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Mushroom crowd, the midnight hour, northern lights

Bridal veil mushroom, from "Fantastic Fungi."
Bridal veil mushroom, from "Fantastic Fungi."Greta Zagarino/Greta Rose Agency

In the end, will it be the mushrooms that save us? Mycologist Paul Stamets, one of the featured subjects in Louie Schwartzberg’s visually rapturous “Fantastic Fungi: The Magic Beneath Us,” seems to think so.

As a youth he could barely communicate because of his severe stutter. One day he came across the 1969 anthology “Altered States of Consciousness,” edited by Charles T. Tart, and read about the psychedelic properties of psilocybin mushrooms. He obtained a big bag of them and consumed the whole thing. They took effect, and he climbed a tree and began to have visions of shimmering, expanding, fractal mandalas which Schwartzberg vividly re-creates in the film. A sudden thunderstorm added to the experience, until Stamets realized that being on top of a tree amid lightning bolts might not be a good idea. But exultant, he survived, and the next day his stuttering was gone.


Not only did psychedelic mushrooms cure Stamets of stuttering, they might also have jump-started human evolution. Charles Grob, professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at the University of California Los Angeles, postulates that pre-human hominids roving the wilderness may have come across psychedelic mushrooms growing in animal turds. They might have sampled them and had visionary experiences — a scenario Schwartzberg re-creates with CGI animation. A fungal version of the “Dawn of Man” sequence in Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,″ it expanded not just our predecessors’ consciousness but their brain size.

“Fantastic Fungi,” which is narrated by actress Brie Larson, does not limit itself to psychedelics, however. It shows how this life form, neither plant nor animal, has been around for nearly a billion years and is everywhere interconnected by an underground “global mycelium network” of microscopic fibers by which the fungiverse communicates with itself and which is shared by other life forms such as trees and which surpasses the neural complexity of the human brain.


The film celebrates this fungal magnificence as a possible key to saving both the environment and humanity’s soul. Whether or not you are skeptical of such science-based rhapsodic optimism, and mycological transcendence — the film is a bit one-sided, overlooking unpleasant representatives of the fungal kingdom such as death cap mushrooms, the athlete’s foot fungus, and Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the tiny toadstool that sprouts from an ant’s brain after turning it into a zombie — “Fantastic Fungi” lives up to its title, offering startling insights into its subject. Schwartzberg, a master of time-lapse cinematography, brings this scorned and ignored world to life with numerous sequences of spectacular fungal growth — and the resultant decomposition.

“Fantastic Fungi” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theatre’s Virtual Screening Room.

Go to coolidge.org/films/fantastic-fungi.

Three live conversations with director Louie Schwartzberg, mycologist Paul Stamets, and many other experts can be streamed on April 21 at 1 p.m., 4 p.m., and 6 p.m.

Go to fantasticfungi.com/connect.

Pam Grier in “Coffy.”
Pam Grier in “Coffy.” MGM

Cult classics

What is a cult movie? Perhaps Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography applies — you know it when you see it. In his documentary trilogy “Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time,” Danny Wolf has an eclectic cast of actors, filmmakers, and critics discuss the subject, including John Waters, Joe Dante, Jeff Goldblum, Jeff Bridges, Fred Willard, and Gary Busey. Now if they ever got together to make their own cult movie that would be worth seeing.


Volume one in the series, “Midnight Madness,” takes on a potpourri of films that bombed at the box office and found new life playing for discriminating audiences, often at late-night venues in grindhouse and art-house cinemas. With a generous sampling of clips, the panelists opine on “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (1975): “It helped a lot of people come to terms with their sexuality,” says cast member Nell Campbell; “The Big Lebowski” (1998): Peter Farrelly admits that it is a better bowling movie than his own 1996 “Kingpin”; the much maligned (at the time) but subversive and empowering blaxploitation movies “Coffy” (1973) and “Foxy Brown” (1974): Pam Grier, the star of both, says that if they came out today she’d get a Spirit Award; and the inevitable “This Is Spinal Tap” (1984).

Fred Willard, who has a small but memorable role in that film, says that since it came out someone on the set of every movie he’s made since will come up to him quote him some lines. He probably heard more than once the enigmatic “It’s such a fine line between clever and stupid.” If you could make a Venn diagram divided between “clever” and “stupid” and “genius” and “insanity” you might find cult movies in the middle.

“Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time - Midnight Madness” can be streamed on VOD and Digital on April 21. “Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time 2 - Horror & Sci-Fi” will be available on May 21 and “Time Warp: The Greatest Cult Films of All-Time 3 - Comedy & Camp” on June 23.


Go to youtu.be/IIHRTJSyJV0.

First Avenue in Dawson City as seen in the 2017 documentary film "Dawson City: Frozen Time," directed by Bill Morrison.
First Avenue in Dawson City as seen in the 2017 documentary film "Dawson City: Frozen Time," directed by Bill Morrison.Vancouver Public Library, Courtesy of Kino Lorber

Freeze frame

In 1978 in the former Gold Rush boom town of Dawson City in the Canadian Yukon, a mother lode of old nitrate film was dug up in the ruins of a skating rink. There were bits and pieces of more than 500 remarkably preserved films from the early 1900s. They remained in an archive, unseen, until Bill Morrison found them in 2013 and transformed them into “Dawson City: Frozen Time” (2017), a thrilling collage of luminous, damaged, and ethereally corroded images that coalesces into a serendipitously coherent narrative.

The fragments intersect and run parallel to each other, and the resultant composite relates the history of Dawson City — itself a microcosm of a century of North American culture and politics — and the story of how the films ended up where they were discovered. Propelled by an incantatory soundtrack, the film also relates the origins and development of cinema, of which this work is a crowning achievement.

“Dawson City: Frozen Time” can be seen on Filmatique’s Docs in Focus II series.

Go to watch.filmatique.com/categories/docs-in-focus-ii.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.