The Workshop is a very simple documentary with a one-man crew - no fancy sound equipment or lighting. It's not always in focus, but that meshes nicely with the emotional rawness shown. The "workshop" itself is an intensive self-help group class. The idea is to push personal boundaries to their breaking points and beyond with the intent to challenge beliefs and rebuild oneself. To push the edges. To break apart. To begin anew, with a more real you. The philosophy begs the question, however, are you a more real you without your standards and beliefs, without your conscience?
Jamie Morgan is visible, in front of the camera sometimes, not always hiding behind it. It is somewhat auto-biographical, but his own story is a small tidbit in the whole. The man leading this workshop is seventy-two-year-old Paul Lowe. His philosophies and teachings are that to evolve, to grow, one must let go of fear - and physical nakedness is the first step here. The workshop participants disrobe individually as they introduce themselves to the room of strangers. He pushes them, creating an intense vulnerability, in those very first moments. Lowe says it is about what is real and what isn't. Divorce, baggage, money, masks - it's all checked at the door, forcing each individual to be very real with nothing to hide behind. It comes down to a one-liner: "Show yourself, inside and out."
Lowe then advises his new followers to "Let go of you, of what you think you are." Meet people; mingle; make small talk. In this way, it's much like any other workshop. But, this one requires that the meet 'n' greet participants be naked. Not surprisingly, one hundred naked people mingling around makes for some interesting first conversations, with no barriers of any kind. On camera, there are close-ups of both eyes and bodies. The simplicity of filming allows viewers to really see the fear. This first part is the most fascinating to watch.
Interestingly enough, there is no averting of eyes or pretending not to see one another. Eyes roam freely, taking in the nude bodies. One woman says of this first meeting that all of the bodies are admired and enjoyed visually "without the cattiness. of competition." They say it fosters appreciation of beauty of all sizes and shapes. Hollywood is nowhere to be seen, although this is a Californian compound. It's all about living in the now, with no past or future, leaving the thought and the knowledge behind and simply reveling in experiences.
Sexual experimentation is encouraged. All of the negative emotions - jealousy, vulnerability and fear - are addressed openly within the group setting. Lowe spouts advice such as "Feel what you feel, not what you should feel" and "You are you. It doesn't matter how you are you. You are you." This includes all sexual feelings, too. It is about honesty and energy and explorations: break the sexual barrier to have a full-on, complete breakthrough that will allow you to grow from the ground up.
Or is it? Really? What it is, is a wild naked ride with no concession to conscience or repercussion. The problem with this methodology, however, is that in a mere ten-day period, many people destroy lives and relationships. All of that nudity combines with the heightened sexuality it fosters means several large-group orgies and even more one-on-one encounters. It's more about excuses and justifications than true freedom from pain or baggage. The range of raw emotion is exhausting to watch, both morbidly thrilling and terrifying as a bystander, as intimacy is exploited and marriages or long-term relationships disintegrate. The lack of "future" is unquestionably a freeing existence, but behaviors will catch up. and that reality proves to be very difficult for many of the workshop participants.
While The Workshop is meant to depict an experience of change, it seems to focus almost entirely on one threesome, after a certain point. There is rampant bed-bouncing between the three. Although the film starts out with a good variety of view points - including director Morgan's - it quickly degrades into a juicy who's-doing-who and who's brokenhearted because of it. A lot of self-made drama is involved, little actual "healing" seen, and an awful lot of broken, hurting people in the end. Perhaps if that trio hadn't been the focus, the goal might have been met.
Regardless of the validity of the theory behind The Workshop, there is an innate, profound beauty in hundreds of tangled limbs with no regard to "beauty" standards of our age and society - "Without inhibitions. Without boundaries." Well, if that was the only goal, the filmmakers and participants certainly met up with that one. It's very sexual, and not at all spiritual, certainly offering very little in the way of healing. As a "documentary", it's a brief snapshot of the actions of the people involved but does nothing to really capture a spiritual journey because it so strongly focuses on who is doing what with whom in whose beds. There's no documenting of transcendence from the events to any growth at all. They do explore sexual morality openly and with intense honesty, which - while the intent is a flop - must be honored.
The "one year later" recap attempts to offer an idea of the lasting effects. While that is a wonderful idea, they are flat and shallow, again with no hint of how they've grown or changed.
Some of HBO'sReal Sex episodes are more fulfilling and educational. Paul Lowe as a guru and leader gives his greatest advice - "It doesn't matter" - leaving us wondering why he is remotely qualified. especially looking at the train-wrecks that leave this retreat. The Workshop is really simply a glorified sex club in a lovely, forested setting, with a lot of heavy-handed canned advice. One has to wonder if it is the film that failed, or the workshop itself.
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