Louie Schwartzberg directs Fantastic Fungi at Laemmle's Monica Film Center

It’s a great week for documentaries in Santa Monica; two terrific films open at Laemmle’s Monica Film Center tomorrow. “Fantastic Fungi” celebrates the amazing world of mushrooms, yeasts and molds that have the power to alter our minds and our planet. And “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” takes us through the history of sound in movies, from the silent era to today’s technological world (Arclight in Hollywood, Pasadena and Sherman Oaks will also screen it).


“Fantastic Fungi” offers important insights into the power of a lifeform that is far better for Planet Earth than homo sapiens has proven to be. Fungi are a kingdom of their own, and include the yeasts, molds and mushrooms (above-ground fruiting bodies that we consume as food or avoid because they can kill us) that make up this kingdom. In fact, not only are fungi the earth’s oldest living organism, they’re also largest: a single body of mycelia runs beneath four-square miles of forest in Eastern Oregon.

Fungi are the primary decomposers in ecological systems and are considered related more closely to animals than plants. They have a fundamental role in nutrient recycling in the environment and mitigating carbon in the atmosphere. Their fermentation processes help us make bread, beer and wine; they help create pesticides to control weeds, plant diseases and insect pests. They’ve even been known to soak up oil spills and leave water clean. They are, in a word, miraculous and we still know so very little about them. Hence the movie, something to get you thinking about the power and possibilities of these living beings.

Without a doubt the world’s greatest amateur mycologist is Paul Stamets, who experienced the “magic mushroom” psilocybin, that caused him to lose his stutter (he shares the dramatic story), and to dedicate his life to studying this kingdom, that has given us penicillin, gorgonzola cheese and now even biodegradable packaging. He’s our enthusiastic guide, alongside such experts and exponents as author/professor Michael Pollan and Dr. Andrew Weil.

Visually, the film could not be more stunning, thanks to director/photographer Louie Schwartzberg’s amazing time lapse imagery, that turns what some might consider the “ick” factor (a rat being decomposed, for example) into movie magic. He also makes mushrooms look totally sexy as they explode into “sporegasms,” releasing their reproductive bits into the environment. The mushrooms are enchantingly gorgeous, and the varieties appear endless.

Brie Larson provides a kind of “Glenda the Good Witch” voice-over narration that lends a fairy tale quality to the beauty of Schwartzberg’s cinematography. The symbiotic relationship between fungi and other forms of life could teach humans a big lesson about communication, cooperation and the interconnectedness of all living things.

The psychedelic connection between humans and mushrooms spawned the “Stoned Ape” theory, which postulates that it was the mind-altering effect of these mushrooms that helped our brains expand and evolve. The shape of our brains has been compared to a mycelial network. And, the psychedelic impacts are beautifully imagined and animated here, the kind of “trip” you dream of.

I highly (no pun intended) recommend “Fantastic Fungi,” and Louie Schwartzberg will conduct post-screening Q&As after the 7:30 screenings on Oct. 25 and 26. For tickets visit https://www.laemmle.com/film/fantastic-fungi


We’re so busy looking we don’t notice how essential the sound of a movie is. “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound” is a wonderful tribute to the behind-the-scenes, often under-recognized creative and technical artists who make the sound that make the movie. And it’s directed by Midge Costin, a veteran sound editor who knows her subject well.

Even in the silent era, movies were accompanied by live music and sound effects. Step by step, we walk through a century of sound innovation, from Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer to King Kong, where sounds to match the monster’s roar had to be invented. With his background in radio, Orson Welles took sonic mood-making a step further in Citizen Kane. Movie clips enhance the storytelling.

Three pioneers who advanced the art form become a central focus, Walter Murch (Apocalypse Now), Ben Burtt (Star Wars) and Gary Rydstrom (Jurassic Park), and their history is fascinating. We also find out how Barbra Streisand helped up the game for live concert sound with her version of A Star is Born.

In the last part of the film, there’s an enlightening analysis of all the elements that must come together to create the final soundtrack of a movie, and it’s geared toward those of us who have no technical background. The movie also features leading directors, explaining how the sound made their movies: George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, David Lynch, Barbra Streisand, Robert Redford, Sofia Coppola, Christopher Nolan, Ang Lee and others.

If you love movies and want to know more about what makes them tick, treat yourself to “Making Waves: The Art of Cinematic Sound.” Why not make it a double bill of mushrooms and music? Have a bite to eat between the two films upstairs at the very vibrant Elephante, or next door at Flower Child. Tickets here: https://www.laemmle.com/film/making-waves

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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