“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).   

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