Reviews Of The Quantum Activist, Collapse, And The Edge Of Dreaming
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/12/11
How does someone become the star of a documentary film? Since recently joining Netflix I have found myself far more drawn to the bevy of online streaming documentaries available than to the fictive films I’ve reviewed for years with DVD releases. One recent Sunday afternoon, after a long and hard day’s work, I came home, too tired to write or do anything else, so I watched three short documentaries in a row, in about four hours. It was an afternoon which prompted the query that opens this essay because all three films had lead protagonists that could, at best, charitably, be called idiotic and annoying.
The first of the three films was called The Quantum Activist, and featured perhaps the most respected scientist to trash his career and intellectual standing on crapola since Dr. John Mack sipped the Kool-Aid and came out in support of UFO abductees. The film is a paean to erstwhile physicist Amit Goswami, who wrote one of the major textbooks on physics used in colleges throughout the world, until he decided to give in to his ‘inner demons’- to beg the cliché (why not since the man, himself, as become a parody- the all knowing Indian guru who speaks nonsense with a smile- Deepak Copra Redux?), and ditched science in favor of nebulous New Age propaganda about the nature of existence and proofs of God. While not going as far off the deep end to claim that the Christian God is the ‘Intelligent Designer’ of all things, Goswami does claim that it is consciousness, not the material realm, that is the root of everything, and he tries to build a straw house on this fragile edifice, and succeeds in demonstrating that he is either a) as gullible as far less educated people (to his own snake oil), or b) a wily con man who decided to cash out on the relatively non-lucrative field of research in favor of the very lucrative field of New Age guru.
In short, virtually every minute, Goswami utters nonsense that even a not so educated layman can easily debunk, and by doing so, reveals himself to be a charlatan, and a thoroughly unlikable one, at that. One can just tell how insidious his evil is by how facile and ridiculous his questions are. Literally, if I wanted to waste the time, I could have paused the film every 60-90 seconds and written a two or three page answer and rebuttal to almost every statement the man makes yet, clearly, the filmmakers, Renee Slade and Ri Stewart, are all on board with this nonsense because not once do they break from filming and call Goswami out on his nonsense.
The second film is clearly the best of the tercet, Collapse, although not a great documentary, and was directed by Chris Smith, heretofore best known for the comic documentary from 1999, American Movie, which documented a talentless wannabe horror filmmaker’s inane quest to do his film. Compared to another recent documentary I watched, Not Your Typical Bigfoot Movie, that earlier film comes off as crass and condescending, showing no empathy for its simpletons, even if, admittedly, it has its share of laughs. That said, Collapse (unrelated to Jared Diamond’s excellent book of the same name, which deals with an obliquely similar subject matter) comes off as a lesser version of Errol Morris’s excellent The Fog Of War, and its protagonist, an embittered ex-cop from Los Angeles comes off as a déclassé Robert S. McNamara, the former Secretary of Defense from the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations. That ex-cop is Michael Ruppert, a nerd who seems to relish sitting in a chair, trying to look cool, in the middle of a deserted room, with lights and cameras on him, smoking a cigaret and trying to look as studly as possible sans his eyeglasses, while spouting off on subjects that he has little direct knowledge of: i.e.- a Left Winger’s fantasy of a ‘mole’ that knows everything and feeds their every wish list of conspiracy theories; mostly about energy issues and the coming Malthusian end of the world. This coming human apocalypse to be brought on by the impending scarcity of oil, all the while ignoring many alternatives, and denigrating many others. To Ruppert, anyone who disagrees with him is not just wrong, but a servant of evil. The poor fool seems to be a character from the cult 1990s television show, The X Files, brought to life.
The problem is that his knowledge of how the world works, on a material level, is about as deep and genuine as that of Goswami’s on the immaterial plane, since Ruppert’s claims are all based upon the readings of other’s reporting and selectively editing out anything that does not support his viewpoint. In a classic case of bait and switch, Ruppert will present semi-truths and sometimes whole truths, but slightly altered or decontextualized, so to present things in a worst case scenario, thus letting him have his moments of emotion and epiphany to try and glean empathy with the viewer, a thing that the directors of The Quantum Activist, Renee Slade and Ri Stewart, are not slick enough to get, for they never allow empathy to build for their leading man, Goswami. In their film, one either has to accept Goswami’s insanity- lock, stock and pickle container (how’s that for the unexpected?)- or not. Smith is far more inventive and challenging in his presentation. Be it Ruppert or Smith who held the final form of the film in his hand, it’s a good move, dramatically, even as, to a clear-eyed observer, and one not committed to a political stance as a critic, that Ruppert is, if not mad, certainly dealing with some deep personal psychological issues that cannot be denied (he seems unmarried, not a parent, a loner, with some hints of homosexuality, clear psychological tics, an inability to control his emotions, and on and on). What really interests me, though, is how people like Ruppert and Goswami, so obviously decodable as being not there and a charlatan, respectively, do anything that actually gets a filmmaker interested in filming their often inane and rambling monologues. By contrast, I could go on for hours, with many objective examples, of good and bad writing or good and bad art, but I doubt anyone would want to just film that. Maybe they would need to document my childhood and interesting life story, but just to hear me lecture? I doubt it. Yet, Smith’s focus on Ruppert is even more intense than that The Quantum Activist focuses on Goswami. In another recent documentary I watched, called Rock Prophecies, the filmmaker wisely decided to leave out information on his subject, rock photographer Robert M. Knight’s involvement in UFO lore, and conspiracy theories on Area 51, in favor of his personal angst over his mother’s slow death by Alzheimer’s Disease, and his need to be able to finance her care. So, instead of allowing viewers to marginalize a man for one wacky part of his personality, the film allows the viewer to see a deeper and broader perspective of the man. Ruppert and Goswami, however, seem to have long ago left reality, and both exist in shadow realities they have constructed on their own.
The third person at the center of a documentary film, at least, has no such questions to ask, such as, ‘Why am I filming this person?’ because she is her own subject. In The Edge Of Dreaming, director Amy Hardie, of Scotland, makes a whole film about some rather innocuous dreams she has- thre of them wherein she feels death is at its core. First she has a dream of her horse telling her he will die and fall to the left side. The next morning, indeed, Hardie finds her horse dead. The second dream is from her dead lover, and father of her oldest child, her son, who tells her that she will dies sometime in her 48th year, which is upcoming. The ex-lover apologizes, but this sends Hardie into a frenzy for a year, after her birthday, thinking she is doomed, and propelling her to interview scientists, doctors, family, and friends, as to what life is all about. A third dream makes her seek out a shaman, who says nothing of consequence, but this allows Hardie to try her best to imitate the ending of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, to no avail. The fact that in her 48th year she develops a disease in her lungs naturally makes her believe her end is nigh. Obviously, it was not, as she survives, and all the faux trauma and melodrama, all the consulting with gurus about as wise as Goswami or Ruppert, allows her to end her film with one of the oldest clichés going: to live each day of her life as if she will live forever; a far cry from the great ending to a great documentary film, like John Grabowska’s Crown Of The Continent.
To state that Hardie’s film is solipsistic and shallow, annoying and derivative, vapid and superficial, is to state the obvious. In reality, the word dull sums things up nicely, and the same can be said for The Quantum Activist. Only Smith’s foray into the faronzaled mind of the wacky Ruppert, who at film’s end we are told is reduced to almost living on the street, in poverty, has any real artistic merit. But, how does such a mind interest a person of any depth? Perhaps as a case study in insanity? If one is to believe the PR for Collapse, then Smith shot over 14 hours worth of Ruppert’s ramblings. I can imagine an even longer period of shooting involving Goswami, since footage of his commentary and footage from a few lectures, are interspersed. Naturally, Hardie’s own narcissism likely fueled even more footage than the other two film’s combined. But for what end? Goswami is clearly a fraud, Ruppert is clearly going psychotic, if not already there, and Hardie is simply a none too interesting woman who is trying to invest that dull existence with her own pretensions to insight.
Of course, Hardie’s pretensions are matched or succeeded by Goswami’s and Ruppert’s, but only Ruppert’s film rises to become interesting entertainment, for its creator- Chris Smith, unlike Hardie or Renee Slade and Ri Stewart, actually succeeds in the aims he states (irrelevant to a critic’s getting it, but, in retrospect, a device that other filmmakers should understand): ‘What I hoped to reveal was...that his obsession with the collapse of industrial civilization has led to the collapse of his life. In the end, it is a character study about his obsession.’ Unfortunately, although it is the only one of the three films to achieve any measure of success, it’s a wan one, for Ruppert is simply not that interesting, even as a case study in psychological suicide. Goswami’s film is worse because, unlike Collapse, it never dares to even hold his feet to the proverbial coals. It gullibly accepts all manner of nonsense the man spews, while Hardie’s film is probably the worst of the three, for the other two protagonists are at least flamboyant. She’s a dull housewife and mother.
As I turned off that third and final film of the afternoon, The Edge Of Dreaming, I was a bit depressed, not so much for the content and presentation of these films, as even bad ideas can sometimes help one focus on higher things, but because there had been time and money wasted on these individuals when so many other far more relevant and interesting people and subjects exist, could use the publicity, but it’s only being squandered on such pathetic and pointless people and pursuits. While it’s has a certain import, culturally, to document the detritus and trivia of a society, these things should only be undertaken after the quality and important people, ideas, and events get their due, not before, because I have the sinking feeling that somewhere, out in the mists, are artists, scientist, thinkers, and leaders who not only can answer all the things Goswami, Ruppert, and Hardie address, but do so quite easily; enough to obviate their very queries. So why not focus on those people, and leave the Goswamis for the Revivalist tent show set, Ruppert for the Men In Black enthusiasts, and Hardie for post-menopausal life adjustment crowd. The rest of us certainly don’t need them, but we just may need those people the cameras are not currently on. Hopefully, some other filmmakers will ‘see the light’ and give us new stars. Shine on, my brethren. Shine on.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Talking Pictures website.]
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