Carlos Castaneda, the great 1970s popularizer of shamanic concepts in the West, is posthumously profiled in R. Torjan’s “Enigma of a Sorcerer.” Though interviews here are primarily with former camp followers and pic was made by one, overall perspective is just critical enough to satisfy both New Age types and curious skeptics. Low-budget effort leaves plenty of room for a more definitive treatment; still, it should attract niche interest from graying former heads, particularly as a home item.
While a graduate student studying anthropology at UCLA 1960-66, Castaneda allegedly served a sort of spiritual apprenticeship under the auspices of one Don Juan Matus aka Don Juan — a “Yacqui sorcerer” many later believed he simply made up. His series of books detailing his personal odyssey (starting with “The Teachings of Don Juan”) proved a smash when they were published a few years later.
Detailing shamanistic lore, experiences with psychedelics, and various “states of non-ordinary reality,” the slim tomes were perfectly in synch with the counterculture shift from ’60s communalism to the navel-gazing Me Decade — some indeed consider Castaneda progenitor of the New Age movement, for better or for worse. In 1973, Castaneda’s fame secured him a Time cover.
Castaneda’s guru status made him the orchestrator — or prisoner, depending on who you talk to — of his own mythology. Seldom photographed or interviewed (a sole radio appearance is excerpted here), he commanded a massive following while dealing directly with only a small inner circle that included “a large harem” of women with whom he was sexually involved.
“He believed his sperm changed our brains,” attests author Amy Wallace (“The Book of Lists”), the most levelheaded former intimate on tap here.
Not unlike such controversial fellow literary/ philosophic/quasi-religious types as Ayn Rand and L. Ron Hubbard, Castaneda surrounded himself with acolytes, created anxiety among them about who was most favored, kept them all in the dark to different degrees, and left matters more confused than ever upon his death in 1998. (As with Hubbard’s, that death was kept secret for weeks afterward.) Five high-ranking women called “the witches” simply disappeared thereafter — perhaps into Death Valley, scene of many hallucinogenic Don Juan adventures.
Yet for all those who considered Castaneda a charlatan, plagiarist or exploiter, there are others who still see him as a trickster-shaman whose teachings transcend such dismissive terms. Although Castaneda claimed Don Juan and the experiences in his books were real, some loyalists (even subsequently questioning ones) feel that even if they were fiction that doesn’t detract from the teachings in the least.
Discussion of his theories and methods is given equal weight with more personal reminiscences from his followers, which include more than one confession of suicidal thoughts they had while under the charismatic leader’s spell.
Presumably due to lack of budget, Torjan incorporates almost no archival material — which is unfortunate, since the subject’s pop-phenomenon relationship to a singular era (the late ’60s-’70s) is one of his most fascinating talking points. Instead, helmer intersperses views of nature along with his primary devise of setting talking heads against psychedelic computer graphics. Some may find this approach rather lava-lamp kitschy, but it does provide visual stimulus that’s apt in a way, just as indigenous/tribal/techno sounds on soundtrack rep the latest-edition audio equivalent to the New Age world Castaneda helped set in motion.