Enlighten Up! (Balcony Releasing, NR)

film_enlighten_sm.jpgHow bad can it be to take a six-month vacation at someone else’s expense when you don’t have a job?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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I’ve always been a bit suspicious of the commercial yoga industry, at least in its American manifestation: It often seems just another form of conspicuous consumption with a large component of showing off as well. Enlighten Up! didn’t change my opinion, although I lay the blame more on the quality of the film than on the practice of yoga itself. Director Kate Churchill’s acknowledged struggles to impose a story on (or "find a story in," if you prefer) six months’ worth of documentary footage is not particularly successful, resulting in a movie which is sometimes interesting (mainly the travelogue bits) without ever being truly compelling.

A little of back story may be in order. Before this documentary, Kate Churchill was mainly occupied with making PBS nature programs with titles like Avalanche! and Everest—The Death Zone. She was also an ardent practitioner of yoga, and came to the belief that anyone could be transformed by yoga. Putting the two pieces together, she decided to make a film about yoga, documenting the transformation of one person. At this point, things get fuzzy: Questions like how the person was chosen, whether he was paid for his services, and exactly what was expected of him are papered over or avoided entirely. If you’re like me, by this point the whole project feels distasteful; deciding that someone else needs to be transformed is presumptive and manipulative, to say the least.

But anyway… The chosen subject is Nick Rosen, a charming and photogenic 29-year-old Canadian who has recently left his journalism job in New York and is thus available to travel from yogi to yogi with a camera crew in tow. He’s not nearly as into the project of transformation as Kate is, but he’s willing to give it a go. How bad can it be to take a six-month vacation at someone else’s expense when you don’t have a job?

They begin in New York, sampling Bikram Yoga (practiced in a studio heated to 105 degrees), Dharma Yoga (in which the yogi treats Nick to a numerological interpretation of the significance of his birthdate), and Dharma Yoga (in which the practice is accompanied by a melodeon), among others. Then it’s off to Los Angeles, where we encounter a former professional wrestler who now teaches "yoga for real guys" and doesn’t hesitate to point out that a side benefit of teaching is the opportunity to ogle women in spandex. Hawaii comes next, then the real heart of the trip: off to India to meet some of the real celebs of the yoga world. Most notable among them may be B.K.S. Iyengar, who popularized yoga in the West by inventing the concept of the yoga franchise. Wherever you are in the world, you probably won’t have to travel far to find a certified instructor of his system of "Iyengar Yoga," and if that fails you can just purchase one of the 14 books he has written on the subject.

Some time into the Indian portion of the trip, Kate starts to get crabby; seeing no spiritual progress in Nick, she accuses him of not taking the project seriously. He gets testy and wants a night off to go nookie-hunting, while she insists that where he goes, the cameras go. Of course we don’t know if this was the first time such tensions arose, since we don’t know what was recorded on all the footage left on the cutting-room floor. For that matter, the confrontation could all have been staged for our benefit. In any regard, it feels forced, particularly since Kate has disclosed elsewhere that the film was deliberately recut to focus on the conflict between the two of them and force some kind of dramatic form on what is otherwise a lot of home-movie footage. Creating all those nature films was probably good preparation; ever since Disney drove the lemmings off the cliff, artificially imposing human stories on animal behavior has been a favored directorial method.

Given that 30 months were spent editing this film, it’s surprising that the technical results are not better. The cinematography is particularly disappointing: There are a lot of grainy exposures and annoying camera shake, and far too much reliance on a few stylistic tics, including jump cuts, rack focus and extreme close-ups. On the plus side, music by Krishna Venkatesh nicely complements the action.

Not surprisingly, the film comes to a conclusion which Kate sums up tritely for us. Nick never abandons his ironic hipster pose, even if he does acknowledge being changed by the experience: He moves to Colorado to write scripts for rock-climbing documentaries and spend more time with his mother. Of course, he would likely have been changed simply by traveling for six months, hence the popularity of the "gap year," a British custom in which students take a year off between high school and university to work, travel or whatever else catches their fancy. Neither Nick nor Kate reach what seems the really obvious conclusion: Yoga is about practice, not guru-shopping, and if you insist on viewing it from the outside you’ll never get it. Of course, that wouldn’t make much of a movie. | Sarah Boslaugh

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