And you may find yourself living in a shotgun shack
And you may find yourself in another part of the world
And you may find yourself behind the wheel of a large automobile
And you may find yourself in a beautiful house, with a beautiful wife
And you may ask yourself, “Well, how did I get here?”
– “Once in a Lifetime” by Talking Heads
According to the press notes, director Louie Schwartzberg (Fantastic Fungi) was so struck by the lack of human connection, the forced isolation required at the start of COVID-19 before enough knowledge was developed in order to devise protections for interaction, that the time-lapse natural artist and documentarian decided to explore what the disruption of that connection does to people. Or, turning that concept around, Schwartzberg decided to take a more positive approach and explore the idea of gratitude as a daily practice, something which demands of the individual to consciously evaluate their external and internal stimuli, removing the excess or noise, and simply enjoying where you are. Using various talking head interviews from both famous and ordinary individuals, as well as time lapse footage, Schwartzberg weaves together an exploration of gratitude that’s as much stream of consciousness as it is an organized collection of thoughts, notions, and aspects of consideration. The resultant documentary, Gratitude Revealed, is as much push toward mindfulness as it is a celebration of what matters in life: being alive.
At the start of Gratitude Revealed, Schwartzberg offers insight into himself and a bit of perspective that serves as a guiding light throughout the rest of the documentary: his parents are Holocaust survivors. While making a cup of tea, something which he states reminds him of them, he tells us their story and his. He doesn’t go into great detail of what happened to them in the camp, opting to focus on their life in America instead. The relevance of this is it sets up a recurring notion mentioned from individuals dubbed Luminaries (the “expert” interviewees) or Extraordinary People (the “amateur” interviewees) in the doc: the idea that having more doesn’t equate to internal peace. Rather, Gratitude Revealed implies that more only creates a vacuum, sucking up our attention and shifting gratitude for what one has into greed, envy, and discord for what one doesn’t. This isn’t the sole revelation nor is it necessarily the specific conclusion of the doc; it’s merely one read of the ideas and concepts presented.
What makes Gratitude not only impactful but worth the watch is the structure. Most documentaries tell their stories within a strict or formal structure. If it’s about a person and they’re still with us, the doc will likely go from where they are now and jump to explore the past when they bring something up as a bit of connective tissue before returning. Even the extraordinary Framing Agnes, which uses the convention of a 1950s period talk show to engage in staged interviews using actual transcripts from a scientific study for dialogue, talks with the subjects of the documentary in their present and real versions of themselves as they use those interviewees as stand-ins for members of said scientific study. Gratitude boldly eschews this method, preferring to present an idea, explore it, and then use some aspect of what’s being discussed as the segue into the next visual or auditory element. In one sequence, Luminary Jack Kornfield talks about patience and being present, the idea that we carry our home with us (our bodies) everywhere we go, so we should listen to it. Without identification or introduction, we’re shifted to Extraordinary Person Minnie Yancey who is sitting at a loom, espousing how she uses the practice to calm her mind and be present in the moment. She’s positioned just inside a window that the editing suggests overlooks the field that her husband, at that exact moment, is plowing. She likens her practice to her husband’s, ways to use their hands to achieve connection with nature and themselves respectively. The editing by Alan Wain (Top Chief) and Annie Wilkes (Fantastic Fungi) connects the concept of Kornfield to the practice of Yancey, skipping over a more traditional handhold where the interviewee might provide more explanation of who they are before diving into the significant concept. This is done over and again throughout Gratitude, giving way to a refreshing, almost free-form skeleton that goes with the flow. Don’t mistake this to mean that there’s no concreteness or direction. It’s that Gratitude is more like the iconography it displays behind several of the Luminaries: a waterway or tributary. They are threads that, when followed, lead a person forward or backward (up or downstream irrelevant) on a path from one place to another.
Likely intentional with all the talk of mindfulness, specifically the inclusion of the exploration of self as an evolving thing that’s also an ageless thing set within an aging form, the structure of Gratitude taking the symbolic form of a waterway is emblematic of the various pathways of the brain. The brain is a physical thing whose sections operate different portions of the self, the pathways moving electrical impulses to generate sensations, emotions, reactions, or to catalogue memories. Mechanical though it is, the brain is also a wonder, the CPU of a complex machine that we don’t fully understand yet take for granted constantly. Living with gratitude isn’t a suggestion that one will be free of mental or physical malady should they develop mindfulness; rather, it’s the recognition that our brains are powerful and its within us to consider a different approach to how we engage with our lives, our surroundings, and ourselves. The fluidity of one concept into another, supported by the editing and often loosely connected narrative threads, makes Gratitude a documentary one must ride, letting go of preconceived notions of what a documentary should be, and remain open at all times. If that’s not a documentary acting within the concept it’s exploring, not sure what is.
Around the 1 hour 4 minute mark of the documentary is a moving soliloquy/spoken word poem from Luminary Jason Silva in which he talks about human passion and energy. This sequence exemplifies the doc as a whole. Silva’s words building with each stanza, the editing a flurry of locations featuring different aspects of the human experience. It’s a rousing sequence as we see someone bowling on an ice-covered street with a stack of televisions serving as the pins before jumping to someone dancing and then to a painter to an Indigenous individual to someone else and so on. Silva then goes on to quote Ernest Becker as humanity being both Gods and worms, our minds infinite and our bodies destined for decomposition. Words and images swirl in rapid succession, none more powerful than the last, each a building block intended to speak to the audience as if to say, “See? You are individual, yet you are connected. You are a part of a greater system, a greater experience than what digital spaces would have you believe. There’s more than binds us than destroys.”
There’s an optimism throughout Gratitude Revealed that feels, especially because of the current climate in the United States, a little too hard to accept. Villainy seems too rooted, anger and frustration too deeply set within our systems to be excised via positivity. The quotes used seem too abstract, the experts a little too Caucasian, the solutions far too impossible. And yet, when one considers the cup of tea that Gratitude begins with, a simple hot beverage that contains within it memories of a childhood that almost wasn’t, the possibilities that Schwartzberg puts forward seem a little less impossible and a little more within our reach.
In select theaters September 16th, 2022.
For more information, head to the official Gratitude Revealed website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.