Trailer at bottom of post.
You don’t usually walk out of a new movie with the thought “This might be a cult classic,” running through your head. It almost seems baked into the definition that such a film will sneak up on everyone some years after its release (see Waking Life, Dazed and Confused, John Dies at the End, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, etc.), and it may. However, when a movie presses all the cult classic buttons like Zen Dog does, and manages to be a truly enjoyable and thought-provoking movie all the while, that alliterative phrase, “Cult Classic,” becomes a little more salient by the time the credits start to roll.
Let’s see… Zen Dog is replete with the reemergence of counter culture, lucid dreaming, ancient traditions, funny/sexy spirit guides, nightmare sequences, comedic relief amidst seriously heady undertones, wanderlust, beautiful cinematography, a moderate dose of psychedelics, and a heavy dose of philosophical jewels from the velvet-tongued philosopher Alan Watts – all the while managing to tie together the coming of age, road trip, and buddy movie genres we’ve all grown to love.
A lot of what makes this film work can be attributed to its ability to accomplish all of this genre-bending and mind-expansion without stretching the viewer so far in any one direction that they become disoriented. A lot of what makes this film unique must be attributed to the free-form directing that Rick Darge successfully carried out; the delicate balance of reality, surreality, and virtual reality he achieved.
If you asked Rick what really drove the ethereal flow of the film’s storyline, he may humbly, and genuinely relinquish much of the direction of the film to the guiding voice of counterculture icon and East meets West philosopher, Alan Watts.
At San Francisco’s Indie Film Festival, SF Indie Fest, Darge fielded questions from the audience after the presentation of Zen Dog, his crowdfunded feature length film that recently won Film of the Festival at the Raindance Film Festival. When asked about his process for creating the film, Rick talked at length about how Alan Watts’ speeches and lectures “kind of took over” and began to organically modify the shoots, the locations, even the script and overall storyline. This Zen process of “going with the flow” is called out in the title of the film and is continued through the poetic pacing, the blocking, the art direction, the dialogue, the special effects (it’s meant to be a cult classic, so of course there’s an LSD scene), the narration, and even the costuming of the film.
The overall feel of the movie was simultaneously timeless, and also strongly anchored in the ever present pursuit of a more and more virtual and modern reality. There were, in fact, a lot of interesting yins and yangs throughout the movie. Where one scene featured Occulus Rift style gadgetry straight from the Chinese manufacturers being discussed over Skype, another featured cassette tapes flying out of the pocket of a beaded leather jacket; one you might find in a Haight-Ashbury vintage thrift store. One scene featured a confrontational sexual advance amidst flashing casino lights, another, an ephemeral and dramatic dreamlike love sequence. One scene featured Eastern medicine being administered by a shamanic friend, another, surprise-dosing your partner with LSD. There was something for the whole family.
An impressive, though intentionally sparse, musical score by composer and multi-instrumentalist, William Fritch, floated through the film and seemed to carry the characters along with it. Fritch used a combination of repetition and technical wizardry to accomplish a complexly produced analog meditation in music; a process he attempted to explain at the Question and Answer until Adam Herschman (who played Dwayne in the film) graciously stepped in to relieve the audience of its crescendoing confusion.
Contributing an equal amount of aural pleasure to moviegoers throughout the film was the aforementioned hypnotizing voice of noted philosopher, Alan Watts. In an earlier interview with Variety, Darge said he “didn’t want to have wall-to-wall music — most roads films have a lot of music montages — so I decided to use a philosopher’s voice instead. Alan Watts was appropriate, and his son, Mark Watts, is our executive producer. He came on board, gave us the rights to use the audio, and he’s been very instrumental in this process.”
Like his father Alan, Mark Watts is no stranger to being “instrumental in the process” of facilitating free-thinking individuals to seek liberation from the confines of a busy world and pursue a “Zenner” life. The parallels you can draw between Mark’s current project, aptly named the Alan Watts Project, the many speeches of Alan himself, and the overarching storyline of this film, Zen Dog, are innumerable. But that’s research you’ll have to do on your own time. This is, after all, merely a film review.
Another key factor that made this free-floating psychedelic movie so relatable can be attributed to the casually playful, and yet incredibly authentic acting and interacting of the male leads of the movie, Kyle Gallner (Reed, the protagonist) and Adam Herschman, and the quirky “devil-may-care” allure of French actress Celia Diane (who played Maya). The natural way in which each of the cast members delivered their lines made the film seem almost candid.
With a small, but strong cast, great direction, mind-expanding narration, and a loose but oh-so-timely storyline, Zen Dog is an Indie film that both fits that description, and yet feels like so much more. It’s a movie that at its zenith, may indeed transcend into a level of uncontrollable fandom. I guess it’s up to the cult to determine how classic it is.