Carlos Castaneda: Enigma Of A Sorcerer Movie Review

Carlos Castaneda, for the uninitiated, was dubbed the "grandfather of the New Age movement" by Time magazine. A careful manager of his own image, Castaneda followed the L. Ron Hubbard school of self-promotion. After writing a collection of books about a mystical character named Don Juan (no relation to Byron's Don Juan), Castaneda turned his writing into a philosophy -- the usual New Age stuff about transcending reality and flying during trance-like states -- and then he signed up a bunch of followers to preach his self-made gospel. This exclusive club of "sorcerer's apprentices" delved into Castaneda's Shamanism in personal classes, most of which seem to revolve around taking peyote and tripping in the Arizona desert. Castaneda died recently, in 1998, and he still remains a heavy influence on what remains of the New Age world.

Ralph Torjan was a member of Castaneda's movement; he knew Castaneda personally and attended countless classes and seminars. In this documentary he offers his personal insights about the man and the movement, and interviews other sorcerer's apprentices about their decades of involvement in the group. Time has not been kind to many of these ladies (and most of them are women -- apparently building a harem was part of Castaneda's M.O.), and their hazy recollections positively shriek of drug-blasted minds. What follows is 91 minutes of talking heads, as Torjan reflects in voice-over about Castaneda and various others babble endlessly about the tenets of the movement.

The problem is that after an hour and a half of this, I still can't figure out if Torjan is against Castaneda or for him. Much of the film is simple narration of facts, explaining in detail what the Don Juan books were all about (one woman quotes and paraphrases large passages, punctuated with bulging-eyed whoas). What is "tensegrity"? You'll hear all about it here. And in more detail than you could ever desire, I'm sure. Even in the end, in which the disappearance of five of Castaneda's "witches" is revealed, Torjan doesn't seem to make much fuss about the fact that Castaneda was either a crackpot, a swindler, or both. As he puts it in his press notes, "Genius, guru, cult leader, or fraud? No one really knows."

Unfortunately, "No one really knows" makes for a really shitty conclusion to a documentary. Journalistic independence is one thing, but Torjan is an insider and had the opportunity to tell us what he learned from his years in the salt mines of Castaneda's world. There's nary a bad thing said about Castaneda -- as if Torjan is afraid to say ill of the dead or, more likely, his friends -- and the movie ultimately comes off as a big promo piece for Shamanism.

Far worse than this, however, is Torjan's technique. The entire film is talking heads, as mentioned, but against the backdrop of computer-generated swirls, dancing icons, split-screen motion blurs, and other LSD-friendly imagery. Suffice it to say this gets tiresome before the opening credits even roll, lending an air of a cable access show to the movie. I screened the film on video and can't imagine what kind of psychosis it would cause on the big screen -- especially when Torjan lets loose with the seizure-inducing strobe effects. How are we supposed to concentrate on what his subjects are saying if we have to avert our gaze? (And on an unrelated note, wouldn't Sorcerer: The Enigma of Carlos Castaneda have been a much cooler title?)

The lone bright spot is that I did learn a thing or two about Castaneda here. It's a long road to get there -- and you'll definitely have to draw your own conclusions -- but if you're obsessed with cults and way alternative lifestyles, Enigma may have something in it for you.

It's squiggletastic!

Comments

Carlos Castaneda: Enigma Of A Sorcerer Rating

" Terrible "

Rating: NR, 2004

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