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Wake Up, by Jonas Elrod and Chloe Crespi (a documentary film)

Publication Details: 
Beyond Words
Publish date: 
September, 2010

Apparently just an ordinary thirty-something with a peculiar haircut, Jonas Elrod was living a mundane life in New York City. His background was in commercial and music videos and several years ago he was in San Francisco working on a film. One day in his hotel room the temperature suddenly fell for no discernible reason, and he found that he could see strange clouds, patterns, swirls of light – and spirits, which were able to communicate with him. After this he found that he could regularly see paranormal phenomena such as spirits, demons and angels, people’s auras, colours and orbs.

Back in New York he found that he was still able to see them. Naturally confused by what was happening to him, and apprehensive about other people’s likely response, he kept it quiet, even though the beings were urging him to publicise their existence. What brought him out of the closet was meeting his girlfriend, Mara, as he felt he had to tell her. She was sceptical but agreed to support Jonas as he explored what it all meant. This exploration forms the basis of Wake Up. Jonas travels to meet people who might be able to assist him in his efforts to understand, while Mara encourages him to evaluate what is of worth and what is nonsense.
The film begins with statistics about belief in paranormal phenomena in the US, showing how widespread it is. Jonas had not previously considered himself to be spiritual, he tells us, hence his profound surprise at what had happened. His first step is to rule out physiological possibilities, to which end he has an MRI scan and psychiatric evaluation. These establish that he has no brain abnormalities, neither is he schizophrenic. He is not, according to a psychiatric opinion, suffering from delusional thinking.
The question he is left with is: if these things that he can see but which are invisible to others are real, then what are they? To try to answer it he spends two years travelling the United States seeking answers from various people in the enlightenment business, such as a Sufi mystic, an acupuncturist, a medium channelling a 35,000 year old Atlantean (yes, it’s J Z Knight!), a Buddhist, native Americans and sundry parapsychologists.
His first stop is his childhood home at Douglasville, Georgia, where in a rather stilted scene at the dinner table he informs his bemused but supportive parents of his weird experiences. Curiously, given his declaration that he had not been particularly spiritual, his mother tells us that as a child he was a keen churchgoer, and his uncle had been a minister. While in town he attends his local Baptist church and speaks to the pastor.
From there Jonas goes on a whirl of travelling in order to meet anyone who might help.  To begin with he is nervous, but he grows in confidence as the film progresses. His persona is that of the ordinary chap confronted by extraordinary phenomena. He does not see himself as unique, and significantly he is is very uncomfortable and disengaged at Knights’s establishment outside Seattle, Ramtha‘s School of Spiritual Enlightenment, perhaps not liking her particularly showy style. Not coincidentally this is the funniest sequence in the film. The school seems to be doing very well, with large numbers of students present when Jonas visits. He tries blindfold archery, but is not very good at it. He is told that he is thinking too much, and the instructor claims you create your reality as you are your own God, and cannot be prevented from finding your goal (which begs the question why bother to look). But Jonas’s scepticism is apparent as he acknowledges that part of him does not want to join the spiritual club.
This reluctance is also indicated when back home he tries spiritual cleansing to evict spirits, complaining about the “shit I’m going through”. He is clearly ambivalent about what is happening to him. He says that he is uncomfortable and wants to be free of entities, yet at the same time he considers it a gift.
Rather more interesting than Ramtha is the London-born Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, who lives in California. He posits that the rational mind has created a veil between us and the spirit world, and he is interested in Jonas as Jonas seems to have penetrated that veil. Vaughan-Lee does though challenge Jonas’s statements that he is interested in spiritual growth, asking exactly what that means. Vaughan-Lee agrees that it is scary when parameters change, and growth is about moving out from ego to divine nature, saying “yes” to the mystery of life. Jonas finds him fluent but somewhat obscure, a fair assessment.
Still on the mystical path, he and Mara meet Joan Halifax, a Buddhist monk at the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico, who works with the dying. It turns out that Mara has the same name as the man who tempted the Buddha, who asks him what makes him think he can achieve enlightenment. Mara cries, seeing herself as a possible barrier to Jonas’s progress.
Abdi Assadi, an accupuncturist/healer, says that he has had similar encounters to Jonas himself, though he does not give details. He tries to give Jonas perspective, seeing an alternative reality which he considers a magical thing and a positive aspect to one‘s life. He stresses the importance of focussing on human relationships, which he considers true spirituality.
Jonas’s one overseas trip is to Rome, to meet someone who says that he is able to photograph the energy released when one meditates. Umberto di Grazia, described as a researcher/medium, achieves very odd results, photographing Jonas meditating and then manipulating the images, though we are not told how the software he uses affects the results.
Turning from explorations of mysticism to parapsychology, Stephan Schwartz of the Cognitive Sciences Laboratory discusses interconnectedness, non-local consciousness and the Akashic database. Schwartz says of Jonas’s story that it is an interesting experience on the path – but it is not the path. In similar terms, at the University of Arizona Gary Schwartz says that we create energy which moves through space so we are interconnected with everybody else through the energy we generate. We are both antennae and receivers; information is all there for us to process.
Jonas has chosen his parapsychologists carefully, because Roger Nelson, discussing the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton, also stresses connectedness. His research, using Random Event Generators dotted around the world, has found a mind/matter connection which carries information, in a “resonant wave”. When our minds focus on, or even sometimes before, a significant event, our group consciousness reduces the variability of the REG data. Throughout, mystics and parapsychologists are interweaved to imply their equivalence.
His search reaching a climax, Jonas goes on a vision quest at Skokomish Nation, Washington. He tries a sweat lodge and we then see him sitting in a small circle in the rain, surrounded by four hundred little packets of tobacco which he has painstakingly constructed (albeit with Mara’s help). The process is designed to allow you to open up to your inner self, and to God. Jonas doesn’t look as if he is open to God, seeming to be more likely to suffer exposure than reach enlightenment, but you admire him for trying.
Yet afterwards, weathered and rough looking, he is elated, focusing on the spiritual aspect of his ordeal. He says that he had a great time there. More to the point, he has reached a spiritual resolution, even if it is not particularly profound: “all pointers point in the same direction”; all religions point to the same thing, the path you are on being less important than being on a path. He has reached some kind of peace with himself. It is an upbeat climax to his journey, though his final attitude to the spirits he presumably still sees in his daily life is unclear.
The film cuts to Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, who says that we cannot escape the fact that we are all connected, the world is one. It then cuts to Stephan Schwartz, saying much the same. Others in turn echo their sentiments. It is typical of the genre (originating probably in LeShan’s Clairvoyant Reality) to find a similarity between the ideas of those with a spiritual or mystical perspective, and those pursing scientific approaches to the paranormal. The implication is that all ways of reaching spiritual truth are equivalent, and that mystical and scientific approaches can be reconciled into an overarching Truth.
From a psychical research viewpoint, the problem is that Jonas is not tested in any way (did any of the parapsychologists featured offer?) and we have to take his word for it that he really does see what he says he does. The focus is not whether the entities are veridical, but about his spiritual journey. It will therefore only satisfy those interested in the stages of his search, and anyone who wants to know whether the beings exist or are only in Jonas’s mind will be disappointed.
The viewer, of any persuasion, will probably be left asking: “Why him?” These do not seem to be common abilities - the opening statistics talk about widespread beliefs, not experiences - and one does wonder why they should be bestowed on this particular young man who had not been in a prior situation nor undergone any training that would facilitate psychic communication. In the end the viewer is none the wiser. Because there is no way to verify Jonas’s claims, we have no way to assess his sincerity. For all we know, he could just be playing a role to make a documentary. When he is pressed to describe what he can ‘see’ in a clinical setting, he becomes inarticulate and unconvincing. Considering that the whole venture is kick-started by Jonas’s ability, we are told very little about what he actually sees.
Wake Up was co-directed by Jonas with Chloe Crespi and was edited from about 400 hours of footage. It had its premiere in early 2009 and is now coming out on DVD from Beyond Words, who also distributed The Secret (Norman Vincent Peale repackaged) and What the Bleep Do We Know. It is low budget with a simple, unfussy presentation, generally eschewing the gimmickry that (among other things) so marred What the Bleep. While it clearly shares a similarity to those films, in its structure as a road movie documenting one person’s search for an underlying reality, the film it most closely resembles is Something Unknown is Doing We Don’t Know What. A number of Wake Up interviewees will be familiar from the earlier films, and there is nothing in the views expressed or evidence provided that is new.
There are some interesting names in the credits. Jonas and Crespi clearly tapped into the parapsychology community for help, with name-checks for such well-known figures as Julie Beischel, Larry Dossey, Dean Radin and Marilyn Schlitz, among others. Rather more surprisingly is a credit for James Randi, though one would be surprised if he thought of the project as anything other than ‘woo’, to use the trendy sceptical term.
The film is the edited record of Jonas’s learning process as he examines and comes to terms with his ability. But of course the title is telling us that this is not just an account of his journey; it should be ours as well. It is giving us a command - in the nicest way - to wake up from our spiritual sleep, as Jonas himself has done, or perhaps more accurately is doing. Having carried out his own puzzled investigation, he becomes a guide should we decide to set out on ours. There is more to reality than we are normally aware of, he is saying, and Wake Up sets out to help us make the effort necessary to expand our horizons.
Unfortunately you get the impression that while the spiritual paths chosen by the people Jonas meets may work well for them, they are very narrow paths that would not suit large numbers of people, many of them without the dedication (or in some cases the financial resources) necessary to follow where Jonas has led. Crucially, what is missing is the critical analysis to enable the viewer who seeks to explore possibilities to work out what is of value from what is banal nonsense. If we want to follow Jonas, fine, but it is still not clear what his qualifications are to be our guide, and whether his map is leading to sunny uplands or round in circles.