There’s a scene toward the end of Paul Thomas Anderson’s recent The Master wherein Joaquin Phoenix’s Freddie Quell asks one of the underlings of his mentor, Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Lancaster Dodd, what he thinks of Dodd’s new book, a hastily-written tome purporting to contain the evolution of Dodd’s made-up religion, “The Way.” The underling (Kevin J. O’Connor) replies that the book is a work of garbled mysticism that should be edited down to a three page pamphlet and handed out for free outside the subway. Quell, a dedicated Dodd follower, responds by kicking the underling’s ass.
Yogawoman, which is 83 minutes long despite the fact that it has nothing more to do than drop in on yoga instructors around the country to see whether they all believe that the downward dogs and handstands they teach their students empower them to be fully realized human beings (they all do), needs to be chopped down to a three minute promotional DVD and handed out for free at the same yoga studios that it insists are worthy of a documentary. Sure, it includes some half-hearted (and suspiciously fake-looking) newsreels that purport to show the ancient culture of yoga as it was practiced in India; and sure, there are talking-heads interviews wherein experts cite “data” about how yoga helps chronically depressed modern women (helpfully accompanied by recreations of actual events in which actresses demonstrate the things that make women depressed, which apparently include answering phones and waiting for buses), but even these could fit easily onto a trailer-length DVD without missing a beat.
A long mid-doc sequence following one of the yoga instructors on a trip to Africa to help Ugandan women who’ve contracted HIV (the type of help she provides is never specified, but it doesn’t seem to be yoga-related and thus makes no sense) is particularly excessive; most of the footage of the trip is shots of American yoga students talking about how empowered they feel by getting out of the country to help others. This mindlessly cheerful sequence did nothing to assuage my suspicion that yoga in America is, at least partially, a practice that’s disguised (and sold) as a self-help panacea. The one exception to the movie’s relentlessly vapid take on the powers of yoga is a brief section outlining a yoga program created for female juvenile delinquents in the California prison system; though it’s no less simplistic in its argument that yoga can do anything, its brief but actual relationship to the troubles of real people has the effect of briefly raising Yogawoman to the level of a meaningful documentary; the delinquents should have been the subject of the entire thing.
But whatever. If you love yoga, you should do yoga. If you love it so much you want to watch 83 minutes of people talking about how healthy it makes them feel, then you could watch a 3 minute yoga-studio advertisement 30 times and get basically the same amount of satisfaction that Yogawoman offers.
It’s not a sustainable practice to just go around filming the stuff you like and then foisting it onto the documentary scene. You don’t see me making a documentary about the ways people are empowered by cooking eggs just because I cook eggs every day and eating them makes me feel good. Filmmakers should have a good reason to ask that audiences take an hour and a half out of their lives to watch a documentary on their pet issues. That’s a prerequisite for a feature-length movie, and there’s really no excuse for not meeting it.