DIRECTED BY: Rick Darge
FEATURING: Kyle Gallner, Adam Hershman, Celia Diane
PLOT: A young virtual reality entrepreneur explores strange herbs and lucid dreaming in an attempt to shake himself out of his rut.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Zen Dog is an earnest, low budget curiosity that dreams big, but doesn’t dial up the weird as much as it might—for fear of drowning out its message.
COMMENTS: I read Allan Watts’ classic “The Way of Zen” when I was eighteen, then promptly forgot about him. That’s not a knock on Watts, but a testament to how good a communicator he was: read one book, listen to one of his lectures, and you feel enlightened, as if you know everything there is to know about Buddhism.
Zen Dog is structured around one of Watts’ thought experiment/parables, which begins “I wonder what you would do, if you had the power to dream at night any dream you wanted to dream…” Kyle Gallner’s “Mud” (!) is a twentysomething virtual-reality entrepreneur pushing headsets that will allow users to tour Hawaii or Paris without ever leaving their living rooms. He’s also having a recurring nightmare about slaving in a corporate office building where one of his co-workers commits suicide. Cue dorky cousin Dwayne, a professional student who arrives on spring break to crash on Mud’s couch and introduce him to the idea of lucid dreaming (aided by an exotic Chinese herb/drug nicknamed “maya”) as a way to resolve his psychological issues. Though purportedly a harmless natural sleep aid, the maya sure acts like a powerful hallucinogen—plus, it’s addictive. But it does enable Mud to enter his lucid dreamspace, where he begins to live the life he’s secretly always wanted—one where he’s a vagabond wandering around America in a VW bug borrowed from Ken Kesey and a jacket on loan from Peter Fonda‘s “Captain America,” meeting and romancing a (literal!) manic pixie dream girl while listening to a Allan Watts lectures on cassette tape.
The scenario sounds like a groovy neo-hippie fantasia, and without Watts’ calm, authoritative voice to guide us, it probably would play out as a naive goof. But Watts’ ruminations, though simplified and popularized, are legitimately profound nuggets of ancient wisdom: the idea that our entire ego-structure—our understanding of ourselves as a person with a name and a job and a desire for advancement—is an elaborate facade built up over the years, which (by design) inhibits our ability to be in the here and now, as a simple expression of reality. We must unlearn what we’ve been taught to know what we are. Compressed into several nights of dreaming, Mud travels through stages of enlightenment, from flirtations with simple hedonism to romantic attachment to elaborate mindblowing cosmic journeys—but ends up with the wisdom that, although his ego is a real and vital part of him, he does not have to allow its demands to make him miserable.
Despite its low budget, the acting and technical aspects of the film are serviceable to good. Zen Dog puts today’s democratizing computer technology to excellent use, achieving psychedelic effects—double images, pinpoint editing, rainbow saturation—with ease and facility. This is how Roger Corman would do it today, if he were still making acid movies aimed at the tune-in drop-out crowd. Scenes shot in San Francisco, Reno, Chicago, and the flat prairies of middle America add additional production value. Allan Watts’ son Mark served as an executive producer and licensed his father’s extensive audio archives for the film, and Zen Dog works best as an introduction to Watts’ philosophy—a noble purpose for a budget effort. It’s not every movie in which the characters drop acid while inside a lucid dream itself induced by a hallucinogenic herb—and where that far-out, Inceptiony scenario actually makes sense as part of a sophisticated theme positing that life itself is a dream which we can take control of, if we only realize we’re dreaming. Zen Dog isn’t ashamed to let its freak flag fly, and, like a guileless puppy, its enthusiasm can lighten a stern heart.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“It’s all too easy to write off films like this as hippy fluff, and all too often they suffer from being made by people who are not entirely sober – a stranger’s trip usually being about as interesting as a stranger’s role-playing character – but Zen Dog is something different. There’s real craftsmanship on display here, tight editing and a laudably balanced approach that invites us to wonder without drowning us in excess.”–Jennie Kermode, Eye on Film (contemporaneous)