April 20, 2017
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Spectacular Zen Dog Delivered by Indie Fest
by Doniphan Blair
Up-and-coming Kyle Gallner embarks on an incredible journey in 'Zen Dog' by Rick Darge. photo: courtesy R. Darge
JUST IN TIME FOR THE SUMMER OF
Love's 50th anniversary, a film which brings together reality, romance and mind-blowing mystical experience:
,” brought to us by the ever-experimental
SF Indie Fest
, which runs 'til February 16th.
Hallucinatory film has has been with us since “Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend” (E. Porter, 1906), but it is a hard story to capture, compellingly, let alone coherently.
Perhaps with this in mind, “Zen Dog” starts slow. We enter the monotone, yuppie-scum life of a schlemiel-techy named Reed, nicknamed Mud, and played perfectly by Kyle Gallner, who's been doing a ton of telly and some movies, like "American Sniper" (2014).
Mud is stuck in a deadening job, plagued by disturbing dreams and trying to mount a startup, Virtual Tranquality, which provides VR tourism to Hawaii, Paris or Venice, although Mud will NOT be going to those places.
Into this drag of a life steps his cousin Dwayne, nicely rendered by Adam Herschman, a funny guy whose also been getting on TV and in movies, notably "Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay" (2008).
"So you don't travel; you don't have a girlfriend; and you don't do drugs," Dwayne tells his cousin to hysterical effect. "If I were you, I would be depressed, too."
Gallner and Herschman survey the psychedelics situation at the start of 'Zen Dog'. photo: courtesy R. Darge
Dwayne hooks Mud up, starting with the metaphysical technique of "lucid dreaming," where you direct rather than endure dreams—the VR technology shamans have been using for millennia, and then actual drugs. Indeed, Dwayne becomes his underworld guide until that job is taken by Maya, played by the fantabulous Celia Diane.
Written and directed by local Rick Darge, who was raised in Napa but lives and works in film in LA, "Zen Dog" proves there is a very visionary element in Hollywood.
Another indicator of La La Land's subversive side is Darge had tons of help, starting with Mark Watts, son of the post-modern Zen master, Alan Watts, whose words are featured in the film.
Having fallen in love with Watts as a teen, Darge made him central to his script but only late in development reached out to the Watts family, to get the rights to Alan's taped voice and words. When he finally did, Mark Watts emailed back in 20 minutes, said he was also working on a script and they became instant collaborators.
Also providing a massive assist was a coterie of co-producers and the stellar young cast, who added ideas, improv and very naturalistic performances.
But how natural can it be when when your hero buys a fantastically-colored car, containing an equally-adorned coat, with a meditation tape by Watts in its pocket, and sets out on a road trip/drug quest/romantic adventure right out of a Jefferson Airplane song?
Sounds corny, I admit, as psychedelic stories often do. Indeed, such tales are plagued by "protagonist-empathy problems" or sheer cynicism, since it is hard for average viewers to live vicariously through characters enjoying far too much drugs, sex and rock and roll or, in this film's case, religious ecstasy.
"Zen Dog" dodges that bullet through character and motivation as well as profound ideas, shooting the moon with a cinema rocket of spectacular proportions.
First there's the strikingly natural repartee between Gallner and Herschman, who could be reading from the phone book, as the saying goes, but are, in fact, addressing the existential crisis of the millennials as well as the hippies:
Kyle Gallner finally connects with Celia Diane in "Zen Dogs". photo: courtesy R. Darge
How do we live our dreams?
Second, when Mud finally takes Dwayne up on his suggestion to use maya, the drug, and meets Maya, the fabulous French girl—Celia Diane, who hasn't done as much as her co-stars but SHOULD), the film is fully motivated and believable.
Indeed, Mud and Maya have one of the most aggressive and outrageous "meet-neats" to grace the screen in recent memory. Then they take to the highway with such longing and gusto, their high romanticism, as it were, builds a sturdy bridge to a new way of seeing in a way mystical mumbo-jumbo never can.
To help understand that bridge, how it works, the shortcomings and the long game, Mud keeps reawakening in his grey, cold bed.
In this manner, the story drags us back and forth between dream and daily life, making it a symphony of counterpoints: the colorful characters—including a crazy black-white couple Mud meets his first day on the road, Watt's ideas, William Ryan Fritch's effective score, and the lovely art film sequences.
(lft-rt) 'Zen Dog''s composer William Ryan Fritch, star Kyle Gallner, director Rick Darge, and co-star Adam Herschman receive a standing ovation at the Roxie. photo: D. Blair
Ironically, back when "Zen Dog" began as a fever dream in Darge's mind, there was no techy hell, no cousin Dwayne, no lucid dreaming. In fact, the film consisted of just the road trip, love story and Watts when Darge pitched it to producers and on Kickstarter, in a campaign that only caught fire in its final days when he started harassing everyone he knew.
Even with that smaller project, Darge was soon way over his $35,000 Kickstarter budget, especially when another of his many producer/collaborators insisted on buying and redoing a Greyhound bus for the crew, so they could film the road trip in style.
That film, a sweet psychedelic cross-country cruise, might have seemed interesting but, upon return and rough cut, Darge realized, it was not enough to tell his dream story.
In point of fact, as most shaman apprentices soon realize, seeing paradise in the distance is not the same as being there. You must show the journey, the choices, the work, the way or "Tao," as Watts might call it.
In a move that must have shocked some of his collaborators, Darge re-convened the team and said something like:
“You know that film we just shot, well... it's going to become the dream sequence in the film we are now going to shoot!"
"Herschman, here," who was only in a couple of shots of the first film, "will become the spirit guide, while Gallner will start in a pristine yuppie pad, working a straight job, having a weird nightmare."
I can just about hear the gasps. But Darge convinced them and pulled it off, essentially making two films and blending them into a striking, seamless adventure of ideas, dreams and deep feelings.
SF Indie Fest kicked off with a fabulous, New Orleans-style march from the Mission's Brava Theater to the Mission Cultural Center for the after-party. photo: D. Blair
Although the camera loves killing and romance, since those stories are so dramatic and visual, the mental leap movie, the celluloid god-head, the synapse-snapping mystical evolution extravaganza...
Well, that is a critical film genre, too.
And with the Summer of Love as well '60s-like repression and protest upon us, investigating that part of life has become even more essential.
"Zen Dog" does an excellent job of delivering that alternate reality, as well as us into it, much as Indie Fest, now in its 19th year, does for alternative features.
Films about romantic journeys are legion. But few provide the acting chops, mystical ideas or actual techniques, not to mention the sheer visual audacity, to lead us beyond the norm into the realms of high art. "Zen Dog" takes that chance, and that trip, and us with it.
Doniphan Blair is a writer, film magazine publisher, designer and filmmaker ('
Our Holocaust Vacation
'), who can be reached
Posted on Feb 07, 2017 - 12:10 PM