Roland Young), a police detective 
  • General Sir John Mandrake (Aubrey Smith), a military officer
  • Prince Nikki Starloff (Mischa Auer), an upper-class wastrel
  • Emily Brent (Judith Anderson), an older upper-class woman
  • Philip Lombard (Louis Hayward)
  • Vera Claythorne (June Duprez)
They are all guests of a Mr. Owen whom they have never met.  When they arrive on the island, they are taken to a lone mansion tended to by two newly hired servants, Mr. and Mrs. Rogers, who have also never met Mr. Owen.  When the guests sit down for dinner, they notice a flamboyant centerpiece on the table featuring ten figurines of (American) Indians.  This odd centerpiece, which can evoke the macabre children’s nursery rhyme “Ten Little Indians”, will serve as a physical metaphor for the gruesome events to follow.  

Then Mr. Rogers, following instructions he had received from Mr. Owen, plays a phonograph record having a recording addressed to the newly arrived guests.  The recorded voice asserts that, based on inside information, it knows and spells out how each of ten people in the house – the eight invited guests and Mr. and Mrs. Rogers – is individually responsible for the deaths of one or more innocent people.  Essentially, they are all unconvicted murderers.  And so, according to the voice on the recording, they all deserve to be executed.

Naturally, this announcement is disruptive to the equanimity of the group, who are in the initial stages of getting to know each other.  There are various angry denials, as well as confessions of some degrees of guilt.  But they all feel that they are now the targets of revenge for their alleged past deeds.

Then the sequence of mysterious deaths begins.  The first one happens quickly.  After Prince Starloff sits down at the piano in the drawing room and plays and sings the children’s nursery song “Ten Little Indians”, he takes a sip from a cocktail drink and then keels over, dead.  The cocktail drink was mysteriously poisoned.  In this and in the subsequent death cases, the identity of the  perpetrator of the vengeful murder is unknown.  But each occasion is accompanied by an equally mysterious disappearance of another Indian figurine from the dining room table.  And the circumstances of each death weirdly reflect the circumstances of the corresponding Indian disappearance mentioned in the nursery rhyme.  At first the life-threatened guests believe that there nemesis is somewhere on the island outside the mansion.  But after thoroughly investigating this possibility, they conclude that their existential antagonist is a disguised member of their own group.

Most of the guests are stereotypes of their professional backgrounds, and so they stereotypically apply their accustomed skills to finding who is the murderer.  Thus Judge Quinncannon sees things from a legal perspective;  Dr. Armstrong sees things from a medical perspective;  General Mandrake sees things from a military perspective; and Detective Blore just wants to collect all the evidence.  Although some viewers may like this heterogeneous problem-solving admixture, I found it a bit too artificial for my taste.

So the sequence of surreptitious murders continues to play itself out, with the identity of the cold-blooded killer being continually restricted to one of a set of candidates among the declining number of surviving guests.  Eventually the viewer does learn who it is, and I will leave it to you to see the film and find out for yourself.

Enticing as this challenging many-suspect whodunit might seem, though, the film And Then There Were None doesn’t live up to its potential for several reasons:
  • For one thing, there don’t seem to be potential motivations for the murders committed on the island, and this leads to an absence of suspicions.  I believe murder mysteries are best outfitted with threatening suspects whose suspected motivations can help drive the narrative. This problem here likely stems from the overly simplified and stereotyped characterizations of the guests in this story.
     
  • Two of the guests, Vera Claythorne and Philip Lombard (whose real name later turns out to be Charles Morley), are much younger than the other guests and very glamorous compared to the others.  This makes it too obvious that they are innocent parties and that they are likely to be the protagonists in identifying the true culprit.
      
  • And finally, the film makes too light of the notion of death and basically adopts a mocking attitude toward the loss of life.  This may help lighten the dark tenor of the story, but the film dialogue goes too far in this direction.  In fact the incessant flow of superficial wisecracks in this area wears pretty thin before we come to the end of the story.
So And Then There Were None may offer you an interesting mind diversion sometime, but it is a story that could have been fashioned into a more compelling cinematic experience.
½

Notes:
  1. “And Then There Were None”, Wikipedia, (30 September 2021).    
  2. Bosley Crowther, “SHE SCREEN IN REVIEW; 'And Then There Were None,' With Barry Fitzgerald, at Roxy, Appears Opportunely as Goblins Pay Annual Visit Universal Offers a Refashioned Drama of Pirandello in Film 'This Love of Ours,' New Bill Showing at Loew's Criterion At Loew's Criterion”, The New York Times, (1 November 1945).   
  3. Variety Staff, “And Then There Were None”, Variety, (31 December 1944).   
  4. Leonard Maltin (ed.), “And Then There Were None”, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide, PLUME, Penguin Press, (2005). 
  5. Jeremy Arnold, “And Then There Were None on Blu-ray”, Turner Classic Movies, (18 September 2013).   
  6. Jay Carr, “And Then There Were None - And Then There Were None”, Turner Classic Movies, (9 January 2014).   

René Clair

Films of René Clair:

“Nomadland” - Chloé Zhao (2020)

Nomadland (2020) is an award-winning drama whose approach to the realism of its subject matter is both original and also something that underlies the film’s themes.  This film is a story about “vandwellers” in America – people who live in campervans, RVs, mobile homes, or modified buses and have no fixed abode.  Although the film is a work of dramatic fiction, it is closely based on a nonfiction book that documents the lives of these wandering vandwellers, Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century (2017) by Jessica Bruder (in fact Jessica Bruder is credited as a “consulting producer” for the film).  Moreover, almost all of the people who appear in this film are real-life nomadic vandwellers with no prior acting experience.  They are just playing themselves.  

However, Nomadland is not an example of fly-on-the-wall cinema verite.  It is a carefully crafted drama, with masterful cinematography by Joshua James Richards and haunting sound-track music by Ludovico Einaudi.  Neither is it quite appropriate to categorize this film as another example of Italian neo-realism, because there are certain distinguishing aspects of this film that make it rather unique.  

For one thing the film was written, directed, edited and co-produced by Chinese-born American Chloé Zhao, and although Ms. Zhao received a film education at NYU film school, she brings her own original, externally-based eye to the aspects of American life that she writes and films about.  In the context of this film, she seems fascinated by a phenomenon of growing general alienation that is starting to emerge among many ordinary people in America.  And as this film shows, many people have no choice but to accept it.  

So alienation is clearly one important aspect of Nomadland, but there are also other thematic elements present, as well, and these all collectively contribute to reasons for why Zhao’s film has been so remarkably well-received.  On the awards front, Nomadland had almost a clean sweep.  The film won Oscars for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress (and nominations in three other categories) at the 93rd U.S. Academy Awards.  It won the Golden Lion (best film) at the 2020 Venice Film Festival.  It was chosen as Best Film at the 74th British Academy Film Awards (BAFTAs).  And at the 78th Golden Globe Awards, it won an award for Best Motion Picture – Drama and an award for Best Director.  And among top film critics, Nomadland has been widely praised [1,2,3,4,5,6,7].

The meandering story of Nomadland is concerned with a sixtyish woman, Fern (played by award-winning actress Frances McDormand), who has just embarked on a new life as a nomadic vandweller.  She and her husband had worked for years at a gypsum plant in small company-town Empire, Nevada.  But now the gypsum company has shut down, and her husband has just died, leaving the childless Fern alone and with no means of support.  So she purchases a van and converts it into something she can live in while she travels about looking for work.  When asked if she is homeless, she responds with no, she is “houseless”.  

The entire film then focalizes exclusively on Fern as she travels about the western United States in search of odd jobs that she can use for support.  However, Fern is so laid-back and laconic that much of what we learn in the film about vandwellers comes not from Fern, but from the fellow vandwellers that she meets and interacts with.  And as I mentioned, virtually everyone Fern meets is a real-life vandwelling nomad.  Nevertheless, Frances McDormand’s pensive performance as Fern is crucial to the success of the film.  As the film proceeds, we want to know more about what Fern is thinking and feeling.

After Fern heads out on the road from the shutting down town of Empire, she secures a seasonal job at a massive Amazon fulfilment center (warehouse for third-party shipping).  Although the workers don’t appear to be mistreated, the sheer size of the operation makes everyone on the floor like a tiny cog in a gigantic machine.  This is a telling visual metaphor for the impending gig economy and streamlined supply chain that so many ordinary people are now facing.

One of Fern’s coworkers at the warehouse, Linda, convinces her to come to a meet-up for vandwellers in the Arizona desert.  The event is hosted by Bob Wells, a charismatic real-life nomad who seeks to organize cooperative support for his fellow vandwellers.  Although some  vandwellers are middle-class retirees who have embraced this way of life in order to fulfill their love for freedom and the open road, most of these people are like Fern – forced by poverty to live in a van.  At Wells’s meet-ups these people can share tricks and info about how to get by on the road.

Later Fern meets and becomes friends with a congenial elderly woman nomad, Swankie, from whom she learns more about survival under impecunious circumstances on the road.  Swankie also tells her that she, herself, has terminal cancer, but she wants to close out her life on the open road rather than in a hospital.

After the extended encounter with Swankie, Fern is shown working in the Black Hills, South Dakota, where she runs into Dave (David Strathairn, the only other actor in the film with significant professional acting experience), a mild-mannered elderly nomad she had seen earlier in Arizona.  They go on to meet on several further occasions, and Dave politely indicates to Fern that he is interested in having her stay with him in a long-term relationship.  But ultimately Fern resists the temptation and decides to stick to her life of independence on the open road.

There is also an occasion when Fern’s van has a serious breakdown, and she has to go ask her married sister in California for a loan in order to pay for the repairs.  When Fern goes to her sister’s upper-middle class home, we can see the contrast in the two sisters’ lifestyles; and we hope the encounter will shed some light on the taciturn Fern’s background.  But it becomes clear that the sister has always been as much in the dark about Fern’s thoughts and feelings as we viewers are now.  Anyway, the sister does loan the money to Fern, and the van gets fixed.

Fern has further encounters with Bob Wells and other van-dwelling nomads, before eventually returning for one last nostalgic visit to Empire, Nevada, which is by this time almost a ghost town.  Then at the end of the film, she heads back out on the road.

So overall, Nomadland is a bleak, moody film that effectively conveys inescapable feelings of loneliness and a sense of loss.  But there are three connected thematic elements in the film that linger in my mind and warrant further comment:
  • Is the Gig-Economy the Future of Labour?
  • What Role Does Narrative Play in Nomadland?
  • To What Degree is a Self Defined by Narrative?
These are not items really explicitly addressed in Nomadland, but they were tangentially evoked when I watched the film.

1.  Is the Gig-Economy the Future of Labour?

Watching Nomadland made me wonder whether the traditional nature of U.S. socioeconomic society is collapsing (and since the U.S. is at the forefront of social evolution, this applies eventually to everywhere else, too).  With management increasingly centralized and specific jobs increasingly objectified and compartmentalized, the labour environment is more and more moving towards a gig-economy.  For digital workers, this can mean more and more digital nomads – people who can perform their jobs from remote locations and can therefore live anywhere.  But for hands-on gig workers, such as those depicted in Nomadland, it means that anyone looking for work must travel to the site of the job location and secure the gig-job.  In other words, they have to be nomads.

The positive side to all this is that there are likely to be available jobs for itinerants.  But of course the downside is that the jobs are reduced to lowest-common-denominator specifications and are often low-skilled and low-paid.

Chloé Zhao doesn’t take up this general social issue and its ramifications at all in Nomadland.  But what she does show is the lifestyles of the nomads and their various ways of dealing with the inherent loneliness in “nomadland”.

2.  What Role Does Narrative Play in Nomadland?
Almost all films (as well as dramas, stories, and novels) have a narrative that provides a structure for the events depicted.  The metastructure of these narratives is often characterized metaphorically as a journey.  There are one or more protagonists on such a “journey” who are struggling to reach a desired “destination”, and there are usually other agents along the way who assist or stand in the way of progress.  Much has been written about the narrative-as-journey metaphor [8,9,10,11,12], notably the more formalized characterization of it known as the “hero’s journey” [13] that was popularized by Joseph Campbell [14].

In the present context concerning Nomadland, we don’t have to delve into the various narrative characterizations, because in this case, I don’t see that the film even has a narrative.  Although one might at first think Fern is on some sort of journey, nether the destination nor the overall scheme of that journey is ever specified.  We never know what the wandering Fern wants or is thinking.  All we get is a random sequence of scenes depicting haphazard encounters that have no clear outcome – at least no outcome with respect to a given quest.  We never really learn much about what goes on inside Fern’s head or indeed who she is.  But then maybe that is the point.  Fern’s lack of a narrative is what this film is about.

3.  To What Degree is a Self Defined by Narrative?
It is often claimed that we basically model all the people we meet in terms of the narratives we construct about them, and this is how we to know and understand them [9,10,11].  It is in terms of these narratives that we know them.  We even think of ourselves in terms of the narratives constructed by ourselves and others about ourselves.  So is it really true, is that all there is to the self – the narrative that has been constructed to characterize it?  Are you and I just the stories we have constructed about ourselves?  There is dispute on that score.

Some philosophers, usually objectivists, maintain that, yes, that is all there is to the self – the narrative story (or stories) that provides a comprehensible, temporally-oriented scheme of who you are.  They argue further that any idea that there is some inner being constituting the true self is a self-deceptive hallucination.  The only existing selves, they insist, are the fabricated narratives that have long been constructed (since caveman days) to facilitate human interactions extended over time.

But there are other thinkers, both esteemed Western philosophers [15] and respected Eastern sages [16,17], who hold that there are really two essential aspects of the self:
  • an outer, worldly, narrative-based self 
  • an inner self that is founded on core-consciousness
According to this second, more nuanced scheme, it is the inner, core-consciousness-based self that is the true being that identifies who you are.  And this is the self-perspective that I find more natural, and I would guess that Chloé Zhao thinks this way, too.  It usually follows under this scheme that when a person’s inner core-consciousness gets the feeling that its constructed narrative-based self is somehow unfulfilling and leaves it disconnected from meaningful interactions in the world, it then feels alienated.  This sense of alienation can be difficult to articulate, but it lies as a root element of existentialist thinking, and it has been eloquently expressed by such writers as Albert Camus [18] and Jean-Paul Sartre [19], as well as in a number of memorable films [20].  And it is Fern’s alienation that is the artistic key to Nomadland.

As I mentioned, the film Nomadland doesn’t really seem to have its own narrative, and that comes down to the fact that the film’s main character, Fern, doesn’t appear to have a narrative-based self at all.  It’s not just an unsatisfactory narrative-based self, as it often is with some people; here in Fern’s case, it is a virtual narrative void.  She doesn’t appear to have had much meaningful interaction with her family when she was growing up.  And now that her husband has died and she has lost her longtime job and home, there is nothing left of her adult life on which to base her narrative self.  Her life is empty.  And that is what makes the film problematic.  Can a film succeed without being driven by a narrative journey?  In the case of Nomadland, I would say it more or less does succeed.   

Even though I am aligned with the philosophical position that the narrative self is not the most intrinsic aspect of the self, having only a severely diminished narrative-based self, like Fern, would be an existential problem.  And it is Fern’s existential problem that is on display in Nomadland.  We viewers want to know more about what Fern is thinking and feeling in response to her barren circumstances, but her contemplative reticence gives us little to chew on and leaves us wanting more.  Frances McDormand’s subtle, laid-back performance as Fern is crucial here.  We follow her gaze and guess about her feelings all the way, but our fascination persists.  And that is what lies at the heart of Nomadland.
★★★½

Notes:
  1. A.O. Scott, “‘Nomadland’ Review: The Unsettled Americans”, The New York Times, (18 February 2021, 26 April 2021).   
  2. Brian Tallerico, “Nomadland”, RogerEbert.com, (19 February 2021).   
  3. Beatrice Loayza, “Nomadland finds beauty on the rugged, ruthless open road”, Sight and Sound, British Film Institute, (28 April 2021).   
  4. MaryAnn Johanson, “Nomadland movie review: ain’t that America”, flick filosopher, (6 May 2021).   
  5. Murtaza Ali Khan, "’Nomadland’ Review: An inspiring tale of survival that presents the modern-day American West in a new light”, A Potpourri of Vestiges,, (4 April 2021).   
  6. Marjorie Baumgarten, “Nomadland”, The Austin Chronicle, (19 February 2021).   
  7. Chris Barsanti, “Review: ‘Nomadland’ Is a Sorrowful Lament for Lives on America’s Fringes", Slant Magazine, (12 September 2020).   
  8. Roger Schank and Gary Saul Morrison, Tell Me a Story: Narrative and Intelligence (Rethinking Theory),  (1990), Northwestern.
  9. Jerome Bruner, "The Narrative Construction of Reality", Critical Inquiry, 18:1, 1-21, (1991).
  10. Jerome Bruner, “The Narrative Construction of Reality”, Narrative Intelligence (2003), Michael Mateas and Phoebe Sengers (eds.), John Benjamin Publishing Co.
  11. Paul Ricoeur, Time and Narrative, vols. I- III, (1983-1985), University of Chicago Press. 
  12. Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey, 2nd Edition, Michael Wiese Productions (1998).
  13. “Hero’s Journey”, Wikipedia, (17 September 2021).     
  14. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, 1st edition, Bollingen Foundation (1949), 2nd edition, Princeton University Press (1990), 3rd edition, New World Library (2008).
  15. Dan Zahavi, "Self and Narrative: the Limits of Narrative Understanding", Narrative  and  Understanding  Persons, D. D. Hutto  (ed),  Royal  Institute  of  Philosophy Supplement 60, Cambridge University Press, pp. 179-201, (9 August 2007).  
  16. Paramahansa Yogananda, God Talks With Arjuna: The Bhagavad Gita, Self-Realization Fellowship, (1 September 2001).  
  17. Ching Hai, I Have Come to Take You Home: A Collection of Quotes and Spiritual Teachings from the Supreme Master Ching Hai, Sophie Lapaire and Pamela Millar (eds.), SMCHIA Publishing Co., (1 January 1995).   
  18. Albert Camus, The Stranger (L'Étranger), Gallimard, (1942).  
  19. Jean-Paul Sartre, Nausea (La Nausée), Éditions Gallimard, (1938).
  20. The Film Sufi, “Existentialism in Film 1", The Film Sufi, (15 July 2008).   

Chloé Zhao

 Films of Chloé Zhao:

“Fantastic Fungi” - Louie Schwartzberg (2019)

Fantastic Fungi (2019) is an entertaining documentary film that explores various aspects of  ubiquitous but often overlooked participants in our biosphere – fungi, and in particular, their usually above-ground fruiting components, mushrooms.  This film brings to the viewer’s attention the fact that fungi are absolutely crucial to the sustenance of life on earth. The film was directed and photographed by Louie Schwartzberg, whose demonstrated expertise in time-lapse cinematography and CGI (computer-generated imagery) is a spectacular feature of the film.  In fact the time-lapse imagery is so frequently occurring and dazzling that it may perhaps sometimes distract the viewer from some of the film’s other virtues.  

Fantastic Fungi was written by Mark Monroe (among whose earlier writing credits is the fascinating documentary The Cove (2009) [1]), and it was edited by Kevin Klauber and Annie Wilkes.  There are numerous voiceover narrations from the various talking heads in this documentary, but one special narrative element is provided by previously Oscar-winning actress Brie Larson, who serves here as the unseen metaphorical voice of the fungi kingdom.  I am not sure how well this particular narrative innovation works in this case, but it does provide an unusual twist to the presentation.  Another aspect of the production that deserves comment is the music by Adam Peters.  Unfortunately, I found much of the music to be littered with rumblings and  mostly distracting from the viewing experience.  In any case, the film has been largely well-received by a range of critics [2,3,4,5,6,7].

Although Fantastic Fungi rambles back and forth between various topics about fungi, we can say that the film covers roughly four general areas of interest:
  • The science of fungi
  • Fungi in ancient mythology
  • The impact of hallucinogenic drugs that have been derived from Fungi
  • Practical and medicinal uses of fungi
Throughout much of this journey, we are shepherded by Paul Stamets, a lifetime amateur mycology (the science of fungi) enthusiast.  Despite having limited formal training in mycology, Stamets’s passion for the subject and hands-on explorations have enabled him to make a number of discoveries and contributions to the area.  And as the film demonstrates, he is a rather glib communicator on the topic.  

1.  The Science of Fungi
In this topic area the viewer is given some interesting scientific information about fungi.  The expert narrators concerning this material are, for the most part, Michael Pollan and Eugenia Bone, who are food journalists, and Professor Suzanne Simard, who conducts research on fungi at the University of British Columbia.

Fungi are a primitive form of life that predates plants and animals.  Indeed the oldest fossil remains of life are those of fungi dating back 2.4 billion years ago.  And of course fungi are still prospering today, and there are now several million fungi species, more than six times the estimated number of plant species.  

A fascinating and most important structural component of fungi are the thin filamentary hyphae that exist mostly below ground and serve as the roots of the fungi.  They spread out into incredibly complex network structures that are known collectively as mycelia, and they can form even more complex mycorrhizal networks with plants that a mycelium network may connect to.  The expert commentators in the film liken the complexity of these network mycelium structures to that of the human brain, and it seems that these mycelium networks can facilitate the exchange of nutrients and information between the nodes (plants and/or fungi) that are interconnected in these networks.  For more information concerning how these mycorrhizal networks facilitate the essential vitality and harmony of nature, I recommend you see Suzanne Simard’s TED talk, "How trees talk to each other" [8].

2.  Fungi in Ancient Mythology
It seems that fungi have been known and cherished since very ancient times – even to ancient hominids that flourished before the appearance of Homo sapiens.  This was presumably due to the powerful mind-altering properties of some mushrooms.  The film has some commentary about this and refers to and shows some ancient temples in this regard.  

Reference is also made to the Stoned Ape Theory that was proposed by Terence McKenna in 1992, which advanced the idea that the movement from the early human species Homo erectus to the current species Homo sapiens was connected with the hypothesized increased consumption of psilocybin mushrooms (“magic mushrooms”) about 100,000 years ago.  This allegedly gave consumers of those mushroom improved acuity and cooperation capabilities that ultimately provided them with evolutionary advantages.  Thus, so this story goes, the consumption of magic mushrooms led to the emergence of Homo sapiens.

3.  Hallucinogenic Drugs
At the beginning of the 1970s, 15-year-old Paul Stamets became inspired by reading some writing by an advocate of alternative medicine, Dr. Andrew Weil, about altered states of consciousness.  This was when Timothy Leary, LSD, and other hallucinogenic drugs derived from mushrooms were in their heyday.  Consequently Stamets was eager to try out some psychedelic mushrooms.  So he consumed a whole bag of magic mushrooms, and the resulting experience that he had changed his life.  For one thing, it instantly cured his til-then lifelong stuttering problem.  In addition, it launched his unquenchable fascination with the mind-bending possibilities of fungi.  However, about this time there was a decades-long U.S. governmental suppression of psychedelic drug research (1970s - 2000), which hindered work in this field  by Stamets and others.  So Stamets started his own mushroom business and moved to Canada.  In some respects this film is intended to renew a wider scientific interest in this area, such as existed in the 1960s and 70s.

4.   Medicinal Uses of Fungi
A fascinating element of Fantastic Fungi is its discussion of some of the promising medicinal uses of fungi.  However, because of time constraints, only a smattering of this material can be offered.  A key item with respect to this topic is the fact that the human brain has neuroplasticity.  That is, the neuronal structure of the human brain can change and grow throughout the course of a person’s life.  But to facilitate this activity, the brain needs assistance to generate new neurological pathways.  And this is where mushroom-derived chemicals such as psilocybin can play an important role in the brain’s chemistry.  This is an ongoing topic of current research.

Overall, there is an important message we can take from Fantastic Fungi.  We learn that fungi are fundamental instruments for the regeneration of life, and that as Paul Stamets tells us, “the entire ecosystem is infused with fungi.”  Our reductive scientific models of the natural world have too often focussed on the individual entity or agent, and they have thereby overlooked the intertwined, multi-generational nature of life, in connection with which fungi play a fundamental role.  Indeed what is emphasized here in this film and the essential point we come away with, in fact, is how fungi underlie and facilitate a most crucial aspect of the world, something that Buddhist and other spiritual masters have long taught – the interconnectedness of all living beings.
★★★

Notes:
  1. The Film Sufi, “‘The Cove’ - Louie Psihoyos (2009)”, The Film Sufi, (26 July 2009).   
  2. Rex Reed, “Charming Documentary ‘Fantastic Fungi’ Explores the Miracle of Mushrooms”, Observer, (15 October 2019).   
  3. Matt Fagerholm, “Fantastic Fungi”, RogerEbert.com, (11 October 2019).  
  4. Jeannette Catsoulis,”‘Fantastic Fungi’ Review: The Magic of Mushrooms”, The New York Times, (10 October 2019).   
  5. Josh Kupecki, “Fantastic Fungi”, Austin Chronicle, (6 December 2019).   
  6. John Defore, “‘Fantastic Fungi’: Film Review”, The Hollywood Reporter, (8 October 2019).  
  7. Robert Abele “Review: Mushrooms are the new superheroes in documentary ‘Fantastic Fungi’”, Los Angeles Times, (24 October 2019).      
  8. Suzanne Simard, “How trees talk to each other”, TED, (31 August 2016).