Filmmaker Kate Churchill overshadows her subject in Enlighten Up!
Ever since Michael Moore first attempted to meld Woody Allen and Ralph Nader, and Morgan Spurlock made himself the genially comic-lite host of an experiment in culinary consumerism, more and more documentarians have been tempted to star in their own movies. This is dangerous terrain, given that whenever one introduces the Element of Me into examination of a larger issue, Me tends to hog the spotlight. Even in certain films where the filmmaker's own scarring formative experiences with mental illness (2003's Tarnation) and so forth are the subject, there are often worrying overtones of narcissism, selectivity, and pursued melodrama. When documentarians are their own casting couch, what often really gets fucked is the unalloyed truth.
On the surface, Kate Churchill's Enlighten Up! appears to squirrel around that trap. After all, she found a stand-in to occupy the center stage one senses an itchiness to claim for herself. He's new to the film's milieu and theme, so its narrative can become his process of discovering what she apparently already knows and would like to share. Meet Nick Rosen, an athletic, attractive New Yorker. A sometime investigative journalist on ambiguous leave from that or any other employment, he has the time and willingness to find out how "yoga can transform anyone physically and spiritually."
Trouble is, Churchill insists that he "transform" and Rosen resists. Or rather, he just doesn't "get it," doing pretty damn well by the asanas (poses) yet admitting early on that "spiritual awakening is a concept I cannot even relate to." He'd rather check out the dateable hot chicks nearly every class is packed with and when he demands one off-camera night after months of celibacy for cinema's sake, Churchill seems more pissed off than is seemly. (She doesn't speak to him for two days.)
This is the stuff of Seinfeld-ish comedy. She seeks higher consciousness! He, pressure application to lower parts! But Churchill is fundamentally humorless you can tell by the way she inserts "humor" with cutesy sound-effects. Her frustration at Rosen's inability to "progress" as expected feels hypocritical because she doesn't reveal the intricacies of her own progress. "The purest, most peaceful moments of my life have happened on my yoga mat" she notes. But just what it's done for her or why she needed it to is left unaddressed. She finally vents, "I'm really sick of yoga," allowing that the project began with the hope that if she could "make someone else change, then maybe I would too." A provocative admission. Which is then dropped like a hot potato.
Of course pragmatist Rosen sorta flunks his yoga journey, fine-tuning his torso while remaining averse to "charismatic personalities" and "supernatural ideas." How could he not, when Churchill shops him through a bewildering catch-all array of disciplines, faiths, and techniques variably yoga-esque: Ishta, Bikram, Kundalini, contortionism, numerology, even "laughing therapy." Class instructors, students, and gurus offer evaluations both contradictory and redundant; the filmmaker seldom lets them get more than a sound bite in. Briefly she seems about to address the ethics of commercialization in a 5,000-year-old tradition turned multibillion dollar industry, then kinda forgets to. (See 2006's superior doc Yoga, Inc.)
Finally, struggling to put a happy spin on a process that didn't go as planned but that she won't admit was really about herself all along, Churchill exhales "Nick was right yoga has no simple definition, and that's the beauty of it!" This is one tricky pose to sustain, the Self-Canceling Handstand with Delusional Lotus Smile. Perhaps the real lesson to be learned from Enlighten Up! is that if you're making someone else walk the plank er, spiritual path at swordpoint, your own consciousness is the one that really needs lifting. *
ENLIGHTEN UP! is now playing in Bay Area theaters.