'Becoming Nobody': Film Review
Jamie Catto's documentary illustrates the lessons of famed spiritual teacher Ram Dass.
As spiritual teachers go, Ram Dass is among the most likable and down to earth. His humorous, self-effacing personality comes through loud and clear in Jamie Catto's adoring documentary about the former Harvard professor whose original name was Richard Alpert.
Unfortunately, although Becoming Nobody will prove a must-see for Ram Dass' ardent fans, and they are certainly legion, the film proves frustratingly unpolished and unfocused, providing precious little biographical information or narrative context. It ultimately feels like a missed opportunity, a labor of love that would have benefited from a little more objectivity.
Alpert first became a counterculture icon when he, along with his colleague Timothy Leary, extensively experimented with psychedelic drugs, including LSD, when they were both Harvard professors in the 1960s. They were eventually fired by the university, and a few years later the spiritually searching Alpert traveled to India, where he became a student of a guru who gave him his new name, which means "Servant of God." His classic 1971 book, Be Here Now, has sold millions of copies and is still in print.
In one of the documentary's most engaging moments, he amusingly recalls reuniting with a former Harvard colleague 25 years after they last saw each other and long after Ram Dass had embraced his spiritual path and new identity. "You know, Dick, you haven't changed a bit," the man told him, much to his chagrin.
The documentary, divided into chapters whose onscreen headings include such pithy aphorisms as "We're all just walking each other home" and "Treat everyone you meet like God in drag," is essentially divided between excerpts from videos of its subject's lectures over the years and contemporary segments in which Catto lovingly interviews Ram Dass. The latter, confined to a wheelchair and suffering from expressive aphasia as a result of a 1997 stroke (the film doesn't inform us of this), falters in his speech at times, with the filmmaker guiding him through the process with gentleness and no small amount of gushing.
Not surprisingly, considering Ram Dass' advanced age (he's 88), one of the film's recurring themes is death. Another is the concept of subsuming one's identity and ego in order to be a part of the greater universe, an idea that inspires the film's title.
The excepts from the lectures are packed with Dass' accessible brand of wisdom and no small amount of humor. Their effect is unfortunately diluted by Catto's attempts to alleviate the talking-head aspect with accompanying visuals, including archival and stock footage as well as vintage cartoons and film clips. Although occasionally effective, the images are often only tangentially related to the topics being discussed and frequently just silly, such as when we see two men frustratedly attempting to get a stubborn donkey to move.
It's clear that the filmmaker wasn't interested in making a comprehensive documentary about his subject but rather a sort of greatest hits collection of some of his most insightful observations. The results are likely to prove frustrating for longtime devotees and neophytes alike, feeling overly familiar to the former and not informative enough for the latter.
Distributor: Love Serve Remember Films
Director, director of photography: Jamie Catto
Producers: Raghu Markus, Jamie Catto, Eric Moffard
Editors: Ania Smolenskaia, Zachary Bennett, Karen Nourse
Composers: Alex Forster, Jamie Catto, The Happening