It's hard to tell what a general audience will make of Ron Mann's new film Know Your Mushrooms. It opens with a clip from one of the first motion pictures ever, Georges Méliès' 1902 Trip to the Moon. After their rocket smacks the moon right in the eye, the astronauts disembark to discover that the moon is covered with what Méliès must have considered the most other-worldly of life forms: mushrooms.
The film segues to the almost equally fantastical Telluride Mushroom Festival--playful enthusiasts, funny hats, costumes, and ceremonial Tibetan bells. The opening credits explode with the psychedelic animation of Mike Roberts, colorful and sparkling--he makes fungus dance. Just as we're beguiled into a world of mushrooms that are funny, exotic and frivolous, the canny filmmaker brings things down to earth with film consultant and mycologist Gary Lincoff explaining that a fungal mat underlies and nurtures all life on earth.
I've followed Mann's work since his first film, Comic Book Confidential, which came out while I was researching my book on the history of MAD magazine. He's very good at illuminating the many facets of a subject in vivid ways. For Know Your Mushrooms he cleverly chooses two complementary guides. Lincoff and Larry Evans are both middle-aged white guys with an obsession with fungus, but their sensibilities quite different. Evans is a pig-tailed, brilliant, chatty, self-described "mushroom gypsy" who can hunt down, field-dress, and cook up our favorites while spouting a stream of fascinating facts and lore. By contrast, Gary Lincoff is a bona-fide mycologist and much-published author who speaks in paragraphs and fills the audience in on the scientific side of things wit and verve. Interestingly, Mann chooses to have the Lincoff, the scientist, describe an hallucinogenic experience. John Cage, Andrew Weil and Terrance McKenna also make short appearances in vintage footage (strangely, Paul Stamets, about whom a whole film could be made, is absent).
Know Your Mushrooms is a collage of information about fungi, including the culinary, spiritual, ecologically remedial, and scientific aspects. The film is interspersed with jokey quiz questions, posed by an anthropomorphized Boletus edulis that are sometimes funny and sometimes an annoying interruption. But the ditzy little guy keeps an information-laden film light, as does the rest of the fabulous animation by Roberts, which appears throughout the film in various artful ways. The soundtrack features lots of songs that have fungus as a theme (who knew?) that Mann has collected.
The film, which was produced in association with Bravo, is meant for a general audience, but it's definitely fun for a more knowledgeable aficionado--you won't learn much, but the mix of documentary footage, great cartoons, vintage film clips from an international selection of movies and documentaries is almost as fun as being at your favorite foray with all your hunting pals around you. And if you have friends and loved ones, even kids, who are perplexed or curious about this fascinating life form and the people who pursue it, Know Your Mushrooms is a wonderful, inspiring, introduction.
Maria Reidelbach, contributor, FUNGI magazine [...]