For the third installment of this occasional series, I again fail to stay within the actual borders of Los Angeles proper, straying again into one of those Island municipalities that dot our landscape within LA county. Tonight found a strange lesson in the kitsch back rooms of the ever hip city of Santa Monica.
My journey for the evening took me first to Santa Monica’s Laemmle theater to see the documentary Enlighten Up!, which carries the tagline “A skeptics journey into the world of yoga.” I will return to this after the fold, but let me foreshadow the after-movie dinner at Gates of India, around the corner from the theater. Such is the source of this installment’s artistic sampler. In defense of the restaurant, it has a distinct disconnect between its serving area and its restroom, a pattern I somehow expect to find throughout this series. The front room is quite replete with fairly interesting Indian artifacts, with nary a whiff of Hallmark Americana schlock.
To enter the front of Gates of India, one passes through a carved hard wood arch (freestanding, past the actual architectural entrance). I cannot speak to its “authenticity,” but the style is plausibly similar to Indian classicism. The ceiling is covered with tapestries. The walls have a number of interesting metal-inlay and other attractively detailed door fronts, I suppose suggestive of eating in an Indian palace, perhaps in which one might imagine each door leading to some other interesting room or realm. True enough that the decor does start to border on garish with an excess of detail, and perhaps an excess of literalism in its illustration of the name of the restaurant. Nonetheless, it convincingly carries the feel of a pleasant indian restaurant, even with bits of too plain drywall showing through the decoration in places. The food is good and well presented, even if nothing terribly special among the large number of wonderful Indian restaurants in LA.
The shock, of course, comes in this other world of the restrooms at back. Sterile unadorned walls would speak to the plain functionality of the location. Here the men’s room is shown above the fold, the women’s below it. Somehow I think the men’s room version is even more laden with vacuous sentimentality in its painting, but both have plenty of this to go around. What exactly motivates the desire of so many restaurants to put such utterly incongruous pieces above their sinks? Do the owners feel that the “restaurant experience” mandates some display of decorative flourish here, and think this need served by even the most pro-forma gestures toward artistic accouterment?
My rhetorical questions probably already reach the limit of what I can say about this contrast, at this point. Perhaps sociologically astute readers have some greater insight that I can ruthlessly crib for later installments. So I reckon I’ll return to the promise of the pre-meal movie.
There was something–well, a number of things–interesting about Enlighten Up!. A Western interest in yoga, conceived sometimes in various faddish or new-age ways, is certainly not a special characteristic of Los Angeles, but surely we have earned a place in this pantheon. The documentary, while not a particularly brilliant one, did an interesting job of showing and interviewing a good number of the best known yogis, both in India and in the United States. The premise of trying to bring main subject, skeptical journalist Nick Rosen, towards yogic enlightenment works plausibly well, even if the premise is slightly forced. The framing device, at the least, got the interviews and taped teaching/practice sessions that make the bulk of the film.
A curious feature of the documentary, however, was how its directory/writer achieved–either on purpose or inadvertently–a dual presence in the film. On the one hand Kate Churchill decided and created the framing and points of identification in the film. In essence, we remain sympathetic with Rosen’s skepticism, while still listening respectfully to the explanations of the various yogis. However, Churchill also appears occasionally on camera, herself interviewed, or off camera asking the questions of Rosen or other subjects. In these cases we find her moderately unsympathetic, since she seems only to be pushing Rosen towards her predetermined goal of transformative enlightenment through the means of yoga practice. She is certainly no villain here, but nonetheless it feels like the takeaway is that her simplified goal is somewhat misguided (or at least overzealous). The narrative voice of reason is our very fulcrum by which we critique the non-detachment of its narrator.