Recently deceased author Robert Pirsig wrote in his famous philosophy / roadtrip / mental illness book Zen and The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance about two ways of looking at the world: romantic and classic.
“The romantic mode is primarily inspirational, imaginative, creative, intuïtive. Feelings rather than facts predominate. “Art” when it is opposed to “Science” is often romantic. It does not proceed by reason or by laws. It proceeds by feeling, intuition and esthetic conscience. […] The classic mode, by contrast, proceeds by reason and by laws – which are themselves underlying forms of thought and behaviour. […]”
This difference is at the heart of Raz Degans documentary The Last Shaman, which is entirely in the romantic mode and that is it’s fatal flaw. It plays like an infomercial preaching the gospel of Ayahuasca (an Amazonian plant mixture that is capable of inducing altered states of consciousness) without the balance of classic critical thinking to offer the viewer contrasting arguments.
College student James Freeman is severely depressed and not responding to treatment. Degan goes out of his way to point out that Freeman is rich, white, privileged, and has been raised with all the advantages to make the point that the trappings of wealthy American life weren’t making him happy, nor could make him happy. Which is all bullshit. Freeman has an illness. Full stop. Mental illness is like any other illness, only it’s in your brain. It’s not a cultural condition.He didn’t have spiritual congestion. He wasn’t suffering from the industrial disease malaise of being a Westerner out of touch with the spirit of the land. He was simply ill. He still is. Despondent and frustrated with not having seen progress in treatment, he’d set himself a 12 month deadline at which time he meant to commit suicide if he didn’t feel better or at least feel something.
“It plays like an infomercial preaching the gospel of Ayahuasca…”
The unsuspecting villains of the piece are James’s parents. They love their son but he’s never fit into their educated and erudite view of the world and even though they are both physicians themselves they don’t understand what’s happening with him or how to help him. James’s father is an authoritarian old-school dad and his son resents him for that. In Degans formula his parents bear the brunt of representing the failed ideas of Western culture. Even though James is sick there’s a whiny brat component of his response to them and to his illness. Fair enough: being sick doesn’t mean you’re not also an asshole.
In his search for answers James hears about shamanistic healing practices in Peru focused on the hallucinogenic brew Ayahuasca. He packs up his kit and heads to Iquitos to seek a shaman to guide him.
James’s previous treatments and in fact his whole life up to this point, are presented as morally bankrupt and traditionally Western. AKA: the problem that needs solving. Degan shows us clips from pharmaceutical assembly lines pressing out pills over ominous urgent tones like cautionary scenes from Reefer Madness. Jumbled nightmare images float by to the disembodied voices of doctors and James (and in subtitles in case you’re not listening) saying “I didn’t want to take pills.”
Degan crosses the line between documentary and indoctrination in this film to such a degree that I’m not sure it’s still a documentary. In his director’s statement on the website he is an enthusiastic advocate for Ayahuasca and makes it clear that’s why he wanted to create the film. It is manipulative and presents no balancing arguments or opinions. If they had taken an obnoxious educated skeptic along to offer critical counterpoint Degan would have had a watchable film.
James winds up meeting several charlatans because the Ayahuasca practice is rotten with scam artists as a result of primarily Americans showing up for treatment practically begging to be fleeced. The con men are happy to separate fools from their money.
He found one particularly unpleasant individual stockpiling and selling something he’s says is Ayahuasca (street value, according to his reckoning $250K). He’s an American ex-con so creepy he’ll make your flesh crawl who also raises and fights gamecocks to “keep in touch with my warrior spirit.” This is probably just me but the feverish wild-eyed breathlessly intoned proverbs about the spirits of the forest and the magic of the ceremony are orders of magnitude more repulsive coming from a skeevy ex-pat white guy.
In another sweat lodge Ayahuasca ceremony James witnesses the death of a participant who reacted poorly to the drug. This does not deter him.
Eventually he meets a shaman who offers to treat him for free, a kindly well-intentioned man named Pepe.
“The worst thing that could happen would be someone who is authentically unwell watching the film and beginning to wonder whether the cure is in the jungle”
James brings that old white-kid-seeks-magic-brown-person racism to this relationship.There’s a special kind of disrespect and ignorance that leads people to make this “noble savage” connection. It’s not malicious or intentional, James thinks he’s running away from the failings of American culture, but he winds up being the embodiment of them wandering wide-eyed through the Amazon.
Pepe puts James through several months of purification dieting and ritual isolation.Eventually Pepe brews the Ayahuasca and James partakes. Cue the hallucination scenes from Natural Born Killers and Altered States. James speaks of communing with the spirit of Ayahuasca herself and seeing purgative visions of the bad juju in his life. And so on.
The movie itself is well made, beautiful to look at, the soundtrack is good. A spin through the list of executive producers reveals that Leonardo DiCaprio was involved so the effort had some Hollywood juice, even though Degan did fund it at least partially through Kickstarter.
After months of treatment and a ritual symbolic death, burial, and resurrection, James comes back to life. He sings. He plays with children and dogs. He notices women. He smiles. He hangs out relaxing with Pepe. His experience brought him some relief though he is clear when he arrives back home that he thinks he’s still sick and will need to continue some form of treatment.
This point is crucial. The worst thing that could happen would be someone who is authentically unwell watching the film and beginning to wonder whether the cure is in the jungle and then shuns treatment in favor of that vision quest. There’s much to be learned in the jungle about the land, the people, about yourself, and perhaps even about Ayahuasca but it is not a replacement for treatment.
The last time we see Pepe he’s been banished from his village because he wasn’t charging people for his treatments and he had to move back to the city and get a job. He’s covered in motor oil and grime, apparently miserable, wrangling a car transmission in a parts shop. Pepe is caught now in the industrial nightmare of the romantic perspective: to see no beauty or elegance in the precision gearworks of that particular machine. The transmission is the perfect metaphor for the clash between the classic and romantic.
This could have been a great film if Degan had focused on that dichotomy and not just served up propaganda targeted at the credulous seeker.
The Last Shaman (2017) Written and Directed by: Raz Degan. Starring: James Freeman.
5 out of 10