2009 Boulder International Film Festival
Attending a film festival in Boulder, Colorado is fraught with many perils, not the least of which is surviving the short walk from the car to the theater (here, the Boulder Public Library) without being accosted for change by dreadlocked street musicians, or placard-carrying students protesting the latest global outrage. Before the first screening of the day, it’s imperative to take a short drive around the city center, which must include the infamous Pearl Street bum bazaar (where even the homeless have cell phones), but should not shy away from, well, each and every street corner, littered as they are with assorted shouters, screamers, unbathed bohemians, and outraged eccentrics, all of whom are blessed with the requisite moral sanctimony, but none of the inconvenient economic deprivation. Yes, as expected, these are the wealthiest hobos on planet earth, and though nary a face goes unbearded, or baby unslinged (strollers are, like, so bourgeois), they can happily conclude their days of sneering judgment in one of the many overpriced abodes that dot the landscape. Poverty is opposed, but not lived, and I highly doubt that the sort who shops at Whole Foods has any real idea how the other half lives. Or that they even exist at all, except as photographs in sociology textbooks or urban legends in internet café chatrooms.
There’s a great deal of anger to be found in the People’s Republic of Boulder, though such hostilities have their antidote, that is if you are lucky enough to catch a screening of the documentary short School of Thought, the latest in loony leftism that makes the rest of us embarrassed for having ever supported programs to help the downtrodden. I’m finding myself more and more intolerant these days, but this paean to transcendental meditation just might be my last stand. If this were simply a wacky chronicle of silly people and their laughable lifestyle choice, it’s likely I would have emerged a bit angry, but mildly amused. Hippies are arguably more vile than fundamentalist Christians, but they’re always good for a laugh. Instead, I was teased into thinking I was being treated to an objective examination of a unique school in the Midwest, only to be bombarded with a recruitment video so criminally creepy that I half expected Jim Jones to emerge as a co-producer. That “TM,” as it’s called, is a glassy-eyed cult is beyond dispute, though this film would have you believe that it’s the answer to war, hatred, school violence, and perhaps the budget deficit. It certainly takes care of that pesky thing we call personality. Children laughed, children smiled, and children sang, all with the fanatical devotion of a powder keg waiting to blow.
Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment is located in Fairfield, Iowa, a stone’s throw from the Maharishi University of Management, as well as numerous other impressive testaments to the old maxim that a fool and his money are soon parted. Never more so than when that fool seeks “inner peace.” Say what you will about organized religion, the casualty list is equally high for those who seek simple joy and contentment. Body counts may be low, but the mind rots just the same. If you’re wondering why a well-funded New Age facility would be found in the middle of farm country conservatism, seek alternative sources, because this film isn’t saying a thing on the matter. At no point do we hear about the institution’s origins, funding, or even a donor list; three vitally important questions that deserve straight answers. After all, this isn’t a minor project on the outskirts of town, inhabiting some unheated trailer, this is a gorgeous campus with uniformed, well-scrubbed children of all races and creeds. How much is tuition? Must parents be on board with the school’s philosophy? Are scholarships offered? How do the lights stay on? In lieu of work-study, is buggery with the current Yogi deemed an acceptable substitute? If TM is devoid of dogma, how come the Maharishi’s picture is as ubiquitous as Kim Jong-Il’s in a Pyongyang suburb? And how on earth is this shit any different from taking a nap?
Instead of deep, probing discussion, and even a bit of healthy skepticism, the director has chosen to make the sort of film that all but ends with a toll-free number to inquire about Fall registration. We “meet” a few kids who attend this school, all of whom attest to its greatness, but we never move beyond the plastic smiles and expected grins. They all state how they better manage stress and no longer hate their siblings, but the testimonies ring in the same canned manner as those Jonestown few who preached about their love of “Dad” to Congressman Leo Ryan while the cameras rolled, only to corner him later that night, begging to return to the States. We’re manipulated by cute little ones and their sense of play, but, um, why are there so many black people? In
Iowa? The parallels to the People’s Temple never cease, it would seem. The film even ends with a prom (with Donovan!) and side note that “Benji is still in the picture” for a particularly upbeat young woman, but despite only a half-hour, we can’t remember who in the hell Benji even was. The guy with the shit-eating grin? The other dude with the infectious laugh? Or maybe the handsome gentleman with more teeth than functioning brain cells? Does it really matter? And just when we thought it couldn’t get any weirder, David Lynch shows up and tries his damndest to act as the voice of reason.
Apparently, David Lynch runs a foundation that supports TM and its body of work, which, from all appearances, amounts to little more than sitting on a rug and muttering shit under your breath. And so changing the molecular structure of the universe that positive change can be created by sheer force of will, though I tuned out the second it started to sound like that frizzy-haired chiropractor from The Secret. And yet, if the parade of delusional deans and instructors are to be believed, TM is powerful enough to bring all conflict to a standstill. As Lynch so artlessly describes, “If young people can learn about war at war colleges, why not teach peace at a place like the Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment?” Or something to that effect. Lynch’s presence is heavy throughout, though his incessant hand-waving and precious yammering made about as much sense as any random five minutes of Lost Highway. It would be helpful to know how much cash Lynch actually provides, as TM seems to be short on celebrities since the breakup of The Beatles. But money appears to be no object, and the school’s continued presence in otherwise hostile country attests to its skill in the public relations front, or perhaps the use of beefy, jelly-filled robots a la Halloween III. Still, the Maharishi School is no Silver Shamrock. Yet.
What’s most annoying about School of Thought, though, other than the sycophantic audience members who nodded like Oprah housewives throughout, is that it takes its subject matter for granted, as if everyone worth knowing had gathered in a smoke-filled room and declared TM the saving grace for all mankind. We hear that it changes lives, we hear that it reduces stress in young people, and we hear that it brings about a respect for teachers and all learning, but I also heard that the Steam Cleaner of the three easy monthly installments would clean my bathroom, and I’ll be damned if my shower still wasn’t a fucking mess while reducing my entire residence to a sauna. Show, don’t tell is the first rule of good cinema, as well as argument, but this film avoids the difficult hand-wringing of actually proving its case by substituting good cheer and half-baked wisdom in its stead. For example, it is claimed that TM leads to greater athletic success, though all we see are a few state championship banners in the gym, which pretty much describes every school in the entire United States. Even rural districts with two dozen farm hands can lay claim to winning something. Spectacular intellect is pushed as an ideal, but outside of a class about T-fucking-M, where students chant the mantras like dead-eyed seals, I see nothing that resembles actual learning. Sure, they’re walking in straight lines and say please and thank you with pluck, but who, fearing reprisal, would do otherwise? And since the Maharishi is literally everywhere, those piercing eyes haunt their dreams like the sting of possible failure.
Only in Boulder would a man stand ramrod straight before a paying crowd and ask that his film, deemed “objective” in the phony aw-shucks introduction, be a vehicle for change in a complex world. More relaxation is the solution to what ails us? This is practically a declaration of war against actual effort. I stormed the hell out before the Q&A session got underway, my decision justified after nearly being knocked to the floor by an oblivious derelict, whose presence in this hall of learning was simply to sleep off his 3,400th consecutive battle with demon rum. No, I thought, the problem is not that we don’t spend enough time with our eyes closed. Not for him, not for me, and not for unknowing children. As usual, the people with the answers are the true fiends among us, and, quoting Yeats, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.” If you strip life of conflict, the peace you find is but an illusion; buried deep inside until, predictably, it rises yet again in a more haunting form. Unfortunately, it’s the kind that usually kills.