Sungazing is like firewalking, but better. Instead of steeling yourself and ambling barefoot across flaming coals, you stand barefoot in the dirt and stare directly at the nearest enormous flaming ball of hydrogen. Physical benefits may ensue. Or not. Perhaps the matter of mental fortitude is more important here anyway.
Sungazing may change your life. Your friends may be impressed. Your parents may feel like failures. (What's next, they'll wonder, scissorrunning?) Your medical professionals may offer referrals to other medical professionals. Advance preparation seems like a good idea. Before getting started, you'll do yourself no harm to watch Mill Valley filmmaker Peter Sorcher's documentary Eat the Sun.
Usefully, Sorcher's film has just what its subject requires: a level gaze. In fact, the movie itself is hard to look away from. Its main figure, nestled among a pageant of variously credentialed commentators, is San Franciscan Mason Dwinell, a native Vermonter, former sub-Olympian ski jumper and hopeful, if also hesitant, sungazer. We meet Mason shortly after he's become intrigued by an elderly Indian sungazing guru who claims to have gone for years without needing to eat solid food.
Sorcher takes his time getting a load of these guys, allowing us to wonder proudly what San Francisco would be without its transient kooks, lost souls and easy targets of ridicule from the hidebound residents of lesser cities. But he never loses sight (har har) of the fact that he's making a film about people who actually stare at the sun on purpose. His lens is both illuminating and potentially inflammatory, like a well-aimed magnifying glass.
We see Dwinell go through a pushy-proselytizer phase, with expectedly dubious results: "I tried to get my dog to sungaze with me," one young emailer tells him. "It seemed to be working great for weeks, until I stopped feeding him. Do you ever feel superior to the rest of the world? I sure do." Now, OK, let's not get judgmental. But let's not enable any future serial murder sprees either, shall we?
Apparently a big thing with sungazers is their sometimes freakshowish gloating about going for long periods without food. But of course eating isn't just about fueling up; it's also about sensory pleasure, and connecting with community, among other perfectly healthy things. So it does seem telling when Dwinell's deepening involvement with the practice prompts a bracing self-interrogation: "How much lonelier do I want to be?" Meanwhile, hang on: Just what is the food-free guru doing sneaking around that McDonald's in the Mission, and that Indian restaurant in the Lower Haight? It all starts to suggest sungazing as the ultimate fad diet. Which is to say a glorified eating disorder, with all the requisite justifications -- it's an ancient practice; it's local and organic in the most absolute way; it's pure energy, for crying out loud, from the original giver of all life!
Sorcher remains receptive. He lets skeptics and other rationalists have their say, but without immunizing them against self-incrimination. Dwinell may be nuts, or confused, or projecting, but what help does he really get from that eye doctor who can barely look him in the eye?
And what an organ, the eye. So complex and amazing that it puts evolutionists on the defensive. If in the end it really isn't optimized for photosynthesis, let's try to give it a break. It's still pretty useful as is.
Eat the Sun has just been released on DVD and also will open the San Francisco United Film Festival, Friday, June 24, 2011, 7:15pm at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit roxie.com.