Ron Mann’s Know Your Mushrooms initially appears to be an elaborate act of misdirection. Mann got psychedelic icons Flaming Lips to contribute new music to his film, and previously directed the stoner classic Grass and the Woody Harrelson-lectures-you-on-how-to-live monstrosity Go Further, so viewers can be excused for expecting a documentary about the more magical, psilocybin-happy side of the mushroom experience. Yet for its first half hour, Know Your Mushrooms seems to be exclusively about mushrooms of the non-hallucinogenic variety. It’s a giddy infomercial for the misunderstood fungi, which Mann posits as the most wondrous substance since hemp (which you can totally make rope out of, and, like, has other properties, too). Then Mann gets around to heralding the fungi’s mind-altering properties, and the movie finally gets interestingly spacy and surreal, only to abandon that theme 20 minutes later.
Mushrooms focuses on the annual Telluride Mushroom Festival and one of its luminaries, Larry Evans, an excitable older gentleman Mann has breathlessly described as the “Indiana Jones of mushroom hunting.” Alas, Mann seems to find Evans much more interesting than audiences will; if he’s the Indiana Jones of mushroom hunting, then Mann is grading on an awfully lenient curve. Mann uses Evans and the Mushroom Festival as a springboard to discuss the subculture of mushroom enthusiasts, fungi-mad obsessives who travel far and wide to find rare and exotic varieties. The festival ends, terrifyingly enough, with countercultural types dressed as mushrooms grooving en masse to hippie music, an image more disturbing than any found in the Saw series.
Mann remains one of the documentary world’s most distinctive, playful directors, with a fizzy style that has more in common with Frank Tashlin and cartoons than cinéma vérité. Mann is up to all his old tricks here, recycling campy old film clips, piling on goofball animation, and doling out Mushroom “Fun Facts.” Yet his collagist, pop-art approach strains mightily to make non-hallucinogenic mushrooms seem interesting. Early in the film, Mann asks Evans why mushrooms are so fascinating. By the end of Mushrooms’ 73 minutes, neither Evans nor the film has come up with a convincing answer.
Key features: An interview with Mann, deleted scenes, a video by Evans, and a lecture from mushroom expert Gary Lincoff.