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Review: ‘The Nature of Existence’

New Doc Asks What’s It All About Then?

Above: Filmmaker Roger Nygard in China for his film "The Nature of Existence"

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Aired 7/8/10

A new documentary tackles one of the great philosophical debates of all time, “The Nature of Existence.” But KPBS film critic Beth Accomando says you might be better off with Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”

A new documentary tackles one of the great philosophical debates of all time, “The Nature of Existence” (opening July 9 at Reading's Gaslamp Stadium Theaters). But you might be better off with Monty Python’s “The Meaning of Life.”

Eric Idle (singing): “Why are we here? What’s life all about?...”

Back in 1983 Monty Python tackled “The Meaning of Life,” and delivered a humorously satisfactory answer in a two-minute song. Filmmaker Roger Nygard takes just over 90 minutes to ponder a similar set of questions.

Roger Nygard: "Why am I here? What is my purpose?"

He opens his documentary “The Nature of Existence” with some very personal reflections. He recalls being a teenager when his father died and how that made him ponder questions of life and death. But he shelved those thoughts until 9/11 made him start thinking once again about the point of our existence.

Roger Nygard: "This documentary is my attempt to try and find meaning in the chaos. I started every interview with the biggest question I could think of… 'Why do we exist?'"

Man: “That’s a hard question.”

Well it’s not so much a hard question as it is one that can prompt complex and diverse answers. But Nygard is not really interested in making a complex documentary. He may want to ask big questions but within the context of a spiritual comedy. Which explains why he interviews a woman who runs a store called Spirit of the Goddess and sells headdresses called “goddess circlets.”

Shop owner: "Are you in need of a goddess circlet right now? Do you have to have it Fedexed right now? Do you want the one with the crystal that you found so empowering?"

She’s a sitting duck and Nygard cuts away to his friend rolling his eyes just to make sure we know how silly she is. He then interviews some new agey waitresses who get their philosophy of life off the ceiling of their restaurant. Then he decides to broaden his scope…

Roger Nygard: ..to find some experts, people who have already wrestled with these questions so I started looking around Southern California and I found my first guru...

A man named Aha.

Nygard: So what is your occupation?

Aha: You can call me a transpersonal undoing agent.

Aha, a guru and "transpersonal undoing agent" in "The Nature of Existence"
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Above: Aha, a guru and "transpersonal undoing agent" in "The Nature of Existence"

The spacey SoCal stereotype is overused and better exploited by others. But that’s typical of Nygard’s kind of humor. The filmmaker also makes the mistake of interviewing his friends. But they don’t add much to the conversation and only seem to be in the film to promote themselves. Take his writer friend Joe Keyes who has a scene from his play shown in the film.

Mom: "Jesus expects us to suffer."

Son: "Why is that mom?"

Mom: ."Because he died for us, the least we can do for him is suffer."

We then see Nygard dutifully laughing at his friend’s play. But Nygard does find some interesting people to talk to. And some are quite unexpected… like his neighbor’s 7th grade daughter who declares quite confidently that there’s no afterlife.

Chloe: "There’s no heaven no hell. Just boom you’re dead. I think it’s a lot better than eternal happiness, a world with only happiness is a world with no point. I would feel like a puppet... I’d hate it."

But an Irish priest believes just as strongly in something after death.

Priest: "When we consider all that it entails and all the human suffering if it is for no purpose except to go into oblivion after physical death then it would be very sad and we would all be hoodwinked and foolish people."

But does Nygard cut these interviews back to back for impact? Or better yet does he ever put people with opposing views together to get an actual dialogue going? No. That’s because Nygard seems more interested in creating an innocuous montage of comments rather than something thought provoking. His film isn’t so much bad as it is bland and when tackling something as big as “The Nature of Existence” you need to be more provocative,

Composer/cameraman Billy Sullivan and director Roger Nygard at the Great Wall of China in "The Nature of Existence"

Walking Shadows

Above: Composer/cameraman Billy Sullivan and director Roger Nygard at the Great Wall of China in "The Nature of Existence"

Nygard’s film could benefit from having more of an agenda, like Bill Maher’s “Religulous.” He could also benefit from being as smart as Maher, or as funny as Monty Python. But mercifully he’s not as pretentious as Peter Rodger in the recent religious documentary “Oh My God.”

Nygard doesn’t even take advantage of the visual medium he’s working in. Everything he gets could have just as easily been transcribed into a book. Or better yet if he were more clever maybe into a snappy little tune.

Video

Monty Python's The Meaning of Life song

Web movie: Meaning of life

Above: Monty Python's The Meaning of Life song

Companion viewing: "Religulous," "Waking Life," "Monty Python's The Meaning of Life"

NOTE: Filmgoers will have a chance to speak with filmmaker Roger Nygard on Friday July 9 following the evening shows at 5:15, 7:30, and 9:45.

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